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Gulf War is history for soldiers

Just boys in ’91, they now get ready for battle

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CHINA TOWN TRAINING BASE, Kuwait — The sun sets over the Kuwaiti desert and for the moment the guns are silent.

Young soldiers tromp back to camp, kicking up dust and moving toward the chow line. They'll eat standing up, swap a few war stories from the day's mock battles, then get their M-16s ready for another practice assault on the make-believe village dubbed "China Town."

It's January 2003, and the Iraqi border is just over the horizon.

Bravo Company of the U.S. Army's 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, is about to wind up seven days of live-fire, urban combat training — something that could come in handy if the winds of war prove to be more than hot air.

These young men say they're all brothers now, spending most of their days at a tent city called New York Kabal. They were strangers 12 years earlier, scattered across the United States, just trying to be kids.

It was January 1991.

Ira Gordon was a 9-year-old at Lincoln Elementary School in Colorado Springs, Colo. He was too excited about his math, science and "usual kid stuff" to pay much attention to the news of the day.

Pleasant Wells was a 16-year-old in Philly, earning pocket money with a part-time job as a cook. He remembers going home and seeing something important on the news that night: "I knew we were going to war," he recalls. "I didn't know what war was."

Ben Mishoe did. He was 10 years old in East Palatka, Fla., and got all fired up by what he was seeing on CNN. He had wanted to be a soldier since he was just 2 years old: "My first solid meal was an MRE," he jokes, referring to military field rations.

And Chad Gambill was only 8 years old in Columbus, Ohio, son of an Air Force navigator who was out of town on "business." He was at school one day when he got pulled out of class to go to the principal's office.

"My mom showed up at school," he remembers. "She said war started. Your father is over there. I went back to class and waited to hear from him. I thought, 'He's my father. He's a tough guy. He can take care of himself.' "

It was just another day in the life of a group of kids with a lot of growing up to do.

On Jan. 15, 1991, Iraq missed a U.N. deadline for pulling out of Kuwait. Within 24 hours, on Jan. 16, the operation dubbed "Desert Storm" began with bombs falling over Baghdad. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater declared: "The liberation of Kuwait has begun."

Flash forward 12 years.

Now these kids are at a secret site in a Kuwaiti desert, just spitting distance from the Iraqi border, training for what could be a starring role in the sequel to the war of their childhoods.

Army Specialists Gordon and Mishoe drive around the officers who lead the grueling urban combat training. Private Wells steers one of the Bradley fighting vehicles through the smoke and dust, straight into the heart of the mock assault. And Private Gambill leads a team of five infantrymen into the battle to lay down cover fire with a hail of bullets from their M-16s.

"If we end up going into Iraq, we'll probably be going into cities," says Gambill, now 20. "I'm a team leader. The only thing that scares me is not bringing all my soldiers back."

There's a lot of thinking to be done when you're stuck in a pitch-black desert eight or more time zones away from home. The soldiers do get satellite television at New York Kabal and the 24-hour news networks are providing enough hype and speculation to make the adrenaline levels soar.

"It makes your adrenaline go up even more," Gambill says. "You're ready to go across the border."

Mishoe, now 22, has been frustrated by the roller coaster of emotions the men have faced for months.

"The guys get tense hearing a date (for war), and then the date rolls by and nothing happens," he says.

Gordon, now 21, scoffs at the small groups of media who have been trudging through the desert to watch the urban combat training like it's a sneak preview of things to come.

"Don't believe everything you see on TV," he says, standing in the darkness as the regiment awaits its most dangerous night assault, using real bullets. "They take stuff and blow it out of proportion. I'm not worried about it. If we go to war, we go to war. All we ever do is train for the real thing."

Wells, now 28, is also trying to block out the hype, though it's not making it easy for him to reassure his wife and three kids back in Philadelphia.

"Yes, the world is in an uproar right now," he says. "That's not for us to worry about. We get orders, we do what we're told."

For now, Wells is putting trust in his training — and the "brothers" he did not know he had 12 years ago.

"You don't get perfect at it, but you do get good at it. You don't get perfect at war," he says. "When the commander tells you that you did a great job (at training), you take that like your mother or father telling you that you did something good. We come together in tight situations here."