We sat in the sun at the rifle range, waiting to zero our rifles and arguing over whether the heat or humidity was worse. I checked out of my conversation with Lopez and watched in wonder as a black Bedouin man riding a camel wandered into our range. What would happen to him? It was 2007, one of the bloodiest years of the Iraq war, and we had been trained to treat all strangers with suspicion. All of our pre-deployment training included detaining people who crowded us, then releasing them when we left. This didn’t come from misanthropy or a thirst for power, but from a fear of suicide bombers and a goal of reducing the threat of civilians being caught in crossfire if we were attacked. The Bedouin man wandering onto our range seemed to be straight from the training scenarios which had been drilled into us. The only question was if he would leave willingly or if we would need to “encourage” him.
The officer in charge of the rifle range instead welcomed the Bedouin and offered him food and water. The man brought enough tea for five people yet politely offered it to the 40 of us, then allowed a handful of us to ride his camel. He couldn’t have been any friendlier.
The first Kuwaiti I met immediately disproved the notion, beat into us by constant training, that we should treat everybody as a suspect.
The bus leaving the rifle range was cool and dark. We each had a bulletproof vest at our feet and a rifle in our hands, but only one of us carried ammunition. Specialist sat at the front of the bus, a magazine loaded into his M-4 rifle, while the rest of us sat in the back and soaked in the air conditioning. We had been taught radical Islam was an omnipresent threat, yet were in a convoy of unarmored tour buses just a dozen miles from Iraq. We would have been easy targets for an ambush, but none happened in Kuwait. Kuwait was a vacation.
A week later we would be in Iraq and would never leave base without our rifle, 210 rounds of 5.56 ammunition, a bulletproof helmet, safety goggles, elbow pads, knee pads, a bulletproof vest with guards for the neck and groin, a personal first aid kit, plus extra gear for communication or specialized weapons. We often wore the same gear on base after rockets smuggled from Iran were fired at us. The 120-degree summer heat didn’t make the gear any lighter.
Kuwait was different though. Kuwait was boring. Locals avoided us and we avoided them. Where was everyone? Where were the cities? I vowed to return one day and see Kuwait through new eyes.