SOUTH OF THE KUWAIT-IRAQ BORDER – U.S. soldiers offered prayers Sunday for a French television reporter killed in an accident while covering the biggest U.S. military exercise since the Gulf War.
Meanwhile, troops from the U.S. Army's 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Unit, worked on their equipment and rested ahead of nighttime maneuvers concluding the two-day, live-fire exercise, involving thousands of soldiers and hundreds of armored vehicles. The exercise comes at a time of heightened tensions over U.S. allegations Iraq is hiding weapons of mass destruction program.
During the exercises Saturday, a French television journalist, Patrick Bourrat, who was struck while crossing the path of an incoming tank. Bourrat was thrown 15 feet into the air. He was evacuated to a hospital where he succumbed to massive internal injuries early Sunday.
"Everybody feels terrible about this," said Chaplain Ron Cooper, 35, of Saginaw, Michigan. "It's been a real shock, especially when we had heard that he had just broken a couple of ribs and had been talking to his family."
About a dozen soldiers of Charlie Company, to which Bourrat and his crew had been attached, offered prayers for him Sunday during Advent services preceding Christmas.
"I want to pray for Patrick the reporter and his family," Cooper said. "We are again reminded through this tragedy that the world is a dangerous place."
The soldiers gathered in the company's command post - a small tent attached to an armored personnel carrier - that served as a makeshift chapel. The altar was graced by a small cross and a pair of Kevlar battle helmets, but was absent the traditional four Advent candles because Cooper feared the howling wind outside would blow them out.
The voices singing Christmas carols competed with the clanking of tools and the roar of shrieking turbine engines as the M1A1 Abrams tanks were made ready for a final night of firing and maneuvers in the Kuwaiti desert.
The long-scheduled exercise has come at a particularly tense moment, with U.N. arms inspectors saying that Iraq has not submitted a complete accounting of its weapons of mass destruction.
President Bush, pointing to what U.S. officials call fabrications and omissions in a recent Iraqi weapons declaration, already has declared Iraq in "material breach" of U.N. demands but has decided to hold off any military response for at least a month as the Americans seek to build U.N. support for attacking Saddam.
In Kuwait, the armored crews have suffered minor mishaps during the exercise, with some vehicles getting stuck in the soft sand. But morale has appeared high and the exercises have sharpened the focus of the soldiers on what many anticipate is an imminent war with Iraq.
The 2nd Brigade expects to be the spearhead of any invasion northward. Many of the younger soldiers joined after the Sept. 11 attacks, while many of their older sergeants and officers are Gulf War veterans.
"I teach my guys what I learned from the Gulf War," said Staff Sgt. Stevon Booker of Apollo, Pennsylvania. "One guy doesn't win a war. You have to have confidence in your equipment. The M1A1 is the best tank on the battlefield. It can destroy anything the Iraqis throw at us."