CAMP DOHA, Kuwait – Though the beer and champagne lacked alcohol, U.S. troops in Kuwait still partied, welcoming the new year in high spirits and taking a break from tensions ahead of a possible war with neighboring Iraq.
The tanks and humvees were parked off to the side at U.S. military bases in the Persian Gulf state as soldiers filled up recreation halls and decorated tents to dance, pop balloons and stage talent shows.
In the Persian Gulf, some 5,000 U.S. sailors had their party early, turning the flight deck of the USS Constellation into giant picnic area for daytime festivities before gearing up to work New Year's Day.
At Camp Doha, the biggest U.S. base in Kuwait, soldiers wore colorful party hats and garlands of plastic flowers, along with camouflage uniforms, and gorged roast beef and pasta. The walls thudded to a mix of rock, salsa, pop and country western music spun by DJ Shortie, alias Eric White, 35, of Washington, a civilian contractor with the army in Kuwait.
"One challenge is to give everyone a little taste of home," White said. "I have got so many requests that this party could carry on until lunchtime tomorrow."
The soldiers, many of them away from home for the first time, said they missed their families and friends, but that the celebrations helped them to cement the bonds of comradeship in their units.
In line with army orders to respect the law of Muslim-majority Kuwait, the beverages on tap were alcohol-free versions of beer and sparkling wine.
"If I was home, I would be doing pretty much the same thing with my friends, going to clubs," said Specialist Robert Johnson, 24, of Carlsbad, N.M., from a field artillery unit of the 3rd Infantry Division.
"But these guys here are like my family away from home."
The U.S. forces based here officially are on mission to deter Iraq from repeating the 1990 invasion of Kuwait that triggered the Gulf War. But more forces have arrived in recent months and more are scheduled to come to give President Bush the option of invading Iraq if it fails to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction.
On the USS Constellation, the fighter jets were chained down, their bombs stowed away, while sailors threw their "steel beach picnic" — a feast of grilled chicken and steak, hot dogs, corn dogs, baked beans, potato chips, cookies and sodas.
Sailors tossed footballs to each other and sent toy radio-controlled cars whizzing across the steel deck.
The next day, pilots from the carrier were to take to the sky again in patrols over southern Iraq.
Few on the carrier doubt that if war does break out, the Constellation's F-14D Super Tomcats and F/A-18C Hornets will lead the attack on Iraq.
"My wife and my son sent their love," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Ricky Carreon, 35, of San Diego, as he exchanged e-mails with family. "They say, 'We love you so much,' and have asked me to be careful and take good care of myself."
On shore, soldiers were setting their New Year's resolution, military style.
"Normally, New Year's Eve is a time to correct things," said Specialist Neil Blappert, 24, of New Orleans. "This time my intention is to do my best this year and make sergeant."
For the soldiers here, New Year's Eve is the latest missed holiday in a deployment that for some has stretched back months. They get by with phone calls, e-mails and video conferences.
Confined to their posts, west of Kuwaiti City, any bit of entertainment put on by the Military Welfare and Recreation Department becomes a major event.
"New Year's might be an overrated holiday, but it is one more year that we have survived," said Specialist Sergio Cortinas, 32, of Salina, Kan., who works in a reserve transport unit.
"I tell my family I'm sorry I can't be at home with them, but that I am here for them."