Ready, Willing and Able, a Congressman's Son Follows the Flag to Saudi Arabia

updated 10/15/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/15/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It is dusk in the Saudi Arabian desert, and Army paratrooper Jerry Costello lies belly-down in the sand, squeezing off M-16 rifle rounds at a paper target 30 yards away. A fly has been crawling across his lips for the last minute or so, but Costello's concentration never wavers. "If there's a war," he says, springing to his feet, "there'll be a lot more than flies to worry about." Trotting up to the target, Costello, 21, checks his aim. He has done well; there is a cluster of three holes near the center of the target and only one stray shot. "It's practice today," says Costello, "but tomorrow, or even tonight, it could be the real thing."

Private First Class Costello arrived in Saudi Arabia with the 82nd Airborne Division in mid-August and is proud that his unit was the first U.S. combat-ready ground force to be sent to the Gulf after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Most of the division's 15,000 troops are deployed at scattered sites in the desert, part of the vast army—an estimated 250,000 troops from 24 nations—ready to do battle with Saddam Hussein if the need arises.

Outgoing and amiable, Costello seems like any other young soldier: He sports a GI's butch haircut, misses Mom's home cooking, never gets enough sleep and likes sports, pranks and off-color jokes. Yet here in the desert Costello is also a celebrity of sorts. His father is Democratic Congressman Jerry Costello of Belleville, Ill., although the young man never mentions it. "At first, I never let on about my dad," he says. "But when the guys found out, I was glad they didn't make such a big deal about it. I don't want to be treated any different from the others because my dad's in Congress. I'm just a Joe out here to do a job."

Costello started his two-year Army hitch last November, so he didn't see action in Grenada or Panama. But there are plenty of soldiers who did, and the presence of these veterans makes the 82nd's task seem less daunting. ("That kind of experience pushes our confidence way up," says Costello.) Ordered to begin an open-ground move-to-contact exercise—advancing against an imaginary foe—Costello slips his 40-pound pack onto his back, hefts his rifle and trudges off into the darkness with several dozen other soldiers. Clad in desert-camouflage fatigues, they carry food, bedding and ammunition, plus night-vision scopes, goggles, gas masks and chemical-warfare protection kits—all the necessities of the modern fighting unit. It is grim, tiring duty, made more onerous by ants, beetles, poisonous snakes, at least three kinds of scorpions and blowing sand that constantly threatens to jam rifles and equipment.

As paratroopers, Costello and his comrades are trained to make lightning strikes—to jump in, seize and hold strategic targets, like airports. Their days, and sometimes their nights, are taken up with dry-run assaults in this vast, sandy staging ground, during which they endure midday heat of 120°F and higher. "We could be here all night or just an hour, you never know," Costello explains. "But that's like the whole operation over here—not knowing is part of the training. The main thing is to be ready. Expect the worst and hope for the best."

Later, Costello—who enlisted after his second year at Lincoln College in Illinois and is now the alert, snap-to leader of a nine-man squad whose members have nicknamed him Chief—says he always wanted to be a paratrooper. "At first, my folks were shocked when I decided to join," he says. "But they understood. I had to find out more about myself and what I was made of. Luckily, I learned discipline and respect at home, and that's what makes a good soldier."

Back in Belleville, Jerry's mother, Georgia, 41, a junior high school physical-education teacher, remembers her son's zeal for army games. As a boy, Jerry often visited his maternal grandparents' 176-acre grain-and-livestock farm in Sesser, Ill. "One day Jerry and a cousin decided on a lark to jump out of the hayloft," she says. "My dad had left the barn, and just as they were jumping out, he rounded the corner and saw them. They could have broken their necks. My dad spanked them both. I've always kidded Jerry that he didn't learn his lesson. Now he's jumping from 800 feet."

Georgia still has a snapshot of 5-year-old Jerry decked out in junior-size fatigues and toting a toy rifle—Christmas gifts from a relative. She recently came across it in an old photo album, scribbled the words "Guess who?" on it and stuck it on the refrigerator. "Who would have thought all those years ago that he'd be off in the Army?" she asks. "What worried me when he joined was that he was turning his life over to the military for two years. And I knew if he was sent somewhere, he was the kind who would put his whole heart into it."

Congressman Costello, 41, now completing his second year representing the 21st district in the steel and coal-mining region of southwestern Illinois, assured his wife when Jerry enlisted that the Cold War was over and their son would never see combat. "Who would have thought this would happen?" he says. "But he's very proud to be doing what he's doing, serving the country. That may sound corny, but he's that way." Last month the Congressman, who supports President Bush's handling of the Gulf crisis, gave a deeply felt—and, for him, trying—speech to 200 departing airmen at Scott Air Force Base outside Belleville. "It was very emotional seeing all of them getting on the plane," he says. "I talked to the families and felt their emotions. It's one thing for a politician or President Bush to say, 'We're proud of you for standing up for the country.' It sounds like a standard line from someone who has nothing to lose. But it's another thing for a father who sent his son over to say, 'We're praying for you. My son is with you.' Just like their loved ones' blood, my blood is there in Saudi Arabia."

Late at night in the desert, Pfc. Costello leans on his pack, his face to the sky. He and the other troops have returned to their field camp, have eaten their rations—freeze-dried packages of roast beef or chicken along with fresh fruit and vegetables—and are slumped on the ground outside their tents. "It's so warm out here, you don't even need a blanket to go to sleep," Costello says. "For a place with such terrible conditions and where there just might be a war, it's unbelievably beautiful at night. All you do is lay down on the sand, look up and watch the show. You can see the stars forever."

By Ron Arias in Saudi Arabia

—Additional reporting by Jane Sims Podesta in Washington, D.C.

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