Into the Fray

updated 04/07/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/07/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As he churns through the sands of southern Iraq in his Bradley M2A2 fighting vehicle, hell-bent for Baghdad, perspiration streams down Sgt. Jeff Bush's face in dusty rivulets. The quarters of his gun turret are cramped, but at least some of the sweat comes from an apprehension that never goes away. As Bush, 34, his Bradley's master gunner, scans the barren landscape for enemy tanks, trucks or troops, he knows that he and the rest of his unit could become targets of a guerrilla ambush. "All my training," says Bush, "is so I can aim my gun accurately on the move and pull the trigger without hesitation."

Bush's vehicle, which carries a crew of three, is part of a team that includes another Bradley and three Humvees. Their mission is to provide a forward command post for the air defense artillery, which provides protection for the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. Numbering more than 5,000 vehicles and 20,000 troops, the division's columns stretch as far as the eye can see both forward and backward. There is not necessarily safety in numbers. Every time the column slows to a stop-and-go pace, says Bush, the tension mounts, because "we're sitting out here like ducks in a row." Scout Humvees with .50-caliber machine guns and Mark 19 grenade launchers race ahead of the convoy to search for any Iraqi positions. All the same, there were reports that on March 22 two Humvees were hit by rocket-propelled grenades that wounded four GIs.

Inside the Bradley, which allows roughly 25 sq. ft. of living space, the roar of the diesel engine, not to mention the bone-jarring bumps in the road, makes normal conversation impossible. Even sitting side by side, crew members must communicate through headphone radios. Except for refueling stops, the convoy rarely pauses. In darkness the driving is done without headlights, the crew donning night-vision goggles and trying to keep in tight formation. They grab snatches of sleep a few minutes at a time.

To keep from getting dehydrated, they must drink five or six liters of water a day. In all the vehicles the claustrophobia can set nerves on edge. In one of the Humvees a captain gets into a spat with a sergeant for littering—throwing an MRE (meals ready to eat) wrapper out the window. "Put it in the trash bag," commands the captain. "Come on, man," shoots back the NCO. "This is Iraq. F—- 'em." In another Humvee the crew passes the time by debating which actors would play them in the movie version of the war. One GI insists that Bruce Willis is the only star who could do him justice.

For Bush, one of the toughest parts of the conflict is being separated from his wife, Ruby Roberts, 25, and his daughter Maya, who turned 2 on March 20. He regrets that his military service has prevented him from seeing Maya's first steps and hearing many of her first words. "I picture being together with her and my wife at the park, riding the little horse with the springs or going on the slide," Bush says. "I picture her in the morning calling my name, and picking her up." His favorite photo of his family is one he received recently showing Ruby holding Maya, both with big smiles. That is the image he holds in his mind as he nods off to sleep.

Back home in Hinesville, Ga., at Fort Stewart, Ruby proudly displays her favorite picture of her spouse. He is asleep sitting up in a chair, cradling his daughter. "He can fall asleep anywhere," laughs Ruby, a former fourth-grade teacher, "which is a good thing with what he's going through right now." Both she and her husband grew up as Army brats, so she is accustomed to the disruption that military service can sometimes bring to families' lives. But that only enables her to handle the ache of separation a bit better, not eliminate it. As for Maya, she asks constantly where her daddy has gone. "We draw pictures for him," says Ruby. "And talk about him all the time."

Bush says he is excited to be fighting in Iraq. Though he joined the Army when he was 18, this is his first deployment in a combat zone. All the same, he asks that a message of love be relayed to his wife and daughter, to whom he says, "I can't wait to get home."

Kurt Pitzer with the 3rd Infantry in Iraq and Gail Cameron Wescott at Fort Stewart

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