- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 19, 2002

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan The Marines vacating their bunkers were elated and the Army troops replacing them were somber as the U.S. military prepared yesterday to hand over command of the largest concentration of American troops in Afghanistan.

"This remains a very, very dangerous place," said Maj. Ignacio Perez, a spokesman for the 101st Airborne Division, which is to take control today of the base, where troops warily watch armed men moving outside the perimeter and which came under fire last week.

As the Army soldiers moved into the perimeter bunkers, the Marines on their way out went a little giddy. Some played baseball with sticks and stones and others pelted each other with frankfurters from their Meals Ready to Eat rations.

"Come give me a hug," one Marine cried, staggering up the steps of his bunker. "I haven't had a shower in 42 days."

Marine expeditionary forces established the base at the airport in Kandahar more than a month ago, and the military contingent there has grown to 3,600 servicemen from the anti-terrorism coalition nations; of them, 2,000 are Marines.

The actual change of command is due to take place without fanfare today, in a coded radio call, Maj. Perez said.

"I can count the hours," said Cpl. Bill Rulli, 21, of Aston, Pa. He said he spent his New Year's Eve in a C-17 flying to Kandahar and took up position in the bunker on Jan. 2. A Santa Claus statue on a wooden crate inside marks a Christmas spent in the hole.

The Marines have been the prime line of defense against threats from apparent Taliban and al Qaeda holdouts. Last week, they countered a probe attack by men with rifles. Days later, they spotted men carrying weapons to a mud house outside the fence for what they suspect was another planned attack.

Maj. Perez, speaking inside the airport's freezing, bomb-shattered terminal, said the Army would be making "very visible" enhancements in security and would "maintain an overwhelming force."

About 800 of an eventual 2,000 to 2,500 soldiers of the 101st division have arrived at the base. Full deployment is expected around the end of the month, Maj. Perez said.

Despite the tension, the Army troops will have a somewhat easier life than the Marines. Whereas the Marines stayed in their bunkers nearly round-the-clock, the Army troops will work in shifts to help keep them alert, Maj. Perez said. The Marines lived on MRE rations; the Army has a kitchen serving hot sausage and potato soup to soldiers on the line overnight, he said.

"We're here so they could go back and get some well-deserved rest," said Sgt. Shawn Coulter, 33, of Honesdale, Pa.

The Marines yesterday morning assured him that "you'll love it here," Sgt. Coulter said. Asked if he believed them, he said, "Probably not."

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