The soldiers have already broken camp in northern Kuwait. Moving from one checkpoint to another, they carry with them whatever they'll need — food, water, and some special items that are definitely not issued by the Pentagon.
Standing in the desert sun, tent and tank behind him, Fernando Gonzalez pulls a flat, flowered heart from his left breast pocket, and reads the poem inscribed. "'Love is just a little word, but its meaning is quite clear — it means that you're in my heart, each day throughout the year,'" he says. "I keep that in my pocket, just to get me through."
"I carry a picture of my family," Capt. Anthony Nelson reveals. "Then I carry a small book of Psalms that were issued to us." Nelson is sitting in shade cast by a truck behind him; a tag hanging from an adjacent platform flaps in the desert breeze as he speaks. "Those are basically my two prized possessions: a picture of my family, and something to remind me of a higher spiritual being to focus on."
"I've got a teddy bear my wife sent to me for Valentine's Day," a big man with a soft voice says, sharing the lucky charm that he keeps safe from the sand in a zip-lock bag. The little brown bear holds a heart stitched with gold x's and o's. "Hugs and kisses," the soldier says, as trucks gear up in the desert beside him.
"I carry my engagement ring," a young woman explains in a voice as delicate as her features. "I don't wear it, because it'll get scratched up." Passing jeeps kick up clouds of sand in the distance behind her. "And I have a picture of my fiancé in my wallet," she adds.
A fair young soldier by the name of Parker is shielded from the sun by the shadow his hat casts across his face, but he keeps his eyes trained to the sand when speaking of the talisman that he'll carry into battle. "I have a military-issued Bible that they gave me. I carry that around with me." Parker admits he'd had limited Bible-reading experience, "but now," he says, "I read it pretty much all the time."
"I carry me and my girlfriend's picture in my wallet, and I carry her teddy bear in my left cargo pocket," a fellow young soldier named Deal reveals. He pulls a tiny white bear from his pants pocket, its Velcro hands fastened in bear prayer above the red bow on its head. "It's going to keep me grounded, let me know what I'm coming home to. What I need to come home to," he explains. The bear disappears in his cupped hands, dried at the knuckles by the desert.
A year before the last Gulf War, Vietnam veteran Tim O'Brien published The Things They Carried. The book's title refers not to the things a soldier has to carry, but to the one or two precious items he chooses to bring along as he goes to war. Some things about going into combat never change.
This report aired on Nightline on March 18, 2003.