Even in wartime, no guardhouse or security gate blocks the way into Fort Hood. Traffic rolls onto the giant post unimpeded and unexamined. But the street sign at the first intersection is enough to tell a visitor that this is a different world from the freeway he has just left. It reads, “Tank Destroyer Blvd.”
Tanks and destruction are what Fort Hood is all about. Army literature still refers to Fort Hood in anachronistic cold war terms—the largest armored post in the free world. Bounded by Killeen on the east and Copperas Cove on the west, extending northward almost to Gatesville, Fort Hood occupies 339 square miles, making it bigger than eight Texas counties. Its 785 miles of roads, laid east to west, would span Texas. On the post are seventeen lakes, five elementary schools, and the largest commissary in the world, with 25 checkout lanes. Most of the property, however, is hidden from view north of a ridgeline slashed by tank trails that lead into a training wilderness. In normal times the air would be throbbing with the buzz of Apache helicopters and the rumble of M1 tanks and Bradley armored personnel carriers, and motorists would be paying close heed to the yellow diamond-shaped road signs that warn of tank crossings, but these are not normal times at Fort Hood. An Army base is at its most peaceful when the Army is at war.
Before Operation Desert Storm, 37,000 soldiers worked here. Now the main part of the base is as unpeopled as a college campus that has been abandoned by all but a few graduate students between semesters. Indeed, many parts of Fort Hood look more like a college than a traditional Army base. The old wooden barracks have been demolished and replaced by brick dormitories and apartments with semiprivate rooms and gaily painted blue railings on outside staircases. But their occupants are gone. On North Avenue, where motor pools for tanks, personnel carriers, and other vehicles of war stretch for three miles, most of the yards contain just a few trucks. The only activity is in the “birdbath,” where National Guard troops training at Fort Hood wash dozens of personnel carriers with high-pressure water cannons. To the east, where Apache helicopters once blanketed a mile-long airstrip, only thirteen remain, looking sleek and benign in their idleness. Even the trees near the tank trails look different—a grateful green, instead of chalky white from churned-up dust.
The most obvious signs of war are, in fact, the signs. “Pray for Our Soldiers” urges the marquee of the Fort Hood National Bank, as a postscript to the time and temperature. “We’re Proud of Our Armed Forces” reads a red, white, and blue billboard sponsored by defense contractor LTV. A portable sign near the airfield carries information of a family-support briefing; another announces the time and place of “A Tribute to Our Soldiers.” Yellow ribbons adorn the message boards of the thirteen post chapels and abound in the subdivisions on the fringes of the base, where families hope for a quick end to the war in communities with names like Patton Park, Pershing Park, and Wainwright Heights.
Outside the base, at a Shamrock gas station, the wife of a Desert Storm soldier keeps a vinyl mat on the counter so customers can write messages for her to send to her husband’s unit. “I’ve got to fill it up and get it mailed soon,” she says, “because I know the war just can’t go on much longer.”
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–>Training takes on a special urgency when the threat of chemical warfare looms. With the 1st cavalry division already in Saudi Arabia, Fort Hood is now used mainly by guardsmen girding for battle.
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–>Fort Hood is the largest armored post in the free world. The massive M1 tank will spearhead a ground assault, while helicopters like the cobra (above) and the Apache try to destroy enemy tanks.
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–>For a modern warrior on an overnight patrol, even a primitive tool can come in handy. There will be little use for an ax in the desert, but tents will be essential equipment when the days get warmer.
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–>Fort Hood’s 2nd Armored Division is known as Hell on Wheels, but it is already a casualty, not of war, but of Pentagon budget cuts. Most of its soldiers are staying home, awaiting reassignment.