Frontlines: Packing For War

"Will you be around any refugees?" the nurse at the Traveler's Medical Service in Washington asked me. "Maybe," I said, still unclear exactly where all I might go in the Middle East if and when we go to war. "Then you'll need a vaccine for meningitis," she said. It was just a quick prick; I was clearly in good hands.

When I told her that I was getting a visa for Turkey, she whipped out her malaria book. "Limited risk exists May through October in the southeastern part of the country from the coastal city of Mersin to the Iraqi border." In other words, possible refugee country--a likely place for a journalist. She hooked me up with a prescription for Aralen just in case.

Just in case. That's been my motto as I get ready to cover this probable war. I leave in a week. Initially, I'll be what's known as--not affectionately--a "Hotel Warrior." I'm going to be based in the tiny country of Qatar, where Central Command will have its headquarters. My friends and relatives keep asking me if I'm scared. I sheepishly tell them I'm going to be living at a pretty luxurious Sheraton in Doha.

But after paying my dues attending the Pentagon briefings at Camp As Sayliyah, maybe I'll get a chance to be "embedded" with troops. The Pentagon has said that it will provide chemical suits--known as MOPP suits--as well as vaccines against anthrax and smallpox for journalists traveling with military units. Otherwise, you're on your own. There is probably nothing left of the smallpox vaccination I got when I was a child except the scar; nobody knows for sure how long that protection lasts. They stopped vaccinating kids long ago and the current supply in the U.S. is for the military and healthcare workers. As for anthrax, I could get a vaccine if I really wanted to, but instead my nurse hooked me up with the antibiotic Cipro.

With my vaccinations in order, and my toiletry bag stuffed beyond capacity, I turned my attention to another critical issue: clothes. First, I needed to figure out what's appropriate garb for women in the Middle East. I knew enough to pack some headscarves. Then I flipped open my Lonely Planet guide. "Ensure that legs, arms, shoulders and the neckline are covered," the book recommended. Qatar is much more liberal than Iran, for example, where even foreign women must wear the chador--a one-piece, full-length cloak. I took the book's advice and picked up a few sacklike dresses that give "no hint of the shape of the body." Fine with me, I haven't been to the gym for a while.

But no dress is going to hide the fact that I'm a light-haired, 5-foot-9 Western woman. The Lonely Planet's advice: get ready to be harassed. Here are some of their tips for women travelers: "Wear a wedding band. Generally, Middle Eastern males seem to have more respect for a married woman"; "Don't say you are traveling alone," and "Avoid direct eye contact with local men--dark sunglasses help."

Lies and sunglasses. Sounds like I'm packing for an affair on the Cote D'Azure. I'm bringing a gold ring--just in case.

Packing for a possible embed with troops, however, is another suitcase altogether. When I was doing my media training at Fort Benning a few months ago I showed a Ranger my hiking boots and asked: "These will be fine, right?" He laughed at me, saying: "Those will last a couple days." If you think women are obsessed with shoes, you haven't met a lot of soldiers. They are constantly looking for a better-fitting, more durable boot. Keeping their feet comfortable is the first step--literally--to staying healthy in the field.

At Fort Benning, some Rangers were showing off a new boot developed for the Marines, the improved Jungle-Desert Boot. It's in a tasteful shade of "Olive Mojave" instead of that easy-to-spot black. The steel plates that got a bit hot in the desert in 1991 are gone and there are none of those pesky eyelets that let sand in, either. But finding the boots has proven to be a bit difficult for a civilian. I've tried outdoor supply stores, Army-Navy surplus shops, but I have yet to go to Ranger Joe's, the Gucci of military and law-enforcement gear.

The array of gadgets I could also bring on this trip is a little overwhelming: a GPS, a short-wave radio, a unilateral adapter, a sat phone, a cell phone and a water-purification system. Fortunately, NEWSWEEK has a techno guru to deal with a lot of that. But I'm bringing some iodine pills, just in case.