Sgt. Tony Juaire of Jordan, Minn., is as close as any U.S. soldier in Saudi Arabia to the no man's land separating the allies from Saddam Hussein's forces, and he may be one of the first to charge across it.

Juaire, a member of the U.S. Army's 2nd Armored Division, has been looking north for weeks, through the haze of gloomy mornings and against the pink sunsets. Now it has come down to this moment.At any time now, Juaire and the squad he commands might be ordered across a mile of desert to fight through minefields and ditches full of napalm on the way to Kuwait City.

Or he might be told to stand and wait yet another day.

Inside Juaire's Bradley fighting vehicle, there is the Indianan who cleans his rifle with a paint brush as if he's lathering a face. To his side is a Missourian, always grinning. There's a no-humor sergeant from South Carolina and two Californians, a practical joker and a quiet surfer.

And then there's Juaire, a stocky, sunburned, freckled Army veteran whose biggest moment as a kid was the day in 1983 when he and his teammates on the Jordan High School football team won the Minnesota Class B championship.

"First and only championship they ever had," he said. "Me? Played defensive right corner. Yeah, I guess I have put on some weight. Geez, we were good."

Some of those players went off to college, some drove trucks or stood behind counters, some got married. Juaire became a "grunt" after spending two years at a local vo-tech school.

"I'm a ground-pounder," he said softly, spitting flecks of tobacco as he spoke. "Grunt, ground-pounder, whatever you want to call us, that's what we do, that's what I do. You have to spend two years pounding ground in infantry before they let you even get into a tank turret."

Now he has arrived. "When it happens, I'll be standing in the hatch, " he said.

His job is twofold: "Whichever way the spot commander is scanning in search of targets, I'll be scanning the opposite way, to his blind side, plus commanding the driver where to go so we don't open ourselves up to a flank shot. If I see the spot commander about to amm onto the wrong target, one of ours, it's my responsibility to call him off."

Juaire went to sleep Friday with bombs exploding three miles away. The horizon was filled with flames. Flares in front of him looked like faraway lights on the sea.

He is still hoping he doesn't have to board that Bradley fighting vehicle and head north.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service