Saturday, September 5, 2009

Times Are Changing (1)

It occurs to me that, despite more than 200 military-related posts and hundreds of other e-mails and essays about Iraq, combat deployments, and combat zones in general, I have still done relatively little to describe a base, its ambience, and the general sights. Photos abound of bases out here, but they don’t adequately “put you there.” One friend described Iraq as being equivalent to turning on all the heaters in your house, turning on the oven and opening it, donning over 50lbs of body armor, and sitting next to the oven. He added that there also needed to be an odor of burning some trash emanating from somewhere. To top it off, he suggested having a friend turn on a fan, aim it at you, and then instruct him to constantly throw handfuls of dirt into the breeze, which in turn will sprinkle you with dirt, adhere to the sweat, and make for a generally bad day.

My own description is to stand in the hot exhaust of a bus and, well, just keep standing there. If you want to simulate Kuwait, notch up the temperature a bit, but keep the hot wind on you. What with all the generators here, the diesel fumes are altogether fitting. Winter, however, is another story entirely. Cover yourself in mud, hose your clothes down once with cold water, and then wear them for three days. Keep the temperature in the mid 30s.

On a more serious note, below is a collection of observations, facts, and descriptions about Iraq, US bases, and some of the activities that take place while our loved ones are deployed. I assure you that it is by no means complete, exhaustive, or necessarily representative of every base, every tour, and everybody’s experience.

Kuwaitis only accept an American presence begrudgingly at best. Thus, bases are as far as humanly possible from any conveniences, utilities, and civilization. With the notable exception of Kuwaiti Naval Base, US facilities in Kuwait are collections of tents, lightweight “hangars,” and trailers assembled in some sort of grid, in the middle of nowhere. All electricity comes from generators – everywhere. All water is trucked onto post in tankers, and potable water arrives on flatbeds full of palletized waterbottles. They are distributed across the bases at random intervals. Naturally, most trash is comprised of empty water bottles.

Civilian vehicles are common, and tactical vehicles increasingly uncommon, as units arriving in Iraq typically “fall in” on gear left by the units they replaced. Perimeter security is overseen by practically unintelligible third country nationals (often African), and they are in turn supervised by extremely irritable American civilian contractors. Most attempt to deny me entrance to the bases. Floodlights are everywhere at these entry control points, as are also pallets of waterbottles.

The air terminal, which oversees all flights into Iraq, is operated by a strange combination of military and civilian personnel, all of whom give indication that they would like to be elsewhere, and would not like to speak with you. This said, however, they are extremely efficient at what they do. Rolls are called throughout the day, as troops lounging on half-dilapidated couches and chairs revive, hear their names called, and trudge out the door laden with gear. Some are outbound for the states, others to Afghanistan, but most are headed north into Iraq.

These Kuwaiti bases will almost always have a profusion of useless amenities, to include expensive Persian rugs (arguably made in china), tailors to custom-fit suits, US automobile and Harley dealers, “gift shops,” an alterations facility to repair uniforms and sew “motivational” banners celebrating OIF MCVII, and pay-by-the-minute internet and phone centers. All of those are lodged in trailers, about eight feet wide and about 25 feet long. A double or triple wide is often used for the AAFES PX building. They will have a smattering of useful products and gear that nobody in their right mind will buy. More will be mentioned about trailers later.

All Kuwaiti bases have massive, well-supplied gyms. At least two have rotating rock climbing walls. They usually stay busy – especially after dark in the evenings. People do their best to not move during the heat of the day. With temperatures well above 135 degrees in the summer months, I can’t say I blame them. Daytime productivity, at least outside, is low.

There are also typically a few restaurants, to include McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and Subway. There may also be a smaller chain restaurant represented. These, too, are in trailers. When I departed Ali Al Saleem for Iraq in early July this year, Subway had just been gutted by a fire. The running joke is that Burger King (right next door) was jealous somebody was selling healthier food and elected to burn down the competition. This is a joke. They had a grease fire.

My arrival in Baghdad Intl Airport revealed many more hangars, pallets of waterbottles, more tents, and a number of hardened buildings. If I had to guess, that base was at least 25 square kilometers, perhaps larger. Transient “guests” are housed in air conditioned tents, and permanent personnel live in trailers, 25 feet long and called CHUs. I think it stands for Contained Habitation Unit, but I could be mistaken.

My flight was on a fixed-wing aircraft, so flown by the US Air Force, staffed in the back by Air Force, and the gear was unloaded by an Air Force dude in a fork truck sporting a hard hat. When he dropped the pallets, they were unloaded by civilians – probably Bangladeshis. They are also the ones that “palletize” the gear, too.

Another fixed wing flight was operated by the Army, and the next one after that was Air Force. Rotor wings are almost all Army (in my experience), but you still find a strange mix of Airforce, Army, and civilians at every major air terminal in Iraq. Somehow, I suppose, they work together without incident. From what I observed, they have their mission down to a science. Weather, however, messes things up, as do mechanical failures. One Air Force officer who sat next to me on a flight indicated that this was the third aircraft in a row that had been grounded for repairs. This time: hydraulic problems. Most flights, despite the extreme conditions and astounding hours these birds are airborne, have no problems whatsoever.

The dining facility (DFAC) in Kirkuk is an enormous hangar-style building complete with waxed, ceramic tiled floors. It also seated 3,300+ diners at any one time. While it is the largest I have thus far seen, others still typically seat more than 1,200. The food is mostly good, the salad bars immense, and whenever food is served, there is a desert bar with pies, cobblers, cakes, and ice cream. As one might expect, it is not uncommon to see troops hauling a few unnecessary pounds. At one time in the not too distant past, everybody attempted to blame the DFACs rather than themselves.

Because of the once-extremely real threat of car bombs and indirect fire, bases in Iraq are usually partitioned off in a confusing array of T-walls, Jersey Barriers, and Hesco Barriers. The former two are concrete sections of walls, the latter is a wire mesh basket into which dirt is poured. The result is the same. Any blast on base, no matter where it is, will cause only minimal damage.

Since T-walls, I have been told, cost as much as $3,000 to manufacture, transport and install (per very three foot barrier), I feel comfortable stating that while the streets in Iraq aren’t paved in gold, the walls are, to say the least. On a side note, the streets are mostly gravel (except on air bases, which have paved roads). The gravel is also spread for pathways, but usually creates a mess. The rocks are rounded and smooth, never pack, and pedestrians must pick their way over them without rolling an ankle, falling, or otherwise walking like a complete idiot. But I digress. Back to barriers.

Every structure more important than a laundry facility will be surrounded by them, to include all living areas, showers and latrine trailers (not outhouses, oddly), dining areas, most generators, important people’s quarters, etc. One deputy commander (a general) here has his own BASE within a base, complete with his own guarded entrance. The guards, by the way, are Ugandan.

Guards. They’re everywhere. While many believe that the US may be reducing perimeter security and thus freeing troops to return home, they have done so by hiring private security contractors. Large bases often have a strange hodgepodge of guards. An outer cordon may be maintained by Iraqi army or police (who are often asleep, or at least not alert at their posts), followed by a private security cordon (mostly Ugandans, falling under Triple Canopy). The innermost may be US troops –if there’s an inner cordon at all. If US personnel are involved, they are either bored Soldiers, or Air Force personnel on a grueling four-month tour in Iraq.

Security personnel also exist inside the perimeter of a base, posted at the rare breaks in T-walls that gives access to dining facilities, gyms, MWR (morale, welfare, and recreation) buildings, and the PX. They will always physically inspect your badge. They always do not like me.

Nor do the Air Force personnel acting in the same capacity (depends on the base), even when I have presented five government ID cards with photographs. I have been sent through metal detectors, searched with an individual detector, and one Air Force gentleman, clearly unhappy about his miserably long, four-month tour in Iraq, threatened to take away my pocketknife. Last I checked (today), there is only one known situation where an American has participated in a suicide bombing. It wasn’t me. The guy didn’t survive to do it again. That also took place in Somalia.

The elaborate security measures for the International Zone (formerly the Green Zone) include at least one cordon of Iraqi Army, and three of Triple Canopy. I was unable to pass through any of them without a military escort. I am unsure how many thousands of Triple Canopy personnel are devoted strictly to the IZ.

Sandbags here are showing their age, since the plastic hasn’t done so well in the high summer heat. The woven material disappears, leaving a sandbag-shaped brick in place – until somebody tries to move it and it crumbles. Other bases used cloth sandbags. Those seem to be intact. Bunkers (little more than upside down concrete culverts) continue to dot the landscape. This is still Iraq, and attacks still happen. One hour ago, my building shook as an IED went off somewhere outside of base. By the color of the smoke, we determined it to be an IED, not a VBIED. There wasn’t enough black in it to involve an exploding car. I presume the occupants of the vehicle are safe.

The reason being is that most tactical vehicles these days are a far cry from what they were in 2003, and perhaps as late as 2007. US personnel used to have humvees (with varying degrees of real armor, “Mad Max” armor or sandbags), tanks, Bradleys, M113s, and some sort of armored vehicle I still cannot name. These have been almost completely replaced with Tanks and MRAPs. MRAP stands for “mine resistant ambush protected.” They are enormous, lumbering and heavy, and the entire crew compartment area is shaped like a gigantic steel bathtub, meant to deflect projectiles. Most of them cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $465,000. Some may balk, but last I heard, there hasn’t been a SINGLE fatality in one of these vehicles. The same cannot be said of other vehicles, even tanks. Consider also that one vehicle will properly protect a number of troops – each of whom has a $400,000 Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance policy. The people are the most expensive thing out here – to put it bluntly.

Frustratingly, the vehicles with which we have outfitted the Iraqi Army (and some police) are of better quality and possess better armor than those I myself used on two combat tours in Iraq. We lost well over a dozen from my battalion on the first tour, at least six of which were in humvees. I am thankful that the US now has fielded better vehicles. I am also thankful that Iraqi Security Forces have decent transportation. After all, they are the main combat force outside the wire these days.

On base is a different story. Nearly every officer over the rank of Major (or perhaps Colonel) has managed to find him or herself a NTV – non-tactical vehicle. With the number of meetings they attend all over a base, it is mostly appropriate. There are others that do NOT have, and complain. Traffic on most big bases is primarily civilian vehicles. Convoy and tactical vehicles are predominantly restricted to their little areas of the base. Most large bases have bus lines, complete with 24 hour service, bus stops, etc. On sprawling bases that have even higher numbers of civilian personnel, various contractors will operate their own bus services for their personnel. Balad is one such example. I accidentally stepped onto one, where I was asked if I was the driver. I departed quickly, embarrassed.

Larger bases are moving more and more in the direction of “garrison,” and with this comes more rules and regulations, to include military police (MPs) conducting speed traps, random stops to ensure that personnel are wearing their seatbelts, and other missions. They also stop pedestrians if they observe some violation. I was recently stopped and asked why I was not wearing a reflective belt after sunset. I explained that I thought they were stupid, and that I wasn’t aware that the glow belt rule applied to civilian reporters. Apparently it does. I was not issued a citation, in part because the MP was running out of citation papers. This worked in my favor.

On smaller bases, troops still use outhouses. They are cleaned regularly, unlike in the past, when they would overflow. Artwork also seems to have diminished to nearly disappeared. I miss the humorous read. On larger bases, both latrine and shower trailers are available. On this particular base (outside of Mosul), ever visible piece of copper piping is polished daily. Perhaps twice daily. Toilets rarely clog anymore, in part due to the sincere plea that people no longer flush baby wipes. Unlike before, they do not reek – and there’s no entertaining artwork on the walls in these facilities, either.

A few shower trailers, however, are so old that the floors are starting to rot out from water damage. I don’t think they were made for this many years of constant use. Many facilities in Iraq are like this, to include wiring on bases (which usually means a birds nest of power and comm cables draped all over the place, hanging low over roads, and occasionally shorting out and hurting people. For example, one Navy Corpsman died on my base in 2004 when he was electrocuted in the showers. There have been a number of incidents like this. Most, if not all, I consider preventable. In more recent years, a huge effort has been made to improve on-base safety – often with ridiculous signs about how special we all are.

With the operations tempo diminishing as it has, there are a myriad of other changes and developments, some of them good, some of them not so good, some of them absolutely ludicrous. I will continue this piece tomorrow, but will first close with this: while the US military strictly forbids any physical contact between its members (and charges those who are caught), all the medical stations here still freely pass out condoms. I don’t understand – unless this is a clear demonstration that they have given up.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

  1. This is a good solid piece and worthy of reading again. (I saw a couple typos)

    I don't think I have ever seen a description of that base structure before. I am glad someone finally did it.

    By the way I like the photo of the Cav guy below. is he in the middle of an Iraqi market?