It’s amazing how quickly things change around here. Just last week I was feeling very depressed because I thought I would be sitting here in Kalsu until the bitter end, but now suddenly the future has changed again. Now I should be leaving within a few days - to spend my last week in Iraq at Al Asad, a large airbase west of Baghdad in Al Anbar Province. Unless “the word” changes again, of course!
The biggest irony of this new turn of events is that I had adjusted to the idea of staying here, and had concluded that it’s not such a bad thing. For one, the chaos of new people moving in here is pretty much over, so things are settling down. The gym has been quiet and almost deserted the last few times I’ve gone, and I haven’t had to stand in line for a meal yet. For another, it’s quiet here, in the sense of being “away from the flagpole.”
Of course there are advantages in returning to Al Asad. It is a much bigger base, and much safer, which means I can get out and walk around without having to wear a flak vest and helmet all the time. There is a “real” PX, not that I’m going to buy anything this late in the game. They also have a post office, so I can mail some things home rather than having to pack them. I will be living in an actual building rather than a dusty, drafty tent; from what I hear there is actual plumbing, too! The biggest “plus,” other than being away from mortar attacks, is just the mental uplift of a change of scenery; the sense of making the first step on the long journey home to my family.
On the other hand, Al Asad is likely to be crowded as the new crew begins pouring in. I have heard stories of 30-minute waits for meals, crowded facilities, and little or no hot water. I will take it as I find it, realizing that it won’t be forever.
As I prepare to leave this place that’s been my home for the last few months, I see still more changes now that the Army has taken over. Although I have no idea how they do their “real” job of patrolling and working with Iraqi security forces, I have been very impressed with the way they have been running the FOB.
Most noticeable is the chowhall. Although the food is the same (as well as the workers who prepare it), it seems better in quality and variety than it had been. Instead of menus and notices haphazardly taped to the wall, there is now a wood-and-Plexiglas notice board. Humorously, they call the new chowhall “the basement” and the original one “upstairs” (there is about 3’ difference in height between the two).
The last time it rained, we had some mud, of course. Whereas the Marines just slogged through it and complained, the soldiers quickly lay down a “sidewalk” network of flattened HESCO containers around the airfield. Good thinking.
In between where I sleep and where I work there is a parking and storage lot. When the Marines were leaving, they had vehicles and shipping containers in there, and the lot was “secured” with engineer tape (white tape similar to “crime scene” tape, but stronger). Of course people just ducked under it to cut through on the way to and from the airfield (myself included). Now, however, there are concrete barriers and concertina wire surrounding this lot. The first night I encountered this, I grumbled about having to walk all the way around it (a detour of maybe 50 meters), but was impressed how they had really secured the lot. The next morning, the light of day revealed the final touch – they had left a “people gate” in the wire, so a person COULD cut through rather than walking around on the road!
Finally, yesterday I noticed flyers popping up around the FOB advertising “Tent-ernet, wireless Internet access in your tent for $25 a month.” That’s less than I pay for DSL at home! What a great concept.
Of course these observations beg the question “why couldn’t the Marines work like that?” There are several reasons, I think. First of all, the logistical “tail” in the Army is much, much larger (compared to the size of the operational “teeth”) than for the Marines. Having a lot more people to run concertina wire, set up wireless networks, and put up notice boards makes a difference. Of course they just got here, so they are going to spend their money on improvements. The Marines did too – but when they arrived, this was all dirt and ruined buildings, and they had to build it up from scratch.
Another factor – perhaps the most telling one – is that the Marines who were here are full-time, active duty members. The soldiers here, however, are National Guardsmen - part-timers who might think more like civilians than soldiers – and their commitment to comfort and common sense is probably higher than among the “professional” military. I think this is a good thing.