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Once bustling U.S. base in Basra now a ghost town

CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE BASRA, Iraq — For eight years, Camp Bravo bustled with hundreds of soldiers and contractors tasked with establishing security in Basra, Iraq’s second largest city.

Today, the hard-shelled tents erected by the British and later used by Americans are uninhabited.

Rows of commercial generators remain silent. The only tracks in the mud belong to animals, and they lead to torn bits of plastic food packaging.

Camp Bravo, like hundreds of other shuttered former U.S. bases, is now a ghost town.

It is also a testament to one of the largest military logistics feats in history: With just four open bases remaining in Iraq, the U.S. is on the verge of completing the withdrawal of thousands of troops and millions of pieces of equipment before the Dec. 31 exit deadline.

Since August, 19,000 truckloads of U.S. military items have made their way out of Iraq or were repositioned to support the bases housing the remaining soldiers, according to U.S. Forces—Iraq.

On Dec. 4, Contingency Operating Base Basra, which once included Camp Bravo but now houses the new U.S. consulate, was one of five bases still populated with servicemembers. Most of the few remaining soldiers had their bags packed and trucks ready to go.

“When I look around and see this base empty, I feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment that I’m glad I was a part of,” said Lt. Col. James Smith, commander of the 215th Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, whose soldiers once lived at Camp Bravo.

During the drawdown, Smith’s soldiers and others within the Fort Hood, Texas-based brigade have maintained Basra and another key base on the road out of Iraq: Contingency Operating Base Adder, about 120 miles northwest of Basra.

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In addition to doing their own packing, the cavalry units at these southern bases provided maintenance and fuel to some of the convoys on their way to Kuwait from the shuttered bases to the north.

U.S. military units were paring down as early as March. By August, they were told to “build flexibility” into their exit plans, which meant getting rid of excess but retaining their fighting and support capabilities while military plans for 2012 remained uncertain.

It wasn’t until Oct. 21 that President Barack Obama announced a full troop withdrawal and all units knew for sure that they were leaving.

The enormity of moving the materiel stockpiled after more than eight years of war awed even veteran logistics officers like Smith.

“To the uninitiated it can look like chaos, but it’s all accounted for,” Smith said. “There is a method to the madness. Every container has a number that is on somebody’s spreadsheet.”

What will happen to the bases left behind remains unclear. Each base is turned over to Iraq’s Receivership Secretariat, which is supposed to inspect each property, U.S Forces—Iraq officials said Wednesday.

If Camp Bravo is a representative example, anything valuable that isn’t nailed down might be long gone if the bases aren’t put to another use soon.

The camp’s main access point is now controlled by Iraqi security forces, who let in whomever they wish.

Three U.S. soldiers providing a tour of the site earlier this month pointed out where televisions and refrigerators left behind by soldiers and contractors had been removed by others since the camp shut down in November. In one area, medical kits were ripped open and supplies had been tossed around the old offices.

“Right now, what you’re seeing is people coming in and scavenging anything left behind,” said Staff Sgt. Frantzy Mesadieu, of the 215th Brigade Support Battalion’s Alpha Detachment Company.

However, the big-ticket items — a 20,000-gallon fuel bag filled to the brim and used generators worth tens of thousands of dollars even in well-used condition — remained untouched.

Soldiers say the equipment will function well if the Iraqis get it running again soon, but will last only so long if left to rot in the harsh desert weather.

Overall, the soldiers hoped the country would be better off for their efforts. But during their last night at Basra, they were more interested in talking about what they were going to do when they arrived back home.

“You never know how it’s going to turn out in the end, but it is what it is,” said Sgt. Ashanti English, also of Alpha Detachment. “Eight years and running — that’s it for us in Iraq.”

slavine@pstripes.osd.mil 

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