Support our mission
 
Sgt. Jenny George, with the 557 Medical Company, from Wiesbaden, Germany, buys popcorn at the LSA Anaconda theater. Movie treats, such as buttery popcorn, help make the remote installation feel closer to home for servicemembers.
Sgt. Jenny George, with the 557 Medical Company, from Wiesbaden, Germany, buys popcorn at the LSA Anaconda theater. Movie treats, such as buttery popcorn, help make the remote installation feel closer to home for servicemembers. (Juliana Gittler / S&S)
Sgt. Jenny George, with the 557 Medical Company, from Wiesbaden, Germany, buys popcorn at the LSA Anaconda theater. Movie treats, such as buttery popcorn, help make the remote installation feel closer to home for servicemembers.
Sgt. Jenny George, with the 557 Medical Company, from Wiesbaden, Germany, buys popcorn at the LSA Anaconda theater. Movie treats, such as buttery popcorn, help make the remote installation feel closer to home for servicemembers. (Juliana Gittler / S&S)
Soldiers enjoy the Olympic-size pool, complete with high dive, at LSA Anaconda, Iraq.
Soldiers enjoy the Olympic-size pool, complete with high dive, at LSA Anaconda, Iraq. (Juliana Gittler / S&S)

LSA ANACONDA, Iraq — The afternoon sun shimmers off the water as soldiers lob a volleyball around the pool.

Nearby, others break a sweat in the indoor racquetball court. In the evening, a newly released blockbuster plays at the theater. Don’t forget the popcorn and Jujyfruits.

At one of the largest and busiest military bases in Iraq, servicemembers assigned to — or fortunate enough to visit — Logistics Support Area Anaconda have the closest thing to home in a combat zone.

Blessed with many pre-existing luxuries, such as an Olympic-size pool and movie theater, the former Iraqi air base has become a semiparadise in the desert.

Never mind that it’s also one of the most-often attacked bases, receiving mortar and rocket hits almost daily: Everyone loves the chance to visit.

“This exceeded all expectations I had of a combat zone,” said Spc. Joseph Rieke, who recently arrived in Iraq with the 161st Infantry Battalion of the 81st Brigade Combat Team.

During their short stay in Anaconda before heading out to a forward operating base, Rieke and his fellow soldiers enjoyed the colossal 24-hour gym with basketball and racquetball courts, the pool, and the cuisine in one of five cathedral dining facilities.

“The food here is better than Fort Lewis [Wash.],” Rieke said. “I’m not going to call it a vacation, but this is nice.”

Every day, more and more troops living at Anaconda move from tent cities into air-conditioned trailers. Every day, more of the pre-existing buildings used for housing get running water and indoor plumbing.

And every day, work continues on some of the luxuries to come: a 20-megawatt power generator, water and waste water treatment plants and clean-air incinerator that will turn the base into something of a normal place.

It’s a far cry from one year ago, when everyone lived in tents, ate in tents and scurried across compounds to field latrines.

“It was pretty austere, really,” said Lt. Col. Ed Patterson, Army director of the Department of Public Works and team leader of Facility Engineer Team 15, the body responsible for much of the reconstruction.

When U.S. forces first arrived at the air base, military leaders recognized the strategic value of a logistics hub and major airfield north of Baghdad. By mid-2003, about 7,000 people lived in tents around the airfield.

As the base grew, trailers sprouted including long-awaited ablution units bearing flush toilets and real showers. A power grid, run by generators, was established. Morale facilities grew. And more and more troops moved in.

About 25,000 servicemembers and civilians now call it home.

Anaconda has become a small city, with a fire department, police department, mayor’s office, airport, theater, bus system and education center.

The shopping plaza has a Burger King and a Pizza Hut. Taco Bell, Popeye’s Chicken, Subway and a Green Bean coffee shop are on the way.

“For the last year the focus has been quality of life,” said Maj. Steven Smith, executive officer of the Garrison Support Unit, 852nd Rear Area Operations Center, which runs the mayor’s cell. “If you have a good quality of life for people, it builds morale, it builds esprit.”

The troops and civilians working at the base seem appreciative.

“It’s a lot nicer than I expected,” said Angel Cuevas, a civilian working for L3 Communications. “We’re at war, and we’ve got a gym."

The amenities provide a break for the thousands living there as well as hundreds more who visit daily to pick up supplies for forward operating bases around the top half of the country.

Capt. Bob Ohl, commander of Company B, 336th Military Police Battalion, makes sure that his soldiers picking up supplies for their tiny operating base nearby get a chance to unwind at Anaconda before returning.

Soldiers volunteer to escort convoys on their day off because it means a few hours at the pool, gym or possibly theater, he said.

“We don’t have anything like this. It’s definitely a morale boost,” Ohl said. “We try to give our guys a break and give them down time here.”

Anaconda’s comforts, however, are tempered by daily attacks and long waits indoors during code red alerts. Five soldiers and one civilian have died since January from indirect fire.

The theater may be nice, but sandbags still line the windows and doors. Three cement factories pour out concrete blast walls daily to cushion new housing trailers and living areas.

But as reconstruction and development continue and more services come online, Anaconda will continue to offer some respite and a taste of home, its leaders say.

“This place will really explode next year,” Patterson said. “If you have to stay in northern Iraq, this is the place to be.”

Migrated

stars and stripes videos

around the web

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up