At Kirkuk airfield, miles of barbed wire can't stop Iraqis from looting the base
KIRKUK AIRFIELD, Iraq — Master Sgt. Troy Gilliard stood atop a guard post at the Air Force’s newest base in northern Iraq, scanning the hastily built security perimeter made of dirt and concertina wire.
In the two weeks since Gilliard, first sergeant of the 506th Air Expeditionary Group’s security forces squadron, arrived at the former Iraqi fighter base at Kirkuk, his airmen haven’t been able to fortify the aging fence line fast enough.
Each day, at least two or three local men breach the perimeter and comb the base for scrap metal, food, fuel and car parts.
“Our biggest problem is looters and people coming on base to steal stuff,” Gilliard said.
In one incident, intruders cut through the ramshackle Iraqi security fence, snuck onto the airfield, then came back later and stole the fence.
Another time, a man was found wandering around the flight line with an armload of Meals, Ready to Eat.
Even a special kennel airlifted from Germany for the squadron’s working dogs was stolen before the handlers received it.
So far, none of the intruders has been hostile toward American forces and no one has been injured, Gilliard said.
But every day that the base, which encompasses 16 square kilometers, remains unsecured is one more day the Air Force misses its goal of taking full control of the airfield and relieving the Army troops who seized it.
The problem, 506th AEG Commander Col. James Callahan said, is that the group has neither the manpower nor the equipment to get the job done.
“I have 20 percent of what I need to fully control this base,” Callahan said last week.
Gilliard declined to say how many security forces members were on duty in Kirkuk. As it stands, the squadron — which includes units from Spangdahlem and Ramstein air bases in Germany, RAF Mildenhall, England, and the United States — must rely on an Army company — about 130 soldiers — to fill in the gaps.
As of Sunday, no additional Air Force security forces members or Humvees had arrived at the base west of Kirkuk, a city of 750,000 people, security forces member Master Sgt. Daniel Wear said.
“Until we get the bodies and the Humvees, we can’t do much. We’re just hanging out and waiting,” Wear said.
Eventually, the Army troops attached to the 173rd Airborne Brigade from Vicenza, Italy, which secured the airfield April 10, will be replaced by 4th Infantry Division troops, 173rd spokesman Maj. Robert Gowan said. He did not know exactly when the Fort Hood, Texas-based division would arrive, but said it’s hoped that the Air Force will have a handle on the base before they do.
Meanwhile, airmen have laid two miles of concertina wire around the base, with more going up every day. Some troops had slices in their fatigues to show for their efforts; one airman had to have her finger stitched up from a deep concertina-wire cut.
Airmen from other squadrons pitched in. At the Mobile Aeromedical Staging Facility last week, doctors and medical technicians shoveled dirt into bags to help secure their perimeter. On the other side of the air base, a newly arrived A-10 squadron was shoring up defenses with bulldozed berms.
Working dogs were working harder than usual, too.
Dog-handler Staff Sgt. Russell McLaughlin, 23, of Miami, Okla., said he had to be careful not to overtax his bomb-sniffing dog, Sonja, who poked her nose into every civilian vehicle that came through the gate. More local construction trucks arrive every day.
“When they start opening more gates, we’re going to need more dogs,” McLaughlin said.
With every dawn comes a new concertina wire detail and hope for some relief.
The airmen aren’t complaining much, although their living conditions are so far below Air Force standards that they receive an extra $100 a month.
“It’s better than I thought,” Senior Airman Danielle Spencer, 22, of Ames, Iowa, said. “They told us we’d be in a hostile fire zone and be getting shot at.”