Bulldogs' sweat equity puts desolate airfield back in business
July 28, 2003
QAYYARAH WEST AIRFIELD, Iraq — Any garrison-based soldiers unhappy with their current living conditions might like to try a few months out here at Qayyarah West Airfield, a former military air base about 30 miles south of Mosul in northern Iraq.
This place, which once housed MiG 25s and 27s and M-1 Mirage fighters, is now the home of the “Bastogne Bulldogs,” the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Ky.
The airfield where the brigade’s headquarters element of roughly 150 people stays defines the word “austere.”
Looking out from the sidewalks of the main headquarters compound on a glaring Saturday morning, there is nothing but dirt piles and broken concrete revetments as far as the eye can see.
The baking heat adds to the desolation, although soldiers here say that the fierce sun is beginning to abate slightly, July traditionally being the hottest month. In practical terms, that means the nights are almost tolerable, even without air conditioning. But daytime temperatures still soar into the 100s.
Troops typically get up around 5 a.m. for physical training, so they can get the job done while the weather is bearable. They are then assigned to 12-hour work shifts.
The officers on brigade staff, however, don’t have regular schedules — they work until the job is done or “we pass out,” Capt. Brian Hayes, the brigade’s assistant intelligence officer, said with a laugh.
Soldiers here use Army standard burn-out latrines. Human waste goes into barrels, which are filled with gasoline and burned every evening, filling the air with an unmistakable aroma.
There are usually two hot meals served daily, breakfast and dinner. Lunch is Meals, Ready to Eat. Occasionally breakfast does not materialize, but “it’s more rare to miss a hot meal” than to get it, Hayes said.
The main runway, which had 32 major craters when the U.S. troops arrived May 28, and the control tower are about two miles away from the headquarters compound.
One of the first priorities was to repair the runway and tower, Hayes said, and the airfield is now in good enough shape to accept the Air Force’s largest transport.
Only a handful of the brigade’s soldiers actually live here, however. Most of them are spread around the region, where they are tasked with missions such as local outreach and assistance, search and cordon, safety patrols and guard duty for important archaeological sites to prevent looting, according to brigade commander Col. Ben Hodges, a cigar-smoking Tallahassee, Tenn., native, whose plain-spoken, practical nature makes him popular with his staff.
The outlying troops live where they work, some in tents, others in makeshift quarters in existing buildings.
Compared to some of the units out in the field, the soldiers at the airfield probably have it pretty good. At the very least, all of them live under “hard” cover, which means they live in pre-existing buildings, not “soft” tents.
Hayes said that conditions at “Q West,” as the troops call it, while seemingly stark, are much better now than they were when the headquarters element arrived in May.
The airfield was largely destroyed during the war, and what U.S. bombers didn’t finish, looters did. Everything from windows to electrical wiring was stripped from buildings. Even the acoustic tile that lined some of the ceilings was stolen.
The Bulldogs set to work with a will, cleaning, repairing and setting up power generators. Local Iraqis were brought in to help with the rebuilding.
The glass in most of the airfield buildings has now been replaced, and many of the common rooms were swiped with fresh coats of soothing blue paint. There are a couple of television sets tuned to international news channels, and soldiers can watch a featured movie at night.
“It’s a lot more comfortable now, compared to two months ago,” Hayes said. “We were mostly sleeping on the floor, and a lot of us have cots now.”