Camp Udairi: Massive U.S. military compound rises in Kuwaiti desert
Stars and Stripes February 15, 2003
CAMP UDAIRI, Kuwait — Convoys of bulldozers and graders stir up huge clouds of sand on a future runway while soldiers hoist new tents, working furiously to build this new Army airfield before the beginning of war.
Camp Udairi is the northernmost of a cluster of Army camps in northwestern Kuwait, barely 15 miles from the Iraqi border. Nearby sit Camp New York, Camp Pennsylvania and Camp New Jersey, but because of its airfield, Udairi is where many of the newly deployed V Corps troops from the Germany-based 11th Aviation Regiment have landed. So has the 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, an Apache helicopter unit that has been in Kuwait since mid-October and moved to the camp three weeks ago.
Udairi was conceived last summer as the permanent hub of Army aviation in the Middle East, but the first shovel of sand wasn’t turned until November. Already it has grown into a fortress that has surprised newcomers with its relative comfort.
“We have hot chow, we have showers and a PX,” said Master Sgt. J.T. Boss, 38, of the Air Force 7th Weather Squadron’s Detachment 3, based in Illesheim, Germany. “I have no complaints.”
Based upon reports that had filtered back to Germany, some of the troops had braced themselves for the roughest of conditions.
“I expected a dirt lot and MREs,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. David Elliott, 31, of DeFuniak Springs, Fla., a member of the same weather squadron. “It’s way beyond expectations.”
The camp measures 1½ miles square, surrounded by two man-made ridges of sand laced with barbed wire. The eastern part of the camp is the airfield, the current focus of construction. Two ramps are now finished, both paved and equipped with temporary clamshell hangars and shaded work areas similar to carports. The asphalt surface is critical to limit helicopters’ exposure to the corrosive desert dust.
Construction crews are rushing to complete the third and final ramp before the expected arrival of parts of the 101st Airborne Division. The arrival of the Rakkasans will swell the number of helicopters based at Camp Udairi to more than 200, said Lt. Col. Scott Thompson, commander of Task Force 2-6, which includes the 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry and several support units.
“They are going to swell this place to gigantic proportions,” he said.
Eventually, he said, the field will include a fuel-tank farm, barracks and a runway long enough to accommodate C-130 cargo flights.
One hundred meters west of the airstrip is a chain of “tent cities” where all the soldiers live and many of them work.
The sand-colored tents have plywood floors and hold up to about 50 soldiers. Task Force 2-6’s tent city includes a Morale, Welfare and Recreation tent that is the envy of the camp, with a set of weights and a big-screen TV connected to CNN.
The new arrivals from the 11th Regiment and the 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment live just north of Task Force 2-6, in the center of the camp. Their tents are just getting wired for electricity, and some don’t yet have climate controls. They slept on the floor their first few days in country until their cots arrived from Germany.
On the edges of the tent cities are groups of plastic portable toilets in groups of four. Each city has a self-contained shower unit with sinks, mirrors and hot running water.
A road — actually, just two hardened sandy lanes — runs north and south the length of the camp, though there is little traffic. To the west of the road is the cavernous chow hall tent and one more tent city. There is plenty of room for expansion.
The desert at Camp Udairi is still, but it is not silent. Power generators hum round the clock, punctuated by “beep, beep, beep” from the backup-warning signals on heavy equipment. The engines of the construction trucks roar all day, and the blades of the helicopters whir at night.
Frequently, the thunder of artillery pounds from the Udairi firing range eight miles away.
In many ways, troops are safer here than almost anyplace else. The Kuwaiti desert has been cleared of all people, and despite Osama bin Laden’s sneering threats, not even a determined bomber could penetrate these U.S. camps.
Still, the chemical masks the soldiers now are required to wear strapped to their legs at all times remind them of one of the few powerful weapons Saddam may yet possess.
“We’re about as safe as we can be here,” Thompson said.
Camp Udairi is the third Kuwaiti home for the troops of Task Force 2-6. They arrived from Germany in mid-October and stayed at Camp Doha, the main U.S. camp, for 10 days.
Then they moved to a corner of Ali al Salem Air Base just west of Kuwait City. Thompson said he expected them to stay only until Dec. 1, but construction at first proceeded more slowly than expected. The date slipped again and again. Finally, on Jan. 24, he learned they had four days to move because some Marines were coming in to take over their camp at the air base.
In terms of living conditions, the move has been something of a trade-off for Task Force 2-6. At Ali al Salem, Thompson said, the soldiers lived about one mile from their aircraft, and they often had to walk back and forth several times a day. At Camp Udairi, the distance is only 100 meters.
And the field showers, which use solar-heated water in bags, can’t compare to the hot showers at their new home.
But the soldiers now have a much tougher time keeping in touch with loved ones. Ali al Salem was thoroughly wired, and Thompson had 20 telephone lines at his disposal. Each soldier could make two 15-minute calls per week, and he set aside four computers for personal e-mail.
Camp Udairi, deep in the desert, has no such hookups.
Thompson has only three DSN phone lines, and soldiers are now limited to one call per week.
There is no e-mail and no Internet. Thompson said that isn’t likely to change, although AT&T is expected to set up a tent soon in which soldiers can phone home.
At Ali al Salem, there was a bit of friction between the soldiers and their Air Force cousins. The AAFES exchange in the Air Force’s section of the camp, and the airmen, fearing it would be overrun, would not allow the Army to use it. Someone reportedly got word to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, and a compromise allowed soldiers to shop at certain times.
Considering the circumstances, the soldiers have made themselves remarkably comfortable. But war is a very real threat here. They realize they might have to move again, and fast.
“It’s definitely pretty good out here, a lot better than I thought,” said Sgt. Scott Darling, 38, of Tampa, Fla., “but that could change in a minute.”