Crazy weather in N. Iraq keeps troops on toes
April 13, 2003
BASHUR AIRFIELD, Iraq — People instinctively talk about the weather. It’s one of those universal icebreakers.
And a common refrain usually goes something like this: Well, if you don’t like the weather now, wait a minute and it’ll change.
But as we all know, Mother Nature doesn’t surf the weather channels like some hyperactive couch potato toting a remote. Except, maybe, in northern Iraq.
“The hardest thing we’ve had to deal with is the mud when it rains,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Ryan Ziemer, a cop with the 86th Contingency Response Group.
Prior to the Americans’ arrival at this airstrip in northeastern Iraq, the rain clouds rolled in for an extended stay. The Army and Air Force personnel who parachuted in on the night of March 26 had a soft, wet, muddy, mucky landing.
“We had so much gear,” said Army Sgt. Chris Galvan of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, “we sunk like rocks.”
One parachutist said he was relieved to find himself floating in so close to the runway.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Larry Knoll landed a mere 40 yards from the strip, while some of his brethren touched down a mile or more away. The only problem was, Knoll got plugged in knee-deep mud and, in the end, had to backtrack just to find a relatively dry route to the pavement.
“It took me three days to dry off,” Knoll said.
According to the weather charts, March and April are rainy months. For those early arrivals, the first few days were cold and damp. On top of it all, they got pelted with hail. Not once, not twice, but thrice.
“I’m actually glad it hailed,” said 1st Lt. Jarrett Lee, an Air Force intelligence analyst, “because that meant it wasn’t raining.”
Eventually, the rain dissipated and the sun appeared.
Spirits soared. Unfortunately, so did the temperature. Medical personnel said they went from worrying about hypothermia to heatstroke in a matter of a couple of days. Soldiers and airmen were advised to drink at least four quarts of water daily just to stay hydrated.
Like the rain, the warming temperatures lingered for several days. The ground dried out. Everybody broke out the sunscreen.
Then a sandstorm from the south swept in on April 5. At one point, the wind was so strong it lifted some tents off the ground.
It was a harbinger of things to come.
A day or so later, the rain returned. The Air Force, which had set up two rows of tents on the concrete edge of the aircraft ramp, soon had a river of water and mud cascading down Main Street, the narrow avenue separating the two tent rows.
“Isn’t this beautiful,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Alex Schmidt, before recollecting a similar April four springs ago. “Remember Albania? I’m having flashbacks.”
Indeed, Albania was a muddy mission. But the weather wasn’t nearly as temperamental.
During the recent deluge, the footpath to the pee pit resembled the inside of a mud-wrestling ring. Walking the slippery, boot-sucking stretch made a person teeter and totter, as if they had a bit too much to drink.
Down the road and into a field, the Army had six toilet seats for people to park and sit for a spell. People would time their daily constitution to coincide with a break in the weather. Not everybody managed to finish their business before the rain resumed.
“I was soaked to the core,” Air Force Tech. Sgt. Darrell Moser said of one excursion, “but I wasn’t going to stop what I was doing.”
The wind, too, seems to have an on-off switch.
It’s the oddest thing. One minute the wind is gusting. The next minute there’s stillness.
“This wind is nuts,” said Airman 1st Class Shawn Rankins.
The locals say the heavens will probably stabilize next month, though no one here is quite sure whether they’ll be around to experience it. With the war seemingly winding down, the future status of Bashur airfield is up in the air.
For now, people are just happy the rain has once again lifted. But for how long?
On Thursday, soldiers and airmen awoke to blue skies and a bright sun.
Clotheslines appeared and many took this latest pause in the wacky Iraqi weather to wash the dust and dirt from their clothes.
The clear skies continued throughout the day and into the night. As Friday morning neared, a half dozen aerial porters — folks that unload cargo planes — huddled in the dark around an indoor heater they “secured” to keep warm on cold nights.
“I heard,” joked Senior Airman Luke Novak, “that the tornados start next month.”
— Kevin Dougherty is embedded with the Air Force in northern Iraq.