For Marines, home at dam is like villain's lair ... or ship
January 7, 2005
HADITHA, Iraq — The Marines say it’s like living in the secret lair of a James Bond villain — at least one of the villains from the slightly dated Sean Connery-Roger Moore era.
Perched at the southern end of Lake Qadisiyah in Iraq’s Al Anbar province, along the Euphrates River, the 1st Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment occupies what has to be the most unique base camp in Iraq: a hydroelectric dam.
The base isn’t beside the dam, or near the dam. It’s inside the massive concrete structure. Office spaces and long concrete hallways have been converted to living areas, a chow hall and weight rooms.
Giant concrete rooms with transformers, high-voltage wires and indecipherable machines festooned with dials and knobs are used as phone centers, a makeshift gym and a chapel.
At the same time, the Marines say, the dam is fully operational and provides power to up to one-third of Iraq’s 25 million people.
“It’s almost exactly like being on a ship. You’ve got all the stairwells, there’s the constant humming from the turbines, the water all around,” said Staff Sgt. Thomas Watson, 38, from Warner Robins, Ga.
The stairwell, or “ladderwell” in Marine-speak, is the most noted feature of the Marines’ temporary home. The dam has 11 levels above ground and none of the elevators works. Each level has ceilings of different heights, so sometimes going from one floor to another involves three to four flights of stairs.
For exercise, the Marines run the stairwells and jog along the top of the dam.
“It’s definitely a workout,” said 1st Lt. James Crabtree. “The spaces get wider as you get toward the base of the dam. There are three levels below ground, but they’re off-limits to us."
Deep in the bowels of the structure, the tops of the power turbines are visible in a cavernous space bounded on one side by a wall of pointed metal panels. At the far end of the room, a series of metal symbols, reminiscent of Soviet worker propaganda, extol the virtues of labor and the power provided by the dam.
“I had some friends in the unit that occupied the dam before we did,” Crabtree said, walking past the turbines. “They described it to me, but until I got here, I couldn’t really picture it.”
Small signs in the stairwell landings list the actions Marines should take at several levels of alert, from a possible failure of the dam to a terrorist attack.
According to the Iraqi power plant workers still on duty, the facilities at the dam used to be a resort hotel for honeymooners under the Saddam Hussein regime. A quick look at the rooms used as living quarters for the Marines backs that up — many have large balconies overlooking the spillways and the Euphrates, which leads downstream a few miles to the city of Haditha.
The balconies are separated from the rooms by large windows and double doors made of glass. The windows and doors have now been reinforced and taped over so they don’t shatter in case of a rocket or mortar attack.
Marines say the area around the dam gets hit a few times a week by incoming rounds. At around 6 p.m. Tuesday, a pair of mortar rounds slammed into the ground near the dam. The explosions rattled fixtures and echoed through the cement halls. Marines in the chow hall barely paused, looking up from their T-rations to see if any more rounds were on their way.
“This is pretty much the safest place in Iraq if you’re going to get mortared,” Watson said.
The Marines also share the facility with a company-size contingent of Azerbaijani soldiers, who provide perimeter security for the base. The Marines admit the Azerbaijanis have it pretty rough. They’re on 18-month tours in Iraq and have no mail or telephone links to home.
Of course, the dam has its drawbacks for the Marines as well. Even though it was built just 20 years ago, much of the facility is crumbling. The plumbing doesn’t work, so Marines have to use portable toilets and showers on either the first or seventh levels.
Mice are also a problem. In offices and living quarters throughout the dam, Marines have set up mousetraps and have made a sport of figuring out the best bait to lure the rodents. Peanut butter just gets licked off without triggering the trap. The old standby — cheese — works best, if you can get your hands on it.
Paradoxically, the dam experiences occasional power outages. The turbines shut down, the lights flicker and everything goes black. It’s the only time the constant hum stops.
And there’s the odor. Particularly on the lower levels of the dam, a distinct, pungent sulphur smell permeates the air. At times, it creeps up the stairwells all the way to the top levels.
The Marines aren’t sure what causes the smell. But some have a sardonic guess: “We’re living right on top of the gates of hell,” they say.