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Ground Truth

In Iraq, some servicemembers live like princes while others sleep in the sand

Soldiers with Company A, 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry Regiment sleep where they can at a patrol base near the Tigris River.

JON R. ANDERSON / S&S

By STEVE LIEWER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 17, 2003

Day Three of a seven-day Stars and Stripes series.

TIKRIT, Iraq — When Pfc. Alan Shaffer wakes up each morning in his camp near the Tigris River, he looks up and sees the stars. He grabs an MRE for his morning chow; for a toilet he uses a slit trench in the grassy field not far from where he sleeps. A shower to wash off the sweat? Only in his dreams.

Shaffer and his infantry buddies from Company A of the 173rd Airborne Regiment’s 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry Regiment live in the yard of a village water plant in north- central Iraq. The two open, concrete buildings aren’t safe to live in, so the soldiers sleep outdoors in a chigger-infested yard ringed with barbed wire.

The neighborhood, a hotbed of Saddam loyalists, isn’t terrific, either.

The run-down water plant is the 11th camp Shaffer has called home since his unit parachuted into northern Iraq in April.

“We always move into the worst sites and fix ’em up,” said Shaffer, 20, of Monroe, La. “Then we have to move on.”

Forty miles downstream in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, Spc. Dennis Kerr also lives in a camp overlooking the Tigris. But his digs are quite different.

Kerr, 20, of Sparks, Nev., plays trumpet in the 4th Infantry Division band. When he wakes up on his cot, in air-conditioned comfort, he sees an elaborate crystal chandelier and he pads across a marble floor to a latrine with gold-plated fixtures. Then he eats a plate heaped with bacon or sausage and scrambled eggs, topped off with fresh fruit and chilled juice in a Kellogg Brown & Root chow tent.

“It’s very nice. I never thought I’d be living in Saddam’s big palace,” Kerr said. “We’ve seen a lot of soldiers living in a dust bowl. We really appreciate living up here.”

Six months into the Iraqi occupation, U.S. military forces have begun to get their houses in order. In many places, air conditioning takes the edge off the heat. Ample quantities of fresh meat and vegetables have begun to replace tiresome T-rations and Meals, Ready to Eat.

Showers have become a morning ritual instead of a rare luxury. Most letters from home arrive now in days or weeks instead of months.

At camps across Iraq, access to e-mail is now at least possible, though soldiers complain about long lines and security firewalls that block access to common programs like Yahoo! and Hotmail. Most soldiers say they can get to a post exchange at least once a week. And most occasionally see television news or Stars and Stripes.

“Living conditions have improved rapidly,” said 1st Lt. Kevin Mumaw, 33, of the 101st Airborne Division’s headquarters company, camped at one of Saddam’s lesser palaces in Mosul. “I have it pretty good, I can’t complain. I just miss my family.”

During the last two weeks of August, a team of Stars and Stripes reporters visited dozens of bases, surveying nearly 2,000 soldiers and interviewing hundreds of them about the way they live. More than 70 percent rated their living conditions as average or better.

Still, they found their camps lacking a lot of the basics. Asked to rate their camp facilities on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest:

¶ 82 percent of soldiers gave their toilets a rating of 3 or lower.

¶ 73 percent rated their hand-washing facilities 3 or lower.

¶ 79 percent rated their gyms 3 or lower.

¶ 82 percent rated their telephone service 3 or lower, and almost half rated it 1.

¶ 66 percent rated their e-mail access 3 or lower.

¶ Overwhelming majorities, ranging from 64 percent to 85 percent, said they had no access to a library, a game room, MWR trips, AFN television or USO services.

“We are a country at war,” said Sgt. William Hutchens, a 13-year veteran serving with the 82nd Airborne Division. “We are soldiers, and it is expected that conditions will be rough.”

In a Sept. 9 interview with Stars and Stripes, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, said he is working hard to get air conditioning, e-mail, telephones and hot food to at least all of the bigger camps. He’s been hampered by logistics snarls and guerrilla attacks.

“That has been a very, very aggressive effort over the past 60 days,” Sanchez said. “We’re not out to the individual companies and platoons in little [forward operating bases], but at the major locations I think we’re getting to that level.”

Like kings — sort of

It’s no secret Saddam spent billions of dollars of his country’s post-Gulf War oil wealth on lavish palace complexes for himself and his cronies. Division commanders usually took these over for themselves and their headquarters staffs. The palaces, after all, were built for security and are relatively easy to defend.

The 4th ID staff makes its home in one of the former Iraqi dictator’s most grandiose layouts, a riverside complex in his hometown of Tikrit. Walls topped with razor-wire surround roughly three square miles of hills featuring at least 40 palaces (and dozens of smaller buildings) scattered along a modern street network. Two man-made lakes, both stocked with carp, break up the desert landscape.

Only one of the palaces suffered bomb damage in the war, and looters left the complex almost untouched. The setting is so pleasant, the division has converted one of Saddam’s hilltop playhouses into a recreational retreat for 4th ID troops unlike any other MWR facility anywhere in the world.

The marble palace is vast enough to hold 10 high school proms at once, said Lt. Col. William “Josh” MacDonald, a 4th ID spokesman in Tikrit. In one room, soldiers can swim in an indoor pool surrounded by a mosaic deck beneath a marble ceiling.

Upstairs, an enormous chapel serves as a movie theater each night. Other large rooms house an alcohol-free sports-bar, a rug bazaar, a TV room, an Internet café, a computer-game room, a barber shop and a game room with foosball and pool tables. Soldiers can borrow bicycles, basketballs, rubber rafts and fishing gear.

“It’s pretty obvious,” MacDonald said, “not everyone can have a place like this” — a fact that some field officers say they try to keep their troops from seeing.

“I don’t want my soldiers coming up here,” said one senior commander in the 101st Airborne Division, surveying the swimming pool at the “Screaming Eagle” headquarters at a palace in Mosul. “I don’t want them to see how good the division staff has it.”

But some do.

“The leaders live in air conditioning; lower enlisted live with swamp coolers if they’re lucky,” said Spc. John Ray, 28, a 101st Airborne soldier at Qayyarah West (Q West), a remote former Iraqi air force base between Kirkuk and Mosul.

“They live in palaces,” said Spc. Troy Pickens, 20, a 4th ID soldier at Tikrit South, “and we live in the sand.”

Headquarters troops are keenly aware their front-line brothers and sisters have a much harder life than they do.

“I don’t think the living conditions here are bad compared to the brigade [combat] teams,” said Spc. Kristy Wade, 21, who lives at the 4th ID headquarters palace, Camp Ironhorse. “Compared to them, we live in heaven.”

“I can’t complain. We’ve got phones and air conditioning where I’m staying,” said Sgt. Felix Gutierrez, 28, of Chicago, a 101st Airborne supply sergeant living at the division’s headquarters palace. “I expected living out in the desert, sand all over, scorpions in my boots.”

While boots may be bug-free in a palace, soldiers who live there say life isn’t quite as cushy as it looks. While the buildings look awesome, Saddam clearly cut corners.

A close look reveals a plumbing system so poor that many soldiers in Tikrit must use portable outdoor toilets and field showers instead of the gold-plated indoor facilities. The thousands of light fixtures, up close, look as if they came from a discount store.

“They’re spectacular from the outside,” said Sgt. Daniel Cade, 29, of Corpus Christi, Texas, who serves on the 4th ID’s operations staff, “but a hunk of junk on the inside.”

V Corps Command Sgt. Major Kenneth Preston said soldiers bunking in the palaces still sleep on Army-issue cots in rooms crammed thick with troops.

“Really, the palaces are marble tents,” said Preston, a 28-year Army veteran. “It looks nice from the outside, [but] if you actually lived in there you’d see it’s not that nice.”

Making do at looted airfields

Only a lucky few of the Army forces bed down each night in palaces like the ones in Tikrit, Baghdad and Mosul. Far more make their homes at old Iraqi military bases, the teeming tenements of military life in the Middle East.

Most live in abandoned buildings that were trashed by armies of looters after the fall of Saddam. They arrived at former air bases like Balad, Kirkuk, Tallil and Q West with few tools or supplies and created for themselves a place to live. Many others live in tents pitched near the flightline.

“My squad had to beg for permission to clean out a damaged building to sleep in. The building was full of car parts, dirt, animal droppings and anything else you can think of,” said a 27-year-old staff sergeant from the 63rd Signal Battalion at Tallil. “Five months later, we are still crammed in that building. The only materials we have for improvement are materials we have found or begged from other units.”

The 101st Airborne Division’s 5,000-man 3rd Brigade — known as the Rakkasans — arrived at their new home at an old Iraqi air base near the border with Turkey and Syria in early May. Dotted with wide, flattop concrete bunkers and herds of goats, the airfield had become a camp for local nomads. Dubbed Tall Afar airfield after a nearby village, the airfield is one of the northernmost U.S. outposts in Iraq.

“It was pretty bad when we got here,” said Spc. Ken Sprague. “The Bedouin had moved into the bunkers. You could tell by all the muck inside that the sheep had been living in them, too. It was pretty nasty.”

It took weeks, he said, to get all the bunkers cleaned out. “We scrubbed and sprayed the heck out of them to make ’em habitable,” Sprague said.

These old military bases usually are home to brigade or battalion-level Army commands. Each palace-based division headquarters must have a logistics hub, typically an airfield into which cargo is flown by aircraft. From there, truck convoys send out supplies to the other camps.

None of these hubs would be confused with the division headquarters’ palaces. Six thousand soldiers are jammed into the 101st Airborne’s logistics base at Mosul airfield in northern Iraq. About 90 percent of them still live in tents, said Maj. Paul Fitzpatrick, the division’s headquarters commandant.

Most still lack hard floors or air conditioning and rely on noisy generators for electricity. Computer access remains limited and lines are long at all of the division’s bases, he said. AT&T has set up phone banks, but most soldiers buy phone cards from Iraqi vendors because their rate — 38 cents per minute — is 60 cents lower than AT&T’s.

What logistics hubs in places like Mosul, Kirkuk and Tikrit do offer are the best PXs. AAFES frequently sets up its biggest and best-stocked stores at logistics hubs for convenience. At Mosul, the AAFES tent is hot but big, with local souvenirs, essential clothes and plenty of DVDs.

AAFES hasn’t reached Q West, which has only a small PX manned by soldier volunteers. But the leadership there has allowed many local vendors onto the base to fill the gap. There is a pleasant, air-conditioned “mall” with a small restaurant serving Middle Eastern fare, a convenience store with wares that include ice cream and soda pop, and an Internet café that charges $3 per hour.

Sometimes, though, the quality-of-life improvements that a unit gets are not the ones it needs.

“They gave us air conditioners, but we don’t have power,” said Spc. Melodie M. Singleton, 24, a 4th ID soldier living at Camp Packhorse south of Tikrit. “You just look at the box in front of the tent and imagine how cool you’d be.”

Hunkering down

Dozens of small Army units — companies or even platoons — have moved out into Iraqi cities to try and keep an increasingly restless peace. They have bedded down in safehouses, or “forward operating bases,” which usually are small but fortified public buildings in bad neighborhoods. Infantry units launch patrols outside the walls to catch guerrilla fighters violating curfew.

Some soldiers like living out of the spotlight of higher headquarters, in a place they’ve fixed up for themselves. But they also live with greater danger and with fewer comforts.

“In a safehouse, you’re away from everybody,” said Pfc. Nathan Cummings, 20, of Crownsville, Md., a 173rd Airborne soldier who lives in Kirkuk in the former home of Saddam’s imprisoned associate “Chemical Ali.”

“Then again, you’ve got to worry about being attacked.”

Twenty-six soldiers from Battery D of the 173rd Airborne’s 319th Field Artillery bunk in the former Baath Party Headquarters the town of Taza, 20 minutes from Kirkuk. The compound of three concrete-block buildings is called “Dogpound Base”; its courtyard includes a picnic table and is shaded with two fig trees, five olive trees and two lemon trees.

The house does have an air conditioner and lights that work when city power is operating — which is less than half the time, said Sgt. 1st Class Frank Marcantonio, the unit’s noncommissioned officer-in-charge.

Battery D’s one hot meal per day is trucked in by convoy. It’s got no radio, no Internet, no telephone. Entertainment is limited to a DVDs, a few board games and some donated books.

Yet the soldiers here almost all say they’re happy. They’ve built themselves bunkbeds out of scrap wood, and they’ve got indoor showers and toilets. It’s the fifth place they’ve lived since parachuting into Iraq early in the war.

“This is by far the best,” Marcantonio said. “I’m hoping we can stay here until the mission is completed.”

The unluckiest soldiers are the ones stuck with lousy safehouses, like Pfc. Shaffer and his buddies in the 1-508 Infantry. They live outdoors and they’re directly in harm’s way. They move from place to place, eating MREs and never getting a shower.

“Around here, it’s just sit and wait until somebody shoots, so we can do our job,” said Pfc. Peter Burr, 21, of Salem, Mass.

For them, rest and relaxation is an overnight stay at Camp Bayonet in Kirkuk. Even that is rare. Stripping off their shirts and romping in the Tigris River — with armed guards posted in case the locals turn hostile — is about as good as it gets.

Turning red to green

Soldiers don’t always see what it takes to upgrade their camps. Supplying a force of more than 150,000 troops through land bridges in Kuwait and Turkey is a huge logistical challenge, hampered by the frequent guerrilla attacks on supply convoys. Televisions, weight sets and air conditioners must compete for limited cargo space with food, water, ammunition and spare parts.

In fact, the Army is keenly aware of conditions at even its smallest outposts, said Col. R.W. “Bobby” Nicholson, division engineer for the 4th ID in Tikrit. His staff frequently rates each of the division’s 52 camps as “red,” “amber” or “green” in each of 12 quality-of-life areas, including billeting, power generation, MWR, AAFES, dining facilities, laundry, hygiene and water.

For example, soldier housing doesn’t move from red to amber rating until it has raised or hardened floors, cots, climate control and at least 56 square feet of space per soldier. The highest rating, green, isn’t bestowed until interior power and lighting are installed. For hygiene, a green rating requires climate-controlled latrines and showers (one for every 20 soldiers), hot and cold running water and an insect-spraying service.

Nicholson’s camp-conditions chart still shows a lot of red and not much green, but he said there’s been vast improvement since spring.

Nicholson said the big camps improve faster than the small camps.

The 4th ID, he said, is spending most of its money at the 12 forward operating bases the Army plans to keep instead of the 40 it expects to abandon.

“We focus on our enduring camps,” he said.

Leaders say the troops in Iraq live as well or better than the first troops in the Balkans and Afghanistan.

“The first six months [in Kosovo], it was mud up to their knees, it was GP Medium tents and it was not very nice,” said Preston, the V Corps command sergeant major. “It’s tough to be the first ones on the ground when you come into a theater like this and you open it up.”

For the time being, senior officers and NCOs are urging their troops to hang tough and wait for things to get better.

“It appears that everyone wants everything now. It cannot happen at the speed at which we are accustomed to back home,” said Sgt. 1st Class Eric Mabie, 33, a 15-year veteran serving with the 101st Airborne at Q West. “We are rebuilding a country one piece at a time, just as our own systems are being pieced together.

“Just think,” he added. “It could be worse.”

Staff writers Jon Anderson, David Josar, Marni McEntee and Scott Schonauer contributed to this report.

Related story: Breaking down military camps into three categories.
(Click here)


The stats ...

Servicemembers rate camp conditions and services in Iraq. For tables showing some results from Stripes' questionnaire, click here.

1st Armored Division soldiers at Odai Hussein’s palace in Baghdad, Iraq, kick back in a swimming pool at the complex.
TERRY BOYD / S&S