Ground Truth

Iraq living conditions highlight different ways Army, USAF operate

A soldier from the 82nd Airborne Division wakes from his outdoor cot at a camp in Baghdad.


By MARNI MCENTEE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 18, 2003

Day Four of a seven-day Stars and Stripes series on conditions and morale in Iraq.

TALLIL AIR BASE, Iraq — On one side of a sprawling, run-down Iraqi fighter base near Nasiriyah sits a well-guarded compound that a select few U.S. troops can enter.

Inside the thick, sand-filled bastions topped by razor wire are many of the comforts of home: air-conditioned lodging, a base exchange, a gym with aerobic and weight-training equipment, a morale tent with personal computers and DVD players, and a volleyball court.

Soon, the smells of Burger King and Pizza Hut will waft through the air. This is how the Air Force lives here.

One sergeant, among roughly 5,000 soldiers living without air conditioning in old buildings in LSA Adder, the Army base outside the Air Force living area, calls the sequestered compound “Camelot.”

The 1,500 airmen with the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, however, simply call it home.

Tallil Air Base is one of three Air Force bases in Iraq that share vast stretches of land with Army troops, but whose living areas, morale facilities and other amenities generally are off-limits to anyone not sporting Air Force blue.

And therein lies the rub.

At best, some Army troops look with covetous eyes over the fences barring them from the Air Force digs.

“Being in the Army and working on an Air Force post really opened our eyes,” Army Sgt. Nicholas Hub wrote on a Stars and Stripes survey, one of nearly 2,000 completed in August by troops in Iraq.

“Why can they live and eat so good compared to us? Every piece of equipment and every service they have is better! The Army needs to feed, shelter and supply like the Air Force does,” wrote Hub, 23, of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment at Kirkuk Air Base in northern Iraq.

At worst, Army soldiers harbor the resentment of the have-nots.

One 27-year-old staff sergeant from LSA Adder wrote on his survey: “Are we fighting the same war as the Air Force or did I miss something? Every day my soldiers wake up covered in sweat with their cots just inches apart, and they know that less than a half-mile away the Air Force has literally the comforts of home.”

Different priorities

Of course, the Army and Air Force are fighting the same war. Air Force planes at Kirkuk and Tallil provide crucial air support to Army troops on the ground. Army troops wouldn’t get in or out of Iraq without Air Force planes shuttling them to and from Baghdad International Airport. And Air Force troops benefit from Army-led security forces at all three air bases. But the priority that each service places on quality-of-life upgrades is vastly different.

The reasons, Army and Air Force leaders say, are based on several fundamental differences in the way each service operates.

For one thing, the Air Force has only about 5,000 troops in Iraq. The Army’s 130,000 troops make up the bulk of the 160,000-strong U.S. military force in Iraq.

And the Air Force is relatively limited in the areas it can operate; its main prerequisite is an airfield suitable for a variety of combat aircraft.

“We can fight the war from those fixed locations, so we don’t have to move all of our living equipment during a conflict,” said Col. Michael Butler, chief of logistics for U.S. Central Command Air Forces.

The Army, on the other hand, is far more mobile.

Four months after major combat ended, the Army is just now consolidating bases and selecting those it plans to keep for the long term. In Baghdad alone, soldiers live and work on 20 different compounds.

“There’s a big difference between taking care of a relatively small group of people in a small area where their base of operations stays the same, compared to the Army, which is spread out over a place the size of California and operating from many different places,” said Col. David MacEwen, assistant chief of staff for personnel at Coalition Joint Task Force-7 in Baghdad and the Army’s point man for Morale, Welfare and Recreation services in Iraq.

The second major difference between the services is that the Air Force makes quality of life a prerequisite for completing the mission. It expects to have basic upgrades like showers, air-conditioned sleeping tents and latrine tents in place within three days of airmen’s arrival.

“If you take care of the people, the people will take care of the mission,” Butler said.

For example, he said, pilots must be rested to do their demanding job. They need a quiet, cool place to sleep and to get ready for their next combat mission.

“It’s not a luxury,” Butler said. “It’s absolutely necessary so our pilots and our technicians can provide the services they provide.”

Included with the rest of the equipment and supplies labeled war-readiness material that the Air Force had pre-positioned in the Middle East before the Iraq conflict were enough “housekeeping sets” to support 1,100 troops at each location.

Those sets include 12-man air-conditioned tents, dining tents, toilet tents and shower tents.

“Those housekeeping sets need to be there before troops deploy. That’s the best-case scenario,” Butler said.

For the Army, combat comes first and comfort follows.

“We’ve got soldiers on the ground because that’s where we have to have soldiers on the ground. They’re there because of the mission,” said V Corps Command Sgt. Maj. Kenneth Preston, the senior enlisted leader for 130,000 Army troops in Iraq.

Some of their locations, such as bare-bones bases near the Syrian border, get hot chow and other amenities later than bases in central Baghdad simply because of the logistics, Preston said.

Some troops are still sleeping on the ground because their mobility is key to outwitting the enemy.

“I guess it’s unfair to compare the Army and the Air Force,” Preston said.

Nevertheless, Preston said the Army is selecting some of its permanent locations and quality-of-life upgrades are flowing into the region.

By the end of September, for example, 27 Kellogg Brown & Root chow halls will be up and running at Army bases, Preston said.

The Army also has a high-end housekeeping set similar to the Air Force variety. The Army brand is called a Force Provider set, known on the ground as a “City in a Box,” said Harvey Fry, chief of the sustainment analysis division for Headquarters, U.S. Army Materiel Command.

The City in a Box provides enough billeting, toilet and shower tents, mess halls and laundry facilities for roughly 600 troops — 50 of whom are on hand to operate the system’s generators and other equipment, Fry said.

The Army has 35 such sets. So far, it has sent 17 to Iraq, Fry said. The rest are in Afghanistan and Kuwait.

That means roughly 10,000 Army troops in Iraq are using Force Provider systems. The rest either are using what facilities were left behind by prior units or are bringing their own tents and amenities with them, Fry said.

The Army is also working to set up fast-food restaurants, such as Burger King and Popeye’s Chicken, at some larger locations. Those chains provide, as MacEwen said, “a taste of home.”

And the service has ordered 1,000 American Forces Network decoders to use with large-screen televisions at many locations, MacEwen said.

Limited access

Another sore spot for soldiers is that, in general, Air Force troops are welcome to use Army chow halls and PXs on the Army bases next door. But there isn’t always a quid pro quo.

At Baghdad International Airport, a fortified compound housing about 1,200 airmen from the 447th Air Expeditionary Group, access is granted only to those with a special ID card issued to Air Force members and certain others with business on the post.

“Who’s the enemy, the Army or somebody else?” Sgt. Mac Wilson, of the 2nd Battalion, 15th Field Artillery, 10th Mountain Division at Kirkuk, said in an interview.

Butler said access is limited because the Air Force plans its quality-of-life upgrades based on its own population numbers.

“If 14,000 or 15,000 of our closest friends show up, it won’t be long before we can’t handle it,” he said. “If we can open it to others, we do.”

That’s what happened at Kirkuk Air Base, a sprawling ex-Iraqi airfield.

Col. Jim Callahan, commander of the 506th Air Expeditionary Group, said he is spending tens of thousands of Air Force dollars to upgrade Army living conditions.

“My guys aren’t hurting right now. It’s the Army that’s hurting,” Callahan said. “We have to look at this from a joint-force perspective and take care of the airborne brigade,” he said.

In fact, one of the first things Callahan did was have airmen clean out a swimming pool on the Army side of the base for off-duty dips.

“That doesn’t make them soft,” he said. “Instead, it allows them to decompress and get all of that stress out, and then go back to that next combat operation.”

Pfc. Jerry Allen of the 173rd Airborne Brigade’s Company C, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment said he saw the base transformed after the Air Force arrived.

“I saw the Air Force move in, and it became a real nice place to be,” said Allen, 20, of Beaumont, Texas. Allen returned to Italy in July — before the Air Force fixed up the swimming pool.

But he said that compared with the Air Force, “the Army’s definitely roughing it” in Kirkuk.

“The Army kept me alive,” Allen said. “They took care of me. But as far as luxury, the Air Force has got it made.”

Aiming high

After the basic housekeeping sets are in place at air bases, the Air Force’s corps of services airmen go to work making the installation even better.

The morale tent at Tallil, for example, is a veritable oasis of recreation options. Inside, airmen can surf the Web or send e-mails to their families and friends. A shelf overflows with paperback books. A half-dozen wooden stalls house TVs and DVD players where two or three airmen can strap on headphones and share a movie in relative privacy.

Though many bare-bones Army posts offer few, if any, computers for “public use,” the Air Force sees e-mail as a key part of keeping troops focused on their mission.

“If you’ve got a troop that’s worried about what’s going on at home, then he can’t give his attention to his job,” Butler said. “If we can provide them that — and we can’t in all instances — then we will.”

The formula appears to be working. More than half of the 70 airmen — most from Kirkuk — who filled out Stars and Stripes’ questionnaire reported having higher morale than Army troops in the same area. Air Force commanders at Iraq’s other two air bases, housing roughly 3,700 airmen, refused to allow Stars and Stripes to distribute its forms because of an Air Force regulation barring such surveys.

“The reason why they have great morale is because our leadership has identified the importance of quality of life,” said 1st Lt. Pierre Lashier, CENTAF’s services plans officer. “The airmen feel they are being taken care of.”

Airmen interviewed at Kirkuk and Tallil agreed.

“I thought I’d be able to tell some war stories, but what stories can I tell? We’re getting a Burger King and a Pizza Hut. How hard can it be here?” said Airman 1st Class Felix Funis, part of the 506th AEG at Kirkuk.

Most Air Force personnel in Iraq will never leave the protective confines of their base. Funis sees the Army soldiers go out the gate every day to patrol the streets of Kirkuk and hunt down Iraqi guerrilla fighters and remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Those soldiers, Funis said, have earned her respect.

“They’re doing the hardest job out here, and there’s no doubt they’ve got it the worst,” Funis said.

Staff writers Jon R. Anderson and Steve Liewer contributed to this story.

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Airmen have a bank of washers and dryers and a free tub of detergent at their disposal at Tallil Air Base near Nasiriyah, Iraq.