Living still rough in new radar base at Kirkuk airfield
May 26, 2003
KIRKUK, Iraq — It took 18 days, but Old Glory now flies at Kirkuk airfield, home to hundreds of U.S. troops.
Using a dilapidated Iraqi anti-aircraft gun and an antenna pole, Tech. Sgt. Mark Sambendetto hoisted the flag he’d bought more than 10 years ago for $9.95, as fellow airmen stood at attention.
“It goes with me on every deployment,” the 32-year-old communication specialist said.
The flag has flown in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Somalia. And Sunday, a bit tattered from years of use, it flew in Iraq, marking the base camp of the 606th Air Control Squadron out of Spangdahlem, Germany.
Two noncommissioned officers had arrived April 18th to survey the site, hitching a ride with the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade out of Vicenza, Italy. It had been a seven-hour trip from their drop zone in Bashur to the Kirkuk airfield, which had been used at one point by the Iraqi military but abandoned because of the imposed northern no-fly zone after the Gulf War in 1991.
The remaining 105 squadron airmen arrived May 7 to a camp that doesn’t quite fit the stereotypical plush Air Force accommodations.
At first, crews slept in an abandoned gymnasium, without the coolness of air conditioning. They have since moved into temporary tents in which they are “pretty squashed,” about 10 to a tent, said Lt. Col. Scott Fischer, the squadron’s commanding officer.
A tent city will start going up on Monday — making for quite a Memorial Day celebration in spite of the fact that the promised steaks and potatoes won’t be in country in time for the planned holiday feast.
Bathroom facilities are still trench latrines (here, a wooden box over a hole in the ground) but leaders thought ahead and brought along six toilet seats. “Keeps the splinters down,” joked Chief Master Sgt. Paul McGeorge, 39, superintendent of logistics.
Showers are permitted about every four days. Baby wipes, and lots of them, help a great deal, said Senior Airman Leisha Churchill, 23, from Phoenix.
The squadron usually deploys for about 90 days, and while this particular mission likely will last longer, Fischer doesn’t think they’ll stay too far past that schedule.
“But we’ll be here until the mission is done and as long as we’re needed,” he said.
The 606th’s mission is to electronically patrol the skies, particularly in northern Iraq, with the high-tech TPS-75 radar, which scans 150 to 200 miles out, and “picks up anything that flies,” said Tech. Sgt. Tommy Montgomery, 32, one of the first two noncommissioned officers on site and in charge of the radar shop.
Now that mostly entails coordinating with air control squadrons region-wide to make sure no one bumps into each other, Fischer said.
Inside two air-conditioned modulars — which makes it the best job site on base — crews watch the skies, keeping track of all air traffic and ensuring there aren’t any surprise inbound missiles or unaccounted for airplanes, said air surveillance officer Capt. Stu Williamson, 27, from Northboro, Mass.
The hill upon which the TPS-75 sits was ideal for the set-up, once the top was leveled off, Montgomery said. “Everything else, well, we decided we’d have to make due,” he said of the base blanketed with such a fine, talc-like powder that keeping equipment clean has proved to be a major challenge.
The airmen have become housekeepers on steroids. Routine seven-day maintenance inspections now are seven-minute ones, said Staff Sgt. Warren Trolio, 32, later admitting he’d exaggerated a bit. But weekly inspections now are done daily, and the radar maintenance crews spend much of their 14- to 16-hour shifts vacuuming, dusting and repairing equipment.
While morale is high, the airmen said that getting packages and letters from home would go a long way to making things even better.
Staff Sgt. Emerson Drain, 24, knows his wife has sent four or five packages from home, but he’s received only one, though he thoroughly enjoyed the Chex Mix snacks.
Mail trickles in, but the airmen also get one 15-minute morale phone call home a week and periodic access to the handful of computers to send e-mail messages, Fischer said.