NCOs stepping out of specialties and into officer roles at Camp Virginia
The clusters of tents that make up Camp Virginia in Kuwait serve as a giant motel for thousands of soldiers on their way north to Iraq or south home.
“It could be 20 [soldiers] one day and 500 the next,” said Capt. Brian Hof, camp operations officer. “Sometimes they stay a couple of days, sometimes a couple of months. Our job is mostly to help them go home.”
The sprawling camp, and others like it, serve as transitional points for U.S. troops. There are about 160,000 U.S. troops currently in Iraq and most have spent some time in camps like Virginia.
This camp is run by a mayor’s cell, 23 people who, until they arrived a few weeks ago, didn’t know they’d be working in the quasi-hotel business.
“Completely out of their area of experience, but they pulled it together,” said Lt. Col. John Byrd, the new mayor. “They’re used to … turning wrenches somewhere.”
Noncommissioned officers are filling officer slots and everyone else is doing something far from their training.
“We just kind of put them where their personalities fit, not what they were trained to do,” Hof said.
The officer in charge at the front desk is a staff sergeant who’s usually a military police officer.
“He’s an E-6 doing the job of at least a captain and sometimes a major,” Hof said.
He’s also a National Guardsman and, at home, a plumber.
Pfc. Shannon Gross, usually a mechanic, works on contracts. The same for Spc. Jose Olivero, 25, whose regular job is repairing the electrical firing systems on Abrams tanks.
“I’d rather be working on trucks, but at least this has air conditioning,” Gross, 19, said.
Sgt. Michael Trapp, 27, is a mechanic. He’s serving as fire marshal. He learned the job from the former marshal in a few days.
The job is stressful — units passing through have tampered with electrical boxes to add power outlets and air conditioning to their tents. The result is leavinga wiry mess and a fire hazard.
The mayor’s cell includes soldiers from three units: National Guardsmen from the 185th Rear Operations Center from Iowa, including Hof; mechanics like Gross and Trapp from the 183rd Maintenance Company from Ft. Carlson, Colo.; and the mayor, Lt. Col. Byrd, comes from the 139th Rear Operations Center. He’s also a Guardsman and works at a crime lab in North Carolina for the state’s Bureau of Investigation.
The mayor’s cell switch occurred when the Army shifted control for the camps from V Corps to Army Forces Central Command-Kuwait and the 377th Theater Support Command.
The cell is responsible for housing, feeding and protecting the troops coming and going.
“Everybody wants to do what they’re trained to do, but at the same time you don’t have a choice,” Hof said. “It’s just one of the things we deal with.”
One of the biggest challenges, besides learning a new job on the fly, is keeping track of what they have, Hof said. Air-conditioning units have vanished as units head north to less-than-steller conditions.
“We’re still trying to replace air-conditioning units that disappeared before [during the former cell’s stay],” Hof said.
The camp is made up of tent pads and can hold up to 12,000 people. About 3,000 call it home now. As units start to return from Iraq, they’ll stay at camps similar to Virginia before heading home, so the work will intensify. Mayor’s cells have had a two-month turnover in the past, but that could change. Current cell members have no idea how long they will be performing foreign jobs.
“As long as we have soldiers coming and going, we’ll be here doing what we’re doing,” Hof said. As for the new jobs, Hof doubts the team will ever master them.
“We’re still learning,” he said. “We’ll never learn it all.”