Officer keeps Baghdad airport's many parts together
BAGHDAD, Iraq — Some people use their military careers as springboards to politics.
But that’s not what Lt. Col. Shawn Malone had in mind when he came to Iraq.
“I ran a hard campaign of backstabbing and mudslinging,” the mayor of Baghdad International Airport said with a smile. “And I still got elected.”
Although there probably was a short list of candidates, none of Malone’s constituents had much of a say on who was going to be “elected” to be in charge of many daily operations on the sprawling base.
That decision came down to Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, then commander of the 1st Armored Division. Sanchez is now commander of V Corps and the ranking general in Iraq.
Malone said Sanchez’s decisive leadership — gathering all the disparate units at the base and claiming base ownership — has made his job a lot easier. The base has sizable units from different Army divisions, as well as contingents from the other services, and other countries.
Is there any occasional tension?
Malone’s reply shows his growing political skills.
“Our meetings are very collegial,” he said. “We all know we have to work together or it’s going to fall apart.”
It’s Malone’s job — and that of his small staff drawn from the 1st Battalion, 94th Field Artillery Regiment from Idar-Oberstein, Germany — to make sure that doesn’t happen.
In fact, Malone and his five-member mayoral cell are tasked with just the opposite. With the help of several engineer units and a series of contractors, a U.S. military base is taking shape.
There’s a dining facility designed to feed 10,000 people under construction. Next to that will be a living facility for 4,000 troops.
Malone said those on base who currently live in the worst conditions — tents that basically just block the sun — will be the first to move into the facility, which is targeted to open in August.
However, both the dining facility and living quarters are being constructed for a short stay. The military will eventually pick the buildings up and move them to the other side of the airport. The plan is essentially to turn over part of the base to the Iraqi people for commercial air use, and keep part for military operations.
So the airport, called BIAP by those who live on it, will have “a Rhein-Main type atmosphere,” Malone said, referring to the U.S. military base located alongside Frankfurt’s international airport in Germany.
Before that can happen, a lot of Army units need to break camp and move. And that’s on hold until the engineers, who have spent weeks leveling and grading large portions of land, and contractors install infrastructure for a series of facilities.
Malone said plans call for a large number of living accommodations for “at least a division-size headquarters and associated elements.” The Army and Air Force Exchange Service wants to build a large exchange. A gym, running track and small commissary are also planned.
So just how long are the Americans planning to stay at the base?
Malone referred to recent comments by Gen. Tommy Franks, who led the campaign against Iraq. Franks said U.S. troops would be in country for at least three or four years.
The mayor is equally coy when it comes to talking about his constituents and the “city” he presides over.
“At least the size of Ramstein,” he said is the size of the airport, which is about a half-hour drive from downtown Baghdad.
“We’re smaller than Golden, Colorado, and bigger than Meridian, Mississippi,” he said of the total number of servicemembers camped around the airport, which he admitted is the largest concentration of Americans in Iraq.
“All services except for the Coast Guard are represented here.”
Future planning aside, much of the work the mayor’s cell handles is geared to the present.
“My first priority is force protection,” Malone said, “then quality of life.”
Getting rid of the tons of unexploded ordnance, wrecked vehicles and other trash around base is right up there, too. But much of that work has been done. Malone’s own battalion was tasked with helping Army and Air Force Explosive Ordnance Detachment teams get rid of all the munitions.
But many other daily jobs remain. There’s the matter of getting rid of the large amounts of waste that servicemembers produce, for instance.
David Kantor, the battalion’s command sergeant major, serves as the mayor’s director of internal affairs. Kantor spends a lot of time driving around, looking for problems and making sure standards — traffic, safety and general military — are enforced.
All units on base send representatives to a daily meeting at the mayor’s office where problems are worked out and assignments made. Units in need of specific help are paired with other units that can provide it.
Malone smiled and shook his head slightly when talk of real-world politics came up.
But Kantor doesn’t think about the question for more than a split second.
“No,” he said when asked if he thinks his experience will lead to a political office sometime down the road. “No.”