Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Field Marines and Garrison Residents

A FOB from the air - November, 2005

I've been asked to provide a description of our living conditions. To give you an idea of the varied living conditions throughout the AO (area of operations), I'll break down the areas into three primary locations - bases, FOB's and battle positions.

Battle positions, or BP’s, are where you'll find grunts from the Infantry Battalions and Combat Service Support units. They are found in locations where the Command needs a combat ready presence - in rural areas or desolate locations; at border checkpoints or within city perimeters. Regardless of their location, a BP is a location where one will find the basic Marine Corps rifleman planning his next patrol, getting some shut-eye, and awaiting his marching orders. BP’s are very basic - dirt berms and hesco barriers surround the location. Entrenched vehicle positions have been dug into the soil to provide protection from small arms fire and indirect fire (IDF). You may find some tents, lots of cammie netting and maybe a plywood building or two reinforced with plenty of sandbags. Observations posts surround the BP's since the insurgency still retains a foothold in the many of the areas we occupy. Marines sleep on the ground in sleeping bags or wherever they can find a comfortable patch of ground. They still eat MRE's and fill their camelbacks from water jugs or plastic water bottles that seemingly appear everywhere. Depending on the length of time spent at the BP, the grunts rarely enjoy a hot (or cold) shower. As they return from the field, their uniforms appear stained with days or weeks worth of perspiration, dirt and oil from vehicles and weapons. Stiff with salt, they can literally stand on their own in a corner. Basic sanitation at a BP includes wet wipes and canteen cups, while the john is initially an MRE box turned on its side and a shovel to cover your mess. Eventually, the unit Corpsman will establish a “cathole” or trenchline near the outskirts of the BP in lieu of the MRE box toilets. Established BP’s eventually receive a much needed visit from a combat engineer unit who will add more permanent Jersey and Texas barriers and build outhouses from plywood and scrap lumber. BP's contain units as small as squads to as large as reinforced Companies. When outside the wire, the troops hunker down for the night in an abandoned home or unoccupied building and "go firm", with active sentries manning rooftops or other areas of vantage.

The next higher standard of living are the FOB's (Forward Operating Bases), usually situated in an area with pre-existing buildings or structures of some sort. An abandoned railroad depot, a deserted community center, or a seized governors complex may often serve as a FOB. The area is fortified with barriers and hescos, surrounded by concertina wire and has some sense of permanence. FOB’s may contain hundreds of Marines and soldiers, and often have hardstand buildings containing offices for staff members conducting tactical planning. The buildings often serve as sleeping quarters for troops. It’s not uncommon to find a room with over 100 Marines sleeping inside, gear and weapons littering the floor. The hardstand buildings provide protection from the weather and elements and are a welcome commodity at the FOB’s. Other empty rooms are divided by crude plywood walls to form multiple work spaces for the Battalion staff, LNO’s (liaison Officers), Company staff, and clerks. FOB’s also house a small cadre of KBR contractors to serve chow and conduct various contracting services for the Marines and other units assigned to the FOB. There is usually a small but permanent chowhall serving hot meals, as well as a basic utility infrastructure which ensures the ability to run the tactical computer systems and lights aboard the FOB. Often there is enough power to light the permanent sleeping areas and outposts. You'll find a mixture of hardstand buildings, wooden SWA huts and GP tents used aboard the FOB’s for every purpose imaginable. Port-o-Johns are scattered around the area and shower trailers are towed into strategic locations, usually with strict hours of usage to conserve water. Some but not all areas have enough generators to power heating and air conditioning units in the workspaces. The troops still use their sleeping bags and field gear though, and rotate in and out of the FOB’s to smaller BP’s about the area, sharing the duties of patrolling the towns and combatting the insurgency. Generally speaking, the FOB's are pretty comfortable, though no vacation. They are the "middle class" of living conditions.

Finally, bases like Camp Fallujah, the BIAP (Baghdad International Airport), and Al Asad are all located on former Iraqi Army or Air Force bases. Camp Fallujah is jokingly referred to as Camp Falluj-eune, a mocking reference to Camp Lejeune, NC. Despite their run-down appearance, the bases are much larger in size and may house thousands of troops and dozens of units. Though all of the bases contain remnants of bombed out buildings and bunkers (many from Desert Storm or OIF 1), the military engineers and sea-bee units (Naval Construction Battalion) have made incredible strides in shoring up these sagging structures. Units have replaced or repaired damaged fencing and plumbing, emplaced barrier systems and watch towers and have repaired damaged roads. Lighting is prevalent throughout the evenings and generators hum softly, providing 24 hours of power to buildings for computers, lights and air conditioning. Port-o-johns are everywhere, as are specially designed trailers containing showers and toilets. Some of the bases have repaired their internal plumbing systems and have the limited use of permanent toilets and sinks. Civilians run amock around the bases – many from Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR) or a host of other contractors. There are areas for visiting dignitaries and separate buildings set aside to permanently house Marines, sailors and soldiers. Other buildings are utilized as chowhalls, armories, motor transport maintenance bays, medical facilities and laundry stations. MWR (Morale Welfare and Recreation) facilties can be found at these bases, running small gyms and internet cafes and hosting poker nights and weight lifting contests. The largest bases, like Camp Anaconda, Camp Victory, and Al Asad Air Base have set up telephone trailers, Burger King and Subway stands, and Haji marts, or locally run shops. These bases have a crude, yet similar, infrastructure of permanent bases in the United States - you'll find offices in old hangars, sump buildings, literally anywhere that you can shove some people and a desk. Although everything looks dirty and appears to be falling apart, it's regal living compared to the BP’s and FOB's.

The bulk of troops, airmen and soldiers deployed to OIF live aboard these large bases and and rarely experience the harsh realities of living in a BP or FOB. Some units regularly convoy to the field or conduct security duties outside the bases, yet few actually engage in direct offensive action with the insurgency. The bases have become a garrison environment, awash with many comforts of home and overflowing with care packages labeled "any Soldier, any Marine." Most garrison residents are well-fed and rested, relatively safe within the perimeter of these large camps. Their lives become regulated more by the hours of the chowhall than the sounds of gunfire. Certainly, the ever-present possibility of indirect fire remains omnipresent, but becomes increasingly less common as the insurgency is destroyed or pushed out of Iraq. One easily discerns garrison troops from their field counterparts by the look of their uniforms - crisp and clean compared to salty and faded. The field troops look permanently weary; sleepless nights and endless days. Although all deployed servicemembers suffer the pain and anxiety of separation from loved ones, the garrison residents return home with an entirely different experience than their brothers in the field.

Nobody wants to be a garrison Marine, soldier or sailor. Everyone deployed wants to make a difference in this conflict - they want to be viewed as equals among their peers. Without question, Marines deployed in a garrison environment feel trapped within the confines of the base. Nearly every Marine, from Supply clerk to Staff Officer, yearns to travel outside the wire. Rare is the Lance Corporal who hasn't begged his Gunny to join the next convoy off of the base. They want to be out there among the grunts, lugging the ammo and squeezing the trigger. They ponder the possibility of baptism under fire; the fright of combat and the realities of conflict. They want to be in the fight yet resign themselves to their lot in life, stuck aboard the base for various reasons. It's a fate they cannot change. The phrase "Every Marine a Rifleman" rings hollow in their hearts.


Corporal Welfare said...

I would give my right nut to get the chance to be merely a "garrison Marine". Timing is everything, I guess, as I wound up splitting the two gulf offensives. All I can say is I tried! Semper Fi, Wayne.

Beth* A. said...

Very helpful, your explaining about the 3 different types of locations - thanks very much for breaking it down for this civilian to understand. Stay safe out there.

Mudbug said...

I drove trucks for KBR for a year and was always amazed at how few (per centage) military guys are outside the wire. I always got questioned about whats it like out there not just by other (caged) contractors and military.

A 2nd LT in Taji (medical logistics) wistfully told me she wished she could get out there.

KBR often cut us slack when back at Anaconda just because we worked outside the wire.

My favorite Marine story, this past summer at TQ a youngish Marine stopped a truck and hopped out running up to me asked you just came in on that convoy right. I immediately checked that my ID was showing. I responded yes, but he was not intrested in a ID, he asked quickly did you guys bring ice, we been out of ice for two weeks. It made my day when I could tell him yeah 8 truckloads and another convoy behind us was full of ice trucks for TQ and Al Asad.

I enjoy your blog. Good work.

Donna in Texas said...

Thak you for your great descriptons of the locations. It helps me to better understand what my infantry Marines I send support to need.

God Bless you,