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Monday, December 08, 2003


Cots, laundry, other logistics vital for troops

AT THE STRYKER BRIGADE'S BASE CAMP, Iraq - It's been a rough couple of evenings for Maj. Sean McKenney at the Stryker brigade's nightly battle update briefings.

That's where the brigade staff and battalion commanders gather to update the boss, Col. Mike Rounds, on the day's developments in every area of the unit's operations.

McKenney is the S-4, the logistics officer, and the past two nights Rounds has expressed a great deal of interest in his work.

He's got questions about the latrines and the cots, or shortages thereof. The water. Hot chow. Clean clothes. Gravel for work areas and the motor pools. Fuel and oil for the vehicles.

It's all critical stuff as the Fort Lewis-based brigade, with the help of other support units, transforms a vast, flat patch of northern Iraqi mud into its base of operations and home away from home for some 5,000 soldiers.

McKenney is on the hot seat to make sure all the supplies are on hand, or on the way, to make that happen. And though he's had to endure a few awkward moments with the brigade commander, he said it's all going fairly well.

"This is actually, for the environment we're in, not a bad setup," the major said after Saturday night's briefing.

Today is the brigade's third full day on the ground at its camp, the location of which remains off-limits for reporting under the ground rules for reporters traveling with the unit.

The dining facility served its first hot meal Saturday night - spicy beef over rice with vegetables, and coffee cake.

McKenney got a contractor out to service the 84 Port-A-Johns now on the camp, and he said there's another 220 or so on the way.

Gravel contractors wouldn't come after their trucks got shot up, but deliveries will resume today, he said.

One shower center started up Saturday, although it was later down due to pump problems. And plumbers were finishing on a second, across the post.

Laundry service is scheduled to start Monday.

As for cots, that's a sore point with Rounds, who says the Army has 600,000 of them in Iraq and Kuwait, despite the fact it has only about 130,000 troops in the countries. Why should it be so hard to get 5,000 of them sent to this camp?

The answer to that question might someday be determined by the General Accounting Office. But for the time being, cots should be here today, McKenney said.

That will be some relief to the troops who are sleeping on the concrete or plywood floor of their tents, although many soldiers brought their own cots north with them from Kuwait.

A next priority might be hand-washing stations. There are none in the camp.

Rounds told his team he sees the camp issues as critical to the brigade's success.

"Ultimately when we're looking at quality of life, part of it is morale, yes, but mostly it gives us the opportunity to keep folks healthy and keep them in the fight," Rounds said. "There's enough other things in this country to knock us off our feet, we don't need to do it to ourselves."

The brigade is getting help from Army National Guardsmen and reservists from Mississippi, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Wisconsin, as well as an active-duty artillery battalion that's been here since July.

They're putting up and wiring more than 70 tents; it appeared about half had power by the end of Saturday.

They are also digging trenches to shelter soldiers if the camp is attacked with mortars, a common occurrence at other U.S. camps around Iraq. There are ditches with beams and plywood roofs, which are covered with 18 inches of dirt.

Soldiers at Baquba use theirs so often, for example, that they've rigged them with power for lights and other comforts.

"Stars & Stripes came out and did a story about how nice the bunkers are," Maj. Gary Ladd, commander of a Mississippi National Guard engineer company that's helping build the Stryker brigade's new home, said of the Army newspaper.

His unit has been working all around northern Iraq since April as part of the 555th Engineer Group out of Fort Lewis.

Soldiers here are hoping they don't have a similar need for bunkers. But they'll be glad to know Capt. Kenneth Mitchell, the brigade's assistant engineer, checked them all after Friday night's heavy rain and found no standing water.

The camp is huge, and several miles from any population center, but a mortar strike on the place shouldn't surprise anybody, Ladd said.

"You just never take it for granted that they can't do something," he said. "Never underestimate anybody."

One complicating factor is the mud. It forms instantly when it rains, which appears to happen about every four or five days. Winds come along and dry it, and heavy vehicles turn the dried mud into fine, fluffy sand. And then it rains again.

"It's either powder, or this," Ladd said, almost straining to lift his heavy right boot caked in rich clay mud. "You put your feet in it in the morning and it stays with you all day."

Which makes the shower and laundry facilities especially important.

Lt. Brian Shoemaker, of the 259th Field Services Company from Fort Bragg, N.C., said soldiers from his unit have been deployed steadily the past two years, mainly in Afghanistan and Iraq.

They run what's called a "slicker unit," for shower, laundry and clothing repair.

"We're not doing the clothing repair, though. Not out here," Shoemaker said.

His pride and joy is the 31-ton Laundry Advanced Drying System unit, or a LADS. Its two big rotating drums wash and dry 500 to 700 bundles of laundry a day - each soldier gets to turn in 15 pieces of clothing, and they're washed in a net bag.

It uses 600 to 800 gallons of water a day. The previous-generation unit that's still in use in the Army consumes about 2,500 gallons of water to wash 300 or so bundles a day, Shoemaker said.

The only catch is the LADS is a little trickier to maintain than the other unit, which is why he's trying to get his hands on one of each to make sure he can keep the brigade's clothes clean no matter what.

As for the showers, the 259th runs a tent with sections for men and women. It could handle as many as 1,000 bathers a day, provided there's enough water.

It cranked up Saturday morning, and by all accounts the water was nice and hot. But it was closed later for a breakdown. There was no word on when it might reopen.

"As long as there's showers, I'm good to go," said Cpl. Jamie Christensen, a Stryker brigade medic, who with her buddy Pfc. Tonya Woodard spent part of Saturday making their tent just a tad more inhabitable.

The tents held up fairly well in the rain, but they're all set out on concrete. Most of the floors were soaked by the runoff.

Plywood is at a premium. Some soldiers removed the doors from the wooden outhouses - they're not really needed, since they've also got the plastic Port-A-Johns - until an officer caught them and ordered them to put the doors back.

1st Sgt. Dan Stroud bartered with some engineers: five cases of coffee and a player to be named later for enough plywood to build a quick deck for the floor of his 20-person tent. He's got some Christmas lights, too, and pretty soon the place will be downright cheery.

"It could be worse," said Staff Sgt. Cheryl Ray, surveying the mud as she loaded scrounged lumber into her tent. "Did you see all those kids on the side of the road? There wasn't a house in sight.

"It makes you thankful for what you've got."

More cheer is on the way. Rounds ordered McKenney to get a Christmas tree up in the dining facility, and to procure some lights and decorations.

And McKenney said he's working on getting a post exchange set up in the next few days so soldiers can restock on critical personal supplies such as Mountain Dew and Copenhagen chewing tobacco.

"People will complain no matter what," said Mitchell, the assistant engineer. "I'm pretty happy with what we rolled in on, and it's only going to get better every day."

WITH THE STRYKERS IN IRAQ - Michael Gilbert: mjgilbert41@yahoo.com

Tribnet.com - News

Spc. Michael Roby, left, and Sgt. Danny Armstrong from the 223rd Engineer Battalion, Mississippi National Guard, hammer nails Saturday into the plywood roof of one of more than 100 newly dug bunkers at the Stryker brigade's camp in Iraq. Troops from Wisconsin, Colorado, West Virginia and Pennsylvania are also helping the brigade set up shop.

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