Military  Living Conditions at Iraq Bases for US Soldiers

 

Soldiers at Patrol Base Mahawil sleep in either the bombed-out headquarters building or "tent city," a compound of 12-person tents. While headquarters personnel sleep in beds, most Soldiers live in the tents. "Tent city's the place to be," says Spc. Gerry Denardi, a native of Branford, Conn., and an infantryman with 2nd Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, 172nd Infantry Brigade. "That's where us hooligans live."
Thar Allah Naval Base Offers Rats of Legend

Story by J.P. Lawrence, 08.25.2009

THAR ALLAH NAVAL BASE, Iraq - Are you sick and tired of the relative comfort of your containerized housing unit? Do you feel sanitation is overrated? Is air-conditioning just not your "thing"?

Well, then perhaps a trip to Thar Allah Naval Base is just what you need.

Let's take a little voyage to Thar Allah, located right in the middle of downtown Basra and a short drive from both the port of Umm Qasar and the amusement park, City of Fun.

As part two of our series "It's Austere Here", here are five reasons why the Soldiers of Thar Allah have it tough.

It's hot

The first thing you'll see when you enter Thar Allah is a two-story headquarters building with broken windows and columns with blue paint chipping off. From this base Soldiers of Company A, 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment provide security for a military team that trains the Iraqi army in strict accordance with the security agreement. This building constitutes most of the compound; in fact, the base could probably fit inside a Wal-Mart.

You wouldn't, however, live in the headquarters building. You would be living snuggly in tents with the warm companionship of eight to ten other Soldiers, so bring a fan if you can. "The generator goes out at least four, five times every day, and that causes all our ACs to go out, so the tents usually stay around 80, 90 degrees," said 1st Lt. Robert Munoz, a Los Cruces, N.M., native and infantry officer with 2nd Bn., 8th Inf. Regt.

There's trash everywhere

As you walk the grounds of the compound, you'll find all the sights and smells of a third-world country: two thrown-out beds lounging like stray dogs in the shade, a dumpster with trash all around it and a sulfurous crater festering with some sort of primordial ooze.

"Its black water that has been seeping out of the ground," explained Munoz. "It's not too bad. You get used to the smell. But I wouldn't recommend going to the back of the compound if you've got a weak stomach."

If you ask him what it smells like, Munoz will reply, "Like feces and rotting meat and spoiled vegetables."

And when you turn the corner, you will instantly agree. The smell is just one of many reminders that you are on a small American base in the middle Iraq's second largest city.

The Rat of Legend

For animal lovers, Thar Allah offers a veritable menagerie of feral beasts. For example, you will see stray mutts everywhere. They look harmless enough and you will want to take them home, teach them tricks and give them names like Paco and Rocky and Doug.

Don't.

"They're the ones that will attack you if you get too close," Munoz explained as he pointed to a dog underneath the truck. "They sleep everywhere."

"There's another one underneath the truck over there," he added.

For cat lovers, Thar Allah is home to a roving gang of stray cats; including one the Soldiers call Mr. Whiskers. And for you rat lovers, Thar Allah just may be your promised land.

"There's rats too," Munoz said. "There's a family of rats living in my rucksack."

"The rats are about the size of a small rhinoceros sometimes," Spc. James Culver joked ... maybe.

"Besides Soldiers, I think their main diet consists of dogs and feces," said Culver, a Swartz Creek, Mich. native and infantryman with Co. A, 2nd Bn., 8th Inf. Regt. "If you snuggle with them at night they tend to leave you alone during the day."

Notable among the wildlife is the "Rat of Legend," a rarely seen but apparently monstrous creature known to frequent Thar Allah. A first sighting of the Rat of Legend in its natural surroundings is sure to be a memorable experience.

"It's kind of like Big Foot sightings," said Munoz. "We see it. It's about the size of a small dog. Nobody's taken any pictures of it, but everybody knows it's running around here. It's only a matter of time."

"If you see it, it won't get scared of you. It will stare you down," said Pvt. Matthew Neel, an infantryman and resident wildlife expert of Co. A, 2nd Bn., 8th Inf. Regt.

"We're thinking of setting up a fire watch," said Munoz, who has killed five rats in the past week. "A guy with night vision goggles and a pistol to protect us in the middle of the night."

"You think we're joking," said Neel, a Stanward, Wash., native. "But we're not."

There's a definite lack of things to do

A Soldier's life at Thar Allah runs the gamut from physical training to sleeping to working to sleeping. "We get up around 4 a.m. to check on the generators, then around 10 a.m. I work, and then usually it gets too hot at that time to do much of anything, so most of our guys try to sleep during the hottest part of the day," said Munoz. "Come sundown we start working out again, because there's not much to do except PT."

When American operations transitioned to an advise and assist role, June 30, units all over Iraq found they had time to kill - time often filled with hours in the gym. Thar Allah does have a gym, in the loosest of terms; half of the equipment was built from old bunk parts and the other half is falling apart.

"We're missing like half the dumbbells and the barbell just broke the other day," Munoz said.

The good news, if you like basketball, is Thar Allah boasts a basketball hoop. The hoop presides over a sandy, rocky court and on the plywood backboard, "NBA" is written, sloppily, in felt pen.

The bad news, if you don't like basketball, is basketball is pretty much the only game in town if you want cardiovascular exercise. It's tough to run in the cramped compound, Munoz said, and running at the nearby Iraqi army track is discouraged due to sniper concerns.

"We tried running around the compound, but when they start cooking, the smell is so bad; plus, the stray dogs chase you," Munoz said. "We're limited in the amount of PT you can do."

Portable latrines and birdbath showers

If you desire to use the bathroom in Thar Allah, be advised running water for toilets has not yet been installed. Instead, Thar Allah offers Soldiers the finest in outhouse technology.

"We just got the porta-johns out back," said Culver. "If you go, you got to let the sentry know in case you pass out in the porta-johns because it's ridiculously hot."

"I usually wait until night," Culver added.

If you need to wash up after using the bathroom, Soldiers are allowed two bottles of water a day for showering and one bottle of water for hygiene. To conserve water, Soldiers have come up with tricks, namely, filthiness.

"You kind of rinse your whole body up and soap up and then dump the rest on and hope you washed the suds off," Culver said.

However, if you don't want to use water bottles, most Soldiers use the showers recently installed at Thar Allah. The showers allow Soldiers to wash like human beings, but like most things in Thar Allah, they come with a catch.

"The only problem right now is that the showers don't really drain out at all," said Culver. "So it's kind of like taking a bird bath after a while, but it's better than water bottles."

The experience

So come visit Thar Allah, "God's revenge." While living conditions are somewhat austere, the Soldiers there seem to like it. "We don't really have it rough," Culver said. "We got an Xbox, computers and we can Facebook our honeys and what-not."

"Being the colorful group of people that I get to live with here, we probably could have lived in a hole in the ground and made it entertaining," Neel said. "We got a good group of guys out here, so it doesn't matter how stupid things get."

"This is my number two vacation spot," said Culver, "next to a Somalian pirate ship."
Patrol Base Mahawil Offers the Unflushable Toilet

Story by J.P. Lawrence, 08.26.2009

PATROL BASE MAHAWIL, Iraq - There are places in the world that astound you with their beauty: the soaring and ragged vistas of the Grand Canyon in Colorado, the silkily elegant minarets and dome of the Taj Mahal of India, the teeming cobalt zoo that is the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. Patrol Base Mahawil is not one of them. PB Mahawil is what realtors would call a "handyman special." It is rustic, in the middle of nowhere and free of luxuries. It is also a fitting home for Soldiers of 2nd Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, 172nd Infantry Brigade, "Spartans."

We give you five reasons the Soldiers at PB Mahawil have it tough.

1. You're in the middle of the desert - The first thing you'll notice about PB Mahawil is how isolated it is from civilization. Swaths of arid wasteland encircle the base like a moat, leaving the base an island in a sea of dust. As you get off the helicopter, you'll be greeted by sight of the wire, beyond which you leave the safety of the base and enter the desert. And yes, in the desert, it's hot and dry and the sun seems angry sometimes.

"The sun," said Spc. Gerry Denardi, an infantryman with 2nd Bn. 28th Inf. Regt., "is like lemon juice on a wound."

As you exit the helipad, you'll see the one tree on the base to your right and a shooting range to your left, where you can often hear the echoes of gunfire. This is an infantry base, after all.

2. Tents covered in cheese - As a guest, you can stay in the recently constructed plywood guest quarters or in the bombed-out company headquarters. However, if you really want to experience everything Mahawil has to offer, be sure to book a room in one of the tents where the Spartans live.

"Tent city's the place to be," said Denardi, a native of Branford, Conn. "That's where us hooligans live."

The tents come in two flavors: foamed and unfoamed. The foamed tents have insulation and, because of this, their walls are the color and shape of coagulated nacho cheese left out in the sun and then forgotten. The foam helps keep the room cool, while the non-foamed tents sit in the heat with nothing to protect them but a lustrous golden patina of silt-like dust. While the unfoamed tents are more aesthetically pleasing, you want the foam tents; it's better to live in a comfortable room with cheese on the walls than to sleep in an oven covered in gold dust.

"Before, when it was just the tents, there was nothing keeping the air conditioning in there," Denardi said. "It would be hot as hell all day long, but since we got that foam stuff there, it's relatively cool."

3. The gym makes you do math - If you've had enough relaxation in the cool tents, you can go to the so-called prison-yard gym, where there are always Soldiers huffing and puffing while lifting or pushing or pulling exercise equipment. Much of the equipment was either inherited or scavenged, which is commendable, but creates situations requiring much more math than one is accustomed to at a gym.

"We have some of those European weights, but we'll have one of them, and then we'll try to add on, like five of these [non-metric] plates," said Denardi.

The total amount of these weights, combined with the sheer number of times they are used, means the lifespan of a bar is fleeting and Soldiers often have to rebuild or replace them.

"Our mechanics welded some, but we're bar killers. We use them three or four times and the thing will break," said Denardi. "And even our one good bar, as you can see, is bent."

4. Latrine duty - If, after your workout, you need to use the bathroom, you can continue your workout in the recently installed indoor bathrooms.

"They're amazing if you want exercise," Denardi said. "You use the bathroom; if it doesn't go down [and it probably won't], fill the bucket up and then you pour it down the toilet."

When you walk in the bathroom, you'll notice it smells like any other public bathroom, only more so. If you look to your left, you'll see an unlucky Soldier sitting in the stink and reading a book.

"His amazing job here is, when he's not pulling tower guard, to sign a person into a toilet and to make sure that the toilet flushes," Denardi explained.

"It's a long six hours," said the Soldier on toilet duty, Spc. Jason Surovcik, an infantryman with 2nd Bn. 28th Inf. Regt., and a native of Long Pond, Pa.

All in all, according to Denardi, making sure people flush is a better job than burning what people flush, which is what Soldiers did before they received indoor plumbing. In fact, as you leave the bathroom, you can see the burning bins where Soldiers would place the bathroom's contents before burning.

5. Pee tubes and combat showers - Next to the burn bins, you can see four plastic pipes sticking out of the ground. This is where Soldiers pee. The tubes go to a tank in the ground and the tubes are stained and of varying heights.

"Some guys in the company are relatively short, and for a while there was this one kid, Pvt. Cox, he was very short, and we actually had a stool for him so he could stand on it and reach inside the pee tube," Denardi said. "But someone stole his little stool and he couldn't pee. So we cut some of the tubes so he could reach up there."

You can take a normal shower at the headquarters area, but you need to take a combat shower in tent city to get the true Mahawil experience. Be dirty, be prepared and be quick, because all you get is a wooden box with a hose, a shower curtain and 30 seconds of water.

"We have to take combat showers," Denardi said. "We only get so much water."

Aside from the 30-second rule, Soldiers have had to learn other tricks to maximize their shower.

"You don't use the nozzles or else you're going to break it," Denardi said. "You see those emergency valves down there? Those are actually your nozzles. The trick is, don't use the one on the left or you'll burn yourself to death. The one on the right's cold, but it's usually hot anyway. So you just turn it on, get a little bit wet, cover yourself in soap real quick, turn back on, let it rinse off real quick, and if you don't get it in 30 seconds you're stuck with soap on your body."

The experience

PB Mahawil is not going on anyone's "most beautiful places to visit" list. But for the Soldiers of the 2nd Bn. 28th Inf. Regt. it is a fitting home for a bunch of Spartans. The Spartans, many of whom lived in nearby Forward Operating Base Kalsu, prefer PB Mahawil, despite the luxuries of the bigger base.

"Kalsu is the Ritz," Denardi said. "You got your rooms with air conditioning, internet, TV in the rooms; you've got four meals a day, gym, Pizza Hut and all that stuff. All we have is breakfast and dinner and half the time you're not going to like it. We live out of tents. We live out of our duffel bags. Thank God we just put this foam stuff on our tents; our tents were above a hundred degrees the whole day, and that was with the air conditioner running."

"But we would choose this place over Kalsu any day," Denardi added. "It's a little Soldier thing that we all have inside of us. We like living in the bad areas."

"It's a sense of mission," said Mitchell. "Every Soldier wants to have a mission and they want to have a sense of purpose. People say our patrol base is bare or it has minimum necessities or it's austere. We like it here, you know."


Another experience you'll have at Thar Allah Naval Base is seeing a dumpster with trash all around it and a sulfurous crater festering with some sort of primordial ooze. "It's black water that has been seeping out of the ground," explained 1st Lt. Robert Munoz, a Los Cruces, N.M. native and infantryman with Company A, 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment. "It's not too bad. You get used to the smell. But I wouldn't recommend going to the back of the compound if you've got a weak stomach."

As you walk around Thar Allah Naval Base, you'll find many reminders that you are on a small American base in the middle of a large Iraqi city - beds thrown outside the kitchen, trash and tires everywhere and the smell of raw sewage.

Before the advent of running water, Soldiers at Thar Allah Naval Base were allowed to take two bottles of water a day for showering and one bottle of water for hygiene. "You kind of rinse your whole body up and soap up and then dump the rest on and hope you washed the suds off," said Spc. James Culver, a Swartz Creek, Mich. native and infantryman with Company A, 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment.

Soldiers at Patrol Base Mahawil have to take combat showers, showers lasting less than 30 seconds, in order to conserve water. "You just turn it on, get a little bit wet, cover yourself in soap real quick, turn back on, let it rinse off real quick, and if you don't get it in 30 seconds, you're stuck with soap on your body," says Spc. Gerry Denardi, a native of Branford, Conn., and an infantryman with 2nd Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, 172nd Infantry Brigade.

Soldiers at Patrol Base Mahawil once had to burn their bathroom waste in bins, but with the introduction of "indoor" plumbing, they now make use of pee tubes, which are four plastic pipes sticking out of the ground. The tubes go to a tank in the ground and the tubes are stained and of varying heights.

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