Thursday, October 25, 2007
Inside Saddam's 'Lion' mega-base
A guided tour of al Asad airbase, where U.S. soldiers 'rip in' and out of Iraq
Posted: October 25, 2007
1:00 a.m. Eastern

Editor's note: Reporter Matt Sanchez, currently embedding with military units throughout both Iraq and Afghanistan, has been providing WND readers with a glimpse into the Iraq war most Americans have never seen.

By Matt Sanchez

Most flights coming into the Anbar province go through one of Iraq's biggest air bases. Al Asad serves as a hub for troops to board convoys or helicopters en route to their final destination. When a tour is finally over, troops "rip out" through al Asad, while their replacements "rip in" to begin their time in country. In some ways, every Marine in Iraq knows airbase al Asad.

But even those who have never physically been to the base have heard of it from reputation.

Fallujah, Ramadi, Habbaniya, Haditha – everywhere I've been in the Anbar province, I've heard tales of the "mega-base."

"Al Asad has two huge swimming pools, Marines there get to hang around all day and get suntans," a group of Marines in Ramadi told me.

We were boiling in the summer heat, so tales of Asad's 24-hour coffee shop, Pizza Hut and Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors next to the Blockbuster movie theater described it as a symbol of everything a tour in Iraq was not supposed to be.

After multiple deployments, the troops in Iraq have formed a type of culture linked to where they serve and sometimes even how they serve.

"Al Asad isn't really Iraq," a corporal from the 3rd Battalion 7th Marines told me. He preferred to remain anonymous, but he wasn't alone.

"Fobbit" is what troops who spend their entire deployment on a FOB, or forward operating base, are called. Although bases can and have been attacked, there can be no doubt that FOBs are safer than the smaller, less fortified positions.

"Some of our troops never leave and only see housing and the mess hall," said former Marine Orley Pacheco, who was stationed at al Asad two years ago.

Much of what is said about al Asad just amounts to the tall tales so common when troops have too much time to gossip and not enough information to go on.

To set the record straight: At al Asad Marines do not suntan around a pool and the movie theatre hasn't functioned since the previous owner ran things. There is no Cinnabon at al Asad and the rumors of an enemy sniper hiding on the base were a fabrication of the press. That said, there can be no denying that the airbase is a comfortable place.

"I was leaving when the Starbucks came," said Pacheco, who in 2005 was with the 264 Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM-264). Pacheco, who has since returned to college, called al Asad "a world wonder," but I couldn't tell if he was being sarcastic.

A slice of apple pie in an Iraqi oven

Saddam named his best air base al Asad – Arabic for "the lion, because the base was supposed to be on the cutting edge of the Iraqi defense. On the grounds, "yugos" fortified bunkers with three-foot walls were built by Yugoslav contractors to protect the Iraqi officer elite. "The lion" was meant to be an impenetrable fort against enemy attack.

Asad was one of the first bases to fall to Coalition Forces. In 2003, Australian soldiers made al Asad their home, and like many things since the fall of the previous government, names have changed.

Today, al Asad is also known as "Camp Cupcake." It's the mega-camp where the PX (Post Exchange) is stocked and troops can buy everything from the latest X-Box console to a big-screen television set to play the wide selection of games for sale. Al Asad is where the chow halls serve over 10 selections of desserts, from deep-dish apple pie to New York cheesecake. There's even a pizza bar at Camp Ripper.

Hometown, Iraq

Public Affairs Officer 1st Lt. Ryan Powell picked me up when I arrived at the LZ (landing zone) very early in the morning. A native of Michigan, Powell handles the media transitioning in and out of al-Asad.

Being on a base the size of al Asad is a disorienting experience. With sidewalks, clean paved roads and working street lamps (a combination not common in Iraqi cities), there are times when I felt I was in a small city in Arizona instead of the Sunni Triangle.

Al Asad is the only place I know of in Anbar province where drivers get speeding tickets and vehicles are towed for bad parking.

Over the past four years, traffic in al Asad has grown exponentially and has become a problem for the MPs, or military police. As more and more flights are scheduled, Asad continues to grow. "

There are roughly 17,000 people working on the base, most of them don't even belong to the military," said Powell, who was just recuperating from the president's lightning visit to al Asad the week before, a visit that had the lieutenant concerned with media feeds, protocol and extraordinary security measures.

On a huge base like al Asad, the last thing anyone had to deal with was enemy threat – it had been months since a mortar round landed anywhere near the base.

Like any other American city, this Anbar airbase needs the services that allow residents to go about their business and be productive.

Not your grandfather's war

In today's war environment, support requires more manpower than ever before, because the smarter combat becomes, the more important services are. Contractors not only provide for the creature comforts most people back home would never imagine, like steak and lobster on Thursday, but they also help with the expertise the military won't always have available.

There are few GIs peeling potatoes, washing latrines or taking out the garbage. Those jobs mostly belong to TCNs, third country nationals, from all over the globe. TCNs not only work for substantially less than an American soldier, but their tasks are much more specialized. On-base dining facilities and checkpoints are often manned by "Ugandans" – a term applied to private security forces with employees mostly from Uganda, among other African nations. I had to wonder how wise it is to outsource something as important as base security to a third party, but I've since learned the Ugandans take their job very seriously.

"These guys won't let anyone through without showing the proper ID, it doesn't matter if you're a private or a four-star general," said Powell.

Although TCNs do the work that frees much-needed military personnel, their presence can present peculiar problems.

Twenty-year-old Lance Cpl. Michael Galvin of Caldwell, Idaho, is a military police officer with the Marine Wing Support Security 372 C Company. One of his jobs is to search incoming TCNs when they arrive on the base. Key concern: smuggling.

"I found four bottles of whiskey," Galvin said. It's his first visit to Iraq and he ended up working on base security. Galvin joined the Marine Corps after attending Treasure Valley Community College. A typical day includes giving out seatbelt violations and stopping drivers who ignore stop signs.

"It's easier than I expected it to be," Galvin said, "I told my mom that it was better than Yuma," the base Galvin was assigned to back home. His little brother followed in his footsteps and joined the Marines too. He's scheduled to come to Iraq in March 2008.

During the Vietnam War, World War II and all the way back to the War for Independence, troops have normally been allowed to drink alcohol, and getting drunk has always been an option for entertainment. That's not the case in Iraq, and there's a good reason why.

"If you allowed alcohol, you'd have to triple the police presence," said Gunnery Sgt. Charles E. Sexton, a native of Fort Myers, Fla., a Marine reservist and Florida state trooper.

So most members of the military just accept that they're going to have to "go dry" for the duration of their deployment.

Al Asad vs. Anbar

Marines just passing through al Asad complain that authorities on Asad are just trying to overcompensate. "It's some bored sergeant major just trying to assert his authority," said a Marine from the 1st Battalion 3 Marines, ripping out of Iraq and heading home.

The more I asked about al Asad, the more comments I got like those of two infantry first sergeants who told me a huge base like al Asad takes resources away from the guys who have to do with less "in the field."

"I sat in on a meeting where the priority was for getting air-conditioners for the indoor pool," said a 1/3 first sergeant who wanted treadmills for his Marines to exercise on. He was in Haditha where there's just not enough space to run around freely.

At a military base where you can have all the ice cream you want, swim in an air-conditioned indoor pool, drink café lattes at 3 a.m. and even take yoga courses in the gym, you could say that those serving at al Asad have a cushy job away from the war effort of stabilizing Iraq.

Indeed, you could say that – but you'd be absolutely wrong.