By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 4, 2006
BALAD, Iraq -- Staff Sgt. Chad Twigg is on a one-year tour of duty in the middle of the Sunni Triangle. But on a recent winter morning, he wasn't digging a foxhole or tracking an enemy sniper or trying to grab some sleep between firefights.
Instead, the Army mechanic was checking out iPod accessories in one of the two post exchanges here at the biggest American base in Iraq. He worries about the lure of the PX, with its walls of shiny electronic devices and racks of new CDs. "I try to stay away from it to save money," Twigg said. But on average, 15 soldiers a day succumb and buy a television, said John Burk, the PX manager.
Balad Air Base is a unique creation, a small American town smack in the middle of the most hostile part of Iraq. While soldiers drive as fast as they can beyond its perimeter to avoid roadside bombs and ambushes, on base they must drive their Humvees at a stately 10 mph, the strictly enforced speed limit.
The 20,000 troops based at Balad, home to the major Air Force operation in Iraq and also the biggest Army logistical support center in the country, live in air-conditioned containers. Plans are being made to wire the metal boxes to bring the troops Internet, cable television and overseas telephone access.
Balad is scheduled to be one of the last four U.S. bases in Iraq and probably will be the very last, officials say. "Balad will be here, I believe, to the very end," said Brig. Gen. Frank Gorenc, the Slovenian-born F-15 pilot who commands the Air Force side of the operation.
Like most towns, Balad has distinct neighborhoods. The southwest part, home to thousands of civilian contractors, is "KBR-land," a reference to the construction company. "CJSOTF," for Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force, is home to a special operations unit and is hidden by especially high walls. Visitors aren't welcome there, and the Army public affairs chief on the base said he'd never been inside.
Next door to CJSOTF is the junkyard, one of the places where war comes closest -- it contains dozens of Army Humvees wrecked by bombs or rollovers. The other place where the war intrudes is the busy base hospital, where doctors perform 400 surgeries a month on the wounded.
The base boasts its own airline, "Catfish Air," that shuttles soldiers among the U.S. bases in Iraq. It also has its own customs post, run by a relaxed but savvy group of Navy reservists.
Searching for drugs, pornography and souvenir weapons, they have learned the favorite places that departing Army troops use to hide contraband -- Bibles, picture frames, soap dishes and the sleeves in body armor vests that hold the bulletproof plates. Army engineers undergo especially close inspections because "they think they know where to hide everything," sometimes building false bottoms in toolboxes and containers, said Petty Officer 1st Class Steven Honer.
Offenders simply suffer confiscation, but the base does have a genuine criminal element: Recently an Army enlisted man returning from medical leave went AWOL, living with a cousin in the Air Force part of the base for two weeks before being apprehended and placed in the base's small brig.
Of the 20,000 troops at Balad, only several hundred have jobs that take them off base. Most Americans posted here never interact with an Iraqi, and some never see one, said Army Lt. Col. Larry Dotson, who is effectively the city manager. The closest some troops here come to experiencing the Iraq seen on the evening news is the miniature golf course, which mimics a battlefield with its baby sandbags, little Jersey barriers, strands of concertina wire and, down at the end of the course, what appears to be a tiny detainee cage.
The town's most distinctive feature is the long runway that bisects it. Air Force officials say it is now one of the world's busiest. "We are behind only Heathrow right now," said Gorenc, the Air Force commander.
As a Black Hawk helicopter was landing recently, an unmanned Predator drone was taking off, two Hellfire missiles slung under its wings. Next to land was an Army RC-12 Guardrail, a sensor-laden aircraft bristling with antennae. It was followed in quick succession by an F-16 fighter, a C-130 propeller-driven cargo plane and a C-17 cargo jet that taxied near a sagging Russian IL-76 freighter plane with a bulging glass nose like a World War II bomber's.
More than 250 aircraft are based here -- 188 helicopters and 70 fixed-wing aircraft, including relatively obscure ones such as the Guardrail and the Army National Guard's C-23 Sherpa, which resembles a small flying boxcar. One of the challenges for air controllers is juggling the wide range of airspeeds of incoming aircraft, with five to 15 stacked up in the skies at a time. Having a Predator, with its lawnmower-like engine, flying near an F-16 jet is "like putting a VW bus on a NASCAR racetrack," said Capt. Brian Chandler, the chief of airfield operations.
Pilots find flying into the base a sporting challenge. "It's like putting Chicago-O'Hare right in the middle of Iraq," said Air Force Lt. Col. Tate Johnson, a C-130 pilot who flies here frequently. "It's a very complex air picture."
Another C-130 pilot, Lt. Col. Jim Barlow, said Balad reminded him more of Atlanta's airport. "But," he added, "in Atlanta, there's no one shooting at you."
That overstates the danger a bit. While the base still gets hit occasionally by mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades, it hasn't had a soldier killed in action for two years.
These days the most dangerous spot on the base might be one of its four mess halls. As at other U.S. installations, the food at Balad is both good and abundant, a major change from the early days of the U.S. presence here.
Dinner on the night of Friday, Jan. 27 offered entrees of baked salmon, roast turkey, grilled pork chops, fried crab bites, breaded scallops and fried rice. The smiling servers standing behind those dishes were from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India and Nepal.
Soldiers who were still hungry could hit the two salad bars, the sandwich line or a short-order stand for a cheeseburger, hot dog or grilled cheese sandwich. There were also two soup offerings and a dessert stand near the exit with chocolate mint and vanilla ice cream, banana pudding, pumpkin pie, cherry pie and yellow cake.
For those bored with the mess halls, there are a Subway, a Pizza Hut, a Popeye's, an ersatz Starbucks called "Green Beans" that serves up triple lattes, and a 24-hour Burger King.
It is little wonder that military nutritionists worry. Three years ago, the average U.S. soldier lost about 10 pounds while stationed in Iraq for a year. "Now they gain that much," reported Maj. Polly Graham, an Army dietitian here.
Back at the Balad West PX, Burk, the manager, is pleased that he has managed to tamp down panic buying by visiting troops -- the 82nd Airborne Division always wanting Copenhagen snuff, for instance, or the Air Force hoarding Marlboro Lights. The biggest change in buying preferences in the last two years, he said, is that T-shirts advertising service in Iraq no longer sell quickly.
"A lot of people don't want shirts with OIF on it," Burk said, citing the initials for Operation Iraqi Freedom. "They want clothes they can wear when they get home, and OIF has kind of lost its pizazz."