The pointy spear that pierced the heart of Iraq may end in downtown Baghdad, but it started in Alexandria, just down Eisenhower Avenue from the city's vehicle impound lot.
There, at the Army Materiel Command, some of the less visible participants in Operation Iraqi Freedom are working round-the-clock to make sure that soldiers in the Persian Gulf have enough supplies, from desert-appropriate combat boots to replacement tank engines. The group's motto: "If a soldier shoots it, drives it, flies it, wears it or eats it, AMC provides it."
AMC is home to just some of the Washington area's countless home-front warriors. There are the war planners in the Pentagon. There are the analysts poring over top-secret dispatches in the offices of the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. The Defense Logistics Agency, another outfit involved in keeping troops supplied, is also working overtime.
About 1,000 people work at AMC's Eisenhower Avenue location. The nerve center is in a basement room that started running 24/7 on Sept. 11, 2001, saw increased activity during the invasion of Afghanistan and shifted into yet a higher gear for the war in Iraq.
The "day-to-day operations are almost more intense prior to the beginning of hostilities," said Gen. Paul J. Kern, the agency's commanding general. "And they continue through it at a very high pace. Then, when everybody else goes home, they're still going to be there."
With its plum-colored carpeting and gray cubicles, the operations center could be mistaken for a mid-size insurance office. But the massive locks on the filing cabinets, the red- and white-striped paper "burn bags" and the presence of soldiers in combat fatigues announce the room's serious purpose.
So does the title at the top of a spreadsheet displayed on a computer screen: "Patriot Missile Inventory, 04/09/03."
"It's like a grocery store," said Oscar Quarnstrom of Woodbridge, the man in charge of keeping Patriot missiles in stock. "You keep putting stuff on the shelf."
Quarnstrom, 70, has worked in ammunition most of his life. He was called out of retirement to return to AMC and track such projectiles as the 5.56mm rounds that erupt from the business end of an M-16 and the 155mm shells that are loaded into artillery pieces.
The employees understand that most members of the public know little of the enormous stateside effort that goes into supporting the war.
"I don't think people have a clue," said Randy Fleming. "Sometimes I want to tell them, but I can't because everything I do here is classified."
Fleming, 51, of Dumfries has a particularly pesky task: keeping a constant supply of batteries flowing into the war zone. U.S. soldiers in Iraq have discovered something that every child knows: The coolest toys eat up the most batteries. Radios, computers and night-vision goggles are going through batteries at a ferocious pace.
While Fleming oversees other replaceable parts, right up to tank engines, batteries have been his biggest challenge. They've also provided him with a direct connection to troops in the field. A special operations unit planning a mission recently realized it was short on batteries. While the lag from materiel request to delivery usually is up to three weeks, this order took two days, Fleming said.
"Whatever it takes to get the soldier what he needs, I'm doing it," he said.
Such efforts have meant a succession of 12- to 18-hour days, six or seven days a week, for those who work in the "ops center."
"I think there's some pride in watching TV and seeing the 3rd ID [Infantry Division] blasting across the desert and knowing that we sent that stuff over there," said Nancy Barth, 54, of Manassas. Barth is in the part of AMC that handles something called a force provider, a tent city that fits into 45 shipping containers. When erected, it covers 18 acres and can house 600 soldiers. It can entertain them, too. Among the diversions packed with the $6.33 million force provider -- line item No. F28973 -- are ping-pong tables, balls and paddles, a weight room and the weights to go in it.
Two large-screen televisions tuned to cable news remind the ops center employees of the role they play.
"The adrenalin flows here for the people forward," Kern said. "I worry about people getting tired, but I haven't really seen any evidence of people tired to the point where they're not doing an effective job. We have the luxury of going home and having a hot meal. We have the luxury of seeing our family. That kind of inspires people here to work a little harder and longer."