As I explained in my previous posting describing my time serving in Iraq, my unit of Bradleys was tasked to secure Al Sahra Airfield located just north of Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit. The Marines at the time were mopping up the last pockets of resistance during major combat operations while we were to secure this airfield to allow an Army helicopter brigade to stage operations there. A Marine reconnaissance unit had already swept quickly through the airfield to see if there was any resistance there and they reported the did not receive any enemy contact. So we were pretty sure that this would be a pretty easy operation. As we approached the front gate of the airfield the we could see that the Marine reconnaissance unit had spray painted and shot up Saddam’s face at the entrance to let us know that they had been there:
Defacing Saddam portraits we eventually become a competitive sport in Iraq as servicemembers seemed to compete to see who could deface all the various portraits of Saddam the best:
We also noticed as we drove on to the airfield this MIG-15 that the Iraqis had mounted:
Once on the base we began searching every building, bunker, and hangar on the base. Many of the buildings were pretty run down and some of the buildings had been looted:
Even their sports stadium on the airfield was completely run down and need of extensive repairs:
Probably what I remember most about searching through these buildings is when we went through the on post housing and saw pictures of spouses and kids hanging on the walls just like you would see in a home in the US. It kind of shows that Iraqis are not some evil devils, but instead have lives, families, and dreams like the rest of us. To kind of further drive home the point that this airfield was home to families was that the Iraqis had little toy airplanes setup that their kids could play with:
We also found in the offices people would have lockers with pictures of their girlfriends hanging up in them, newspapers and magazines they liked to read, and other articles from every day life:
We would later actually let Iraqis that lived on post go to their old homes and pick up their belongings to bring to their homes they were currently living in.
After searching through all the buildings we found absolutely no one on the airfield. However, we did find uniforms lying around:
We would later find out is that once the Iraqis knew that Baghdad fell they took off their uniforms and blended into the population in town and abandoned the base. Pretty much all the Air Force personnel on the base did anyway was man air defense weapons that were spread out all along the farm fields outside of Tikrit:
We just found it amazing that the Iraqis thought they could shoot down modern aircraft with these outdated air defense weapons. Pretty much the only thing these weapons would be useful for in an air defense role on the modern battlefield is against helicopters.
After the Iraqis abandoned all their air defense equipment they did leave the shells lying around everywhere:
The Iraqis also had prepared fighting positions to the north of the airfield that were to be used if the US invaded through Turkey. Those fighting positions had an unbelievable amount of ordinance lying around in them as well. All this ordinance just lying around would later come back to haunt us as the insurgents learned to make IEDs with these easily accessible ordinance.
Besides IEDs here is a picture of SA-7 surface to air missiles that I recovered during a mission to stop insurgents from trying to shoot down our helicopters with:
The Iraqis also had some armored equipment lying around in these fighting positions that we often found looted:
Some of the armored vehicles actually had the Red Crescent painted on them to disguise them as medical vehicles despite them being command and control vehicles:
Despite being an airfield we found pretty much no aircraft on the base. Most of the aircraft had been pulled off the airfield and set out in farm fields often near farmer’s home to protect them from being bombed. Despite having no combat capability by being set out in a farm field, I could not understand why some of these aircraft were bombed anyway:
To stand up the new Iraqi Air Force their government has had to waste money that could be used for reconstruction to replace aircraft that was bombed for no reason. Many of the aircraft that was not bombed was also looted by civilians by the time we got there:
Probably the strangest thing we saw on this airfield was a small airplane that had a huge canister welded to the top of it:
We would later be told by Iraqis that worked at the airfield that the plane was being tested as a suicide bomber. Who knows if this is true or not, but the supposed theory was that the canister would be packed with explosives and someone would fly the plane at its target. However, they could never get the thing to fly reliably. The only thing I can think of is that this idea was being tested here to be replicated by some terrorist in another country if they could get the idea to work.
After searching and securing the airfield our attention would next focus to living on this airfield since it was going to be our home for a long time. The first thing we did was pick the spot that would become our unit motorpool so we could do maintenance on our equipment:
The unit area is also where we had our water buffalo setup so people could get water:
The water buffalo was pulled by a flatbed truck that was filled with water bottles. This would be our water supply until the logistics chain was setup to resupply us. We then went about occupying buildings to use as our headquarters and office space:
We used old Saddam Fedayeen barracks as our sleeping quarters:
Most of us had some pretty basic cots that we slept on that were not very comfortable, but some people had the foresight to pack a comfortable cot to sleep on:
Something I did not understand was that many of the buildings on the airfield had been bombed to include the barracks buildings. If we were planning to use the airfield as a future base of American operations, why bomb the buildings on it that we would later be counting on to use?
Anyway during the hotter months it was unbearable to sleep inside the barracks buildings anyway since they had no air conditioning. It was cooler to sleep outside sometimes on top of our military equipment:
One of the flatbed trucks our unit had did not have supplies on it so it was used as a place for people to sleep outside on. We quickly learned not to sleep on the ground because of the huge spiders that crawl around:
For entertainment we had this little DVD player hooked up to the battery of the flatbed truck:
It was a bit funny to see 20 guys packed around this little screen watching a movie that we all had already seen 20 times, but that was all there was to watch. Eventually someone got the idea to hook up a computer to an overhead projector and shows movies on the side of a wall that became our do it yourself movie theater.
Besides movies we also read a lot of books during our down time:
It was always interesting to watch people read books like romance novels they would never otherwise read if they were not in this environment. I can remember how I once read a Black Hair magazine cover to cover just because I wanted something different to read. This is the only reason I even know there is a such thing as a Black Hair magazine.
Something else we spent a lot of time doing was working out. Since we could not find any work out equipment on the base the Iraqi would use, we got innovative and made our own crude gym equipment:
The workouts would eventually become highly competitive:
We also spent a lot of time playing cards and dominoes. Just like with weight lifting this became quite competitive as well the more we played to pass the down time we had:
For hygiene we had plastic camping shower bags that we used. We hung the bags up and nailed some wood together to make a shower stall for people to use. In the below picture you can see the shower stall on the top of the photo:
For the most part though it was pretty hard to stay clean in Iraq because when traveling around in a bradley it kicks up a lot of dust that gets you instantly dirty. When not on a bradley the frequent sandstorms and heat would keep us dirty as well:
Some of the sandstorms we had to deal with reminded me of something right out of “The Mummy” movies:
A common problem that people who traveled around in tracked vehicles had was that our arms would get infested with sand fleas. I was constantly scratching sand fleas that had embedded themselves into my arms. These insects would eventually be linked later to diseases that US troops came down with. Fortunately I never got sick despite all the bites.
For restrooms we cut metal drums in half and built wooden outhouses around them. When the drums got full we would then burn the poop. This was not a very fun job, necessary to dispose of the human waste. Likewise we had a big pit that we used to burn trash in that also would later be linked to diseases that US troops came down with. For haircuts we had a few people that had brought electric razors with them. So we had a make shift barber shop set up to cut hair with:
For laundry we handled it much like we did in Kuwait by using the plastic bowls to wash and rinse the laundry with and then hang them up to dry.
It took a few months, but eventually the living conditions improved quite a bit on the base as permanent shower facilities were set up and real porta-potties were brought in where we no longer had to burn poop any more. We even eventually had a little base store setup, dining facility, post office, internet and phone cafe, etc. The internet and the phones though were a nightmare to use because it would take hours of waiting in line to get on one. I was fortunate that I had a Kurdish truck driver we escorted on convoys with that would let us use his satellite phone to make calls back to the US. Like most of the Kurds in Iraq they were very thankful for us being there and this was something small he could do to help us out. As operations got fully underway on the base we even decided to name the place.
We called it first Camp Speicher and later was changed to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Speicher. The base was named after Scott Speicher who was a Navy pilot who was shot down over Iraq during the 1st Gulf War and was never recovered. He was shot down in the middle of the desert to the west of Tikrit, but it was believed he may still be alive and held in the area. One of the first mission we undertook was to try and determine his fate and thus named the base after him. His remains would later be found in 2009 near the crash site that proved he did not survive the crash.
Anyway despite the initial difficult living conditions few people in my unit complained because we had been hardened to the conditions by the amount of training we had done before ever deploying to Iraq. We also just had to look outside the wire to see how hard the Iraqis had it as well to further squash the urge to complain. Since my unit was responsible for security around the airfield we interacted a lot with Iraqis outside the wire and empathized with the tough post-war conditions they had to deal with. We were determined to improve their living conditions, but it would prove to be very challenging first because of the lack of money initially to fund projects and later due to the insurgents. However, not all Iraqis had it hard, the ones connected to the government were living quite well which I will show in my next posting that will show pictures from around Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit.
Next Posting: Pictures from Tikrit, Iraq
Previous Posting: The Road to Tikrit