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Feature: Notes on Iraq

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Richard Tomkins
Fob Normandy, Iraq (UPI) May 13, 2008
FOBs and COPs may sound like a new board game or Xbox distraction, but they're acronyms that actually define the lives of U.S. troops here. Forward operating bases are the backbone of U.S. military presence and operations in Iraq. They are the large-to-humongous logistics and support areas where munitions and supplies are stored, vehicles are maintained or repaired, headquarters detachments are based, mail is received, medical care is available and life support activities -- such as showers and recreation centers -- help relieve the stress of deployment and missions "outside the wire." They go by names such as Marez, Balad, Warhorse, Q-West and Falcon.

Not all FOBs are the same. Some are small and basic, such as Normandy, which has virtually no recreation facilities unless you count one pool table, one fubu table, three televisions that recently vanished, and a guesstimated hundred or so paperbacks for the base's more than 600 soldiers and civilians. But residents do get access to computers and telephones, albeit after long waits, for calling home and communicating with family and friends.

And there are three hot meals a day, which is not to be denigrated, picnic-style plastic plates and utensils notwithstanding.

FOBs located within or as part of a fixed-wing airbase are the gems. Al Asad, which is 19 square miles in size, has three dining halls. The largest, called "Warrior Hall," is the size of two football fields side-by-side. In addition to "main line" and "short order" food counters, there's a special pasta bar, taco bar and health food bar, as well as a dessert bar.

And Warrior Hall is puny in size compared with main dining halls -- DEFACs -- at bases such as Balad and the super-sized Contingency Operating Base in Iraq called Speicher.

Many FOBs -- not including Normandy -- have concession stands around the base, such as Green Beans coffee and Pizza Hut. Marez, on the outskirts of the city of Mosul, even has a massage therapy concession, local tailors for suits and jackets, and the blessing of all blessings -- some would call it a curse -- a PX (post exchange) where salaries can be spent on snacks, extra gear, electronic equipment, and in some cases furniture.

Troops on large bases sleep in CHUs -- containerized housing units -- basically cargo containers converted into living quarters. There are also bus lines around the base and all the vehicular restraints one would expect of a mini-city: stop signs, speed limits and seatbelt warnings. In many ways it's garrison life (life in the shadow of the flagpole, troops call it). Depending on the job, a service member could spend his whole 15-month tour of duty on an FOB and never see a slice of Iraq other than what he can glimpse beyond an FOB's protective sand and/or concrete barriers.

Combat outposts are a different matter. COPs are located in-country -- in towns and villages a few or many miles from FOBs. This is where the "door kickers," as they are known, can live for days before rotating back to an FOB, conducting antiterrorist sweeps, presence patrols and other nitty-gritty duties in a counterinsurgency war -- all the while risking snipers and improvised explosive devices. COPs are normally established in abandoned buildings with protective barriers added on. Sanitation facilities are basic: porta-potties or latrines using burnable waste bags. Meals are military rations during the day and one hot meal at night.

Soldiers who rotate in and out of the COPs, or leave an FOB regularly to conduct missions, have a special nickname for those who stay permanently on the FOBs: Fobbits. And it's no term of endearment.

Iraqi kids Iraqi children are precocious, and nothing gets their attention more than a soldier on patrol. It starts with waving, giving thumbs-up gestures and then progresses to crowding around, asking questions that aren't understood unless the unit interpreter is nearby.

Soldiers both love it and hate it. They love it because it touches their humanity and reminds them of their own kids. They hate it because the refrains of "Meester, you have football? Meester, chocolate?" grate the nerves. They love it because they're human.

"Here, like this," Sgt. Teddy Coleman, a Kentuckian with the 3rd Squadron, 2nd Striker Cavalry Regiment, said as he played with a small child at a home in the village of Hay Askari. "Patty cake, patty cake, baker's man żż "

Coleman and his comrades had taken a break in a protected courtyard of the house as his platoon leader spoke inside to the owner about security in the area. A half-dozen children were there, and as Coleman played, other soldiers started doing the same with the remainder. There were smiles and laughter. For a few minutes the war seemed far away.

Sticking out You have to hand it to the State Department's Provincial Reconstruction Teams when it comes to standing out in a crowd. You can't miss 'em on FOB Marez, on the outskirts of the city of Mosul. Amid the dust, the sea of military personnel in uniform and civilian contractors wearing jeans and T-shirts, they're the ones wearing jackets and ties. True, sartorial dress sense may be missing in terms of mixing and matching, and some jackets look like thrift-store rejects, but jacket and ties in-country in a war zone?

Goose Step "Let's stay a few more minutes," a soldier said to his sergeant while on patrol and pausing by an irrigation creek in Himbus, a town in an agricultural area. "This is the most peaceful thing I've seen in a long time."

What caught his eye, and soon the eyes of everyone, was a gaggle of geese slowly paddling by. As the soldiers later moved on, the geese paralleled them and then disappeared from sight.

They were spotted again 20 minutes later, on land this time and again parallel to the soldiers, about 10 feet away. They were in single file like the soldiers and were moving in the same direction. When the soldiers stopped, they stopped; when the soldiers moved forward, they moved forward. And so it went for several hundred meters. Who was mimicking whom? And who cares? It was a pleasant distraction at the end of a long, nerve-wracking day.

Smile You can't help but smile when stepping out of Tent 4 on FOB Normandy and looking down. On the ground, on three flat stones embedded in the dirt, are three tiny smiley faces drawn by some bored soldier. They're silly. They're ludicrous, but they make you smile.

(This story was originally reported on in March.)

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