Mission: seemingly impossible

Dismantling war machine is final US campaign

By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / May 30, 2011

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JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq — From a wooden perch 20 feet above the sun-bleached sand of central Iraq, Lieutenant Colonel Brian Formy-Duval is helping direct the most complex spring cleaning in American military history.

A snaking, exhaust-spewing caravan of flatbeds and tractor-trailers, coiling around 34 acres of dirt and dust, sputters and brakes and starts again in a slow-moving dance toward cargo that has been collected from US bases across Iraq. Everything from truck parts to office furniture to Christmas decorations must go, and Formy-Duval is funneling the accumulation of eight years of war toward Kuwait and beyond.

“What would one do in America if they had to take a state the size of California, pack up hundreds of cities, place them into boxes, and send it across the ocean?’’ asks Army Major Angel Wallace, spokeswoman for the 103d Expeditionary Sustainment Command, which helped keep the Army fed, fueled, and functioning in much of Iraq.

All remaining US troops are scheduled to leave Iraq by Dec. 31. The mammoth job of collecting, counting, and removing the 1.52 million pieces of government equipment and 1.48 million US-owned “non-rolling stock,’’ such as gym equipment, tool sets, and office furniture, that remain in the country is being coordinated from this sprawling American base, the biggest in Iraq.

“We call it moving the mountain,’’ says Formy-Duval. “People know if we aren’t moving this stuff, we ain’t leaving.’’

Wooden storehouses, sheds, and makeshift guard shacks are being demolished. Millions of rounds of ammunition are moving elsewhere. And even the Pizza Hut, Burger King, and Green Beans coffee shops that give soldiers a taste of home are being shuttered.

There is the miscellany, from mouse pads to band-saws to disco balls that are officially expendable but must be sent somewhere, if only to the incinerator. Beds are being broken down by the thousands, metal desks are sized and shipped, and wall hangings are rolled up and re-routed for home.

“The sheer muscle movement, much of it unseen and unheard, is truly phenomenal,’’ says Army Colonel Shawn Morrissey, a native of Methuen, who commanded 3,000 soldiers in the Third Sustainment Brigade here. “It’s serious business.’’

Five thousand trucks rumble to Kuwait every week as part of a high-stakes relay in which the north-south highways carry cargo out of Iraq, and then return with provisions for the 46,000 troops who remain here.

Through February, the military had moved 14,000 containerized housing units, 1,088 generators, and 65,000 air conditioners. Since the beginning of this year, more than 338,000 pieces of equipment have been shipped; some to Afghanistan, some to the United States, and some to the trash heap.

Formy-Duval sees much of the whirlwind from his crow’s nest, the thousands of shipping containers stacked like mountains of LEGO blocks, the muscle and machinery that lift and load the material, and the US soldiers and Iraqi drivers who keep the line greased and moving.

“If you think of Iraq as a body, this is the heart,’’ Formy-Duval says.

That heart, beating in the Sunni Triangle about 40 miles north of Baghdad, is racing to meet the end-of-year deadline. During eight years of war, Iraq has become a second home for much of the US Army. And just like a home, the 500 bases that once were here became living rooms and out-of-the-way attics for the dangerous weapons and mundane bric-a-brac of a mammoth army.

The scale of the job is staggering.

“If you’re asking for a historical comparison, I’d like someone to show me,’’ says Brigadier General Mark Corson, a burly, former Cold War tank officer who commanded the 103d from here. “Show me where this has ever been done, lock, stock, and barrel.’’

Unlike World War II, which kept US forces overseas indefinitely, and the Vietnam War, when the drawdown was more gradual, the American military is looking to pack up, move out of Iraq, and erase as many footprints as possible in seven months.

“Everybody’s trying to get out of town on the holiday weekend,’’ says Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Lyle Drew. “This is probably the most complex transition we’ve ever done. It’s a huge math problem.’’

Much of the job is new for the more than 7,500 officers and enlisted personnel at Balad. After the US invasion in March 2003, Corson says, “we were essentially building an airplane in flight’’ to support the military effort as quickly as possible. “Now, we’re deconstructing an airplane in flight.’’

US troops are nearly all restricted to their bases as the end of the mission approaches, but those facilities are constantly shrinking. Joint Base Balad, which once held 50,000 troops and civilian workers, is now about one-third the size. From a high of 500 US bases in Iraq in 2007, only 66 remain.

“The whole infrastructure is going to collapse in on us,’’ says Air Force Captain Daniel Connors, who is based at Balad. “All the creature comforts at this point are wasteful. We’re just taking the blinders off and looking in every closet, every container.’’

But complicating the task at Balad, a sprawling base of more than 15,000 people spread over 10 square miles, is a delicate balancing act. While the base remains home to US aircraft that provide countrywide protection for convoys and other missions, soldiers are carting away televisions, sorting old wires and cables, and moving in with roommates after living alone in what resembles a gargantuan trailer park.

“Every step we take to make things harder is a step closer to getting home,’’ says Air Force Captain Jim Forbes, who has helped coordinate airfield improvements. “It’s now very real. Everybody on base is seeing the impact.’’

That impact extends to an army of US contractors and third-country employees. “We have contracts for just about anything that you can think of,’’ Forbes says. “There’s portable toilets; there’s tree-trimming.’’

So, when a contractor is ordered to move from a container home with a shower to one without water or a toilet, the financial rewards of working at Balad are tested. For many contractors, Forbes says, the reaction is, “Here’s my paperwork. I’m out of here.’’

So far, the United States has made $500 million in improvements to the base, Forbes says, where 2,000 members of the fledgling Iraqi Air Force might find a home. Along the way, the drawdown plans have been revised five times, says Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Dede Halfhill, whose portfolio includes housing, food, recreation, accounting, and educational opportunities here.

As the downsizing continues at a base where nearly every building is ringed by 12-foot blast walls, enemy shells still trigger alarms a few times a week. President Obama declared on Aug. 31 that the combat mission had officially ended, but Iraq remains a war zone to the soldiers who live here.

“While it is much better than it used to be, there will always be security concerns,’’ Corson says. “You have to do due diligence.’’

The diligence extends to the transportation of high-priority equipment, such as weapons and armed vehicles, that makes the 400-mile trek to Kuwait with protection from US soldiers. A network of Iraqi truckers, usually without a military escort, carries low-sensitivity cargo such as uniforms and office furnishings.

In a wood-paneled amphitheater at Balad, where maps and video screens line the walls, soldiers sitting in tiers of seats monitor the satellite-tracked, real-time movement of trucks, cargo, and supplies throughout Iraq.

Attacks on convoys have declined dramatically in recent years, but supply lines continue to be plagued by roadside bombs and small-arms fire about two to three times a week, Morrissey says. Although that number is minuscule compared with the constant danger of several years ago, the colonel says, “it’s a bad day if it’s you.’’

Many of Iraq’s 660,000 soldiers and police have been trained by US military and civilian advisers, but some observers do not consider them capable of defending the country’s borders. If that concern leads to a request to keep US forces in Iraq, the accelerating stream of departing troops and materiel would need to be slowed, stopped, and reversed in a complicated and time-consuming maneuver.

As of now, the mission continues to be to leave Iraq, and to leave American bases in better shape than they were found.

The landing facilities at Balad, once the busiest Defense Department airfield in the world, have benefited from $1.9 million in improvements. The best incinerator complex in Iraq, built by the United States, burns trash here around the clock. And a state-of-the-art waste-water treatment plant, also American-constructed, pumps clean, treated water into a nearby irrigation canal.

Even a mosque that remained from the Iraqi Air Force under Saddam Hussein has been renovated for $90,000.

Air Force Technical Sergeant Renaissance Henry, a native of Hingham, watches Balad’s evolution from a sparsely developed base to the largest US facility in Iraq. “I’m really hopeful that they’ll take care of it,’’ says Henry, an M-16 rifle slung over her shoulder, as she rides past an electrified fence on a perimeter road that once was so dangerous that troops called it “Sniper Alley.’’

Christopher Sullivan, a civilian from Carlisle who works for the Defense Department, gazes around the base he has called home and looked ahead to the end.

“I’m not going to be sentimental about Iraq or anything,’’ Sullivan says. “When the end comes here, it will be me and a suitcase.’’

MacQuarrie can be reached at