After a grueling two day convoy through a completely unfamiliar world where anything could happen (and we felt suddenly, embarrassingly unprepared) we crossed through ‘the wire’ into Baghdad’s large airport complex claimed by Coalition Forces during OIF. Baghdad International Airport, or BIAP, was surrounded by a fortified wall encompassing the airport (formerly Saddam International Airport) and the militarized areas once occupied by Saddam’s Republican Guard. During the drive we spotted abandoned, bombed out palaces and areas where skirmishes had been fought, and we hoped for the opportunity to eventually explore. For the time being, there was the enormous task of getting settled. We were all exhausted from being on guard and not getting much sleep as we bumped and bucked along the roads into Iraq, but seeing our new camp made us momentarily energized. There was a summer camp feel in the air as we introduced ourselves to our new surroundings and let the notion sink in that this would be home until further notice.
The fifteen or so female soldiers in our company were all moved into several small tents made of shiny new synthetic rip-stop material while the male soldiers were moved into huge, smelly, moldy old canvas tents straight out of the M*A*S*H television series. There were some halfhearted complaints that it “wasn’t fair” that we got to live in the nice little tents, but before long the males were contriving reasons to visit: to borrow things, to ask advice, to flirt. They just wanted to be in a tent that didn’t smell like feet. We carted in foot lockers and extra bags, staked claims in favorite corners, set up cots and began to construct makeshift furniture out of available materials. One soldier had a tiny cardboard dresser for small clothing items; one somehow scavenged enough lumber (a very scarce commodity) to build herself a comfy and spacious bed. Eventually I ended up with an expansive shelf system for my collection of books, DVDs, and photo albums. It took some time to transform our tents into what passed for home away from home, but once we did, our little corners became individualized spaces where we could retreat after sweating and gritting through the long hot days.
Two things surprised me upon arrival at Engineer Village, the name given to the particular area where our camp was located. First, we had hot chow cooked by soldiers for the morning and evening meals (with MREs for lunch) and served al fresco; second, no one had anticipated the weird open air co-ed shower situation. I will discuss the chow first, and even before that I will address the cooks’ importance. Soldiers trained as cooks do not always get credit because people look at this MOS and ask “What is the big deal?” Well think of a cross country cattle drive with no Cookie. Non-operational! The cooks were immediately put on duty as soon as we arrived at camp, and their hours were insane. They had to be up around 0300 to have hot breakfast ready to serve, then they had to sanitize the pots and pans, no easy feat in primitive camp conditions. They had a break midday and then it was time to prepare for the dinner rush. The days ended with them cleaning pots and pans again and going over food preparations for the next morning. Watching them work, I had so much respect for the cook section because of their self discipline and organizational skills. Until our dining facility, or DFAC, was built, the cooks kept us well fed in a picnic setting. We sat at picnic tables and used disposable trays and utensils, making clean up a bit more convenient. This dining set up also reminded us of the M*A*S*H series, and we often joked about feeling like we were trapped in a perpetual episode. Eating outside was not always a pleasure because of the heat and wind, but it wasn’t long before our new air conditioned DFAC was built. Once the finishing touches were in place, the Army cooks hung up their serving spoons and assumed supervisory roles over the civilians who had traveled from Pakistan and India to work in food service for the Coalition Forces.
After having a hot meal, we could wash dirt from the day’s work off our faces and bodies in the temporary camp showers. They were great works of engineering but they were also definitely unexpected; co-ed open air showers that left almost nothing to the imagination. In fact, save for the six foot plywood barriers separating the stalls to prevent peeking, showering would have been quite scandalous. As it was, we still had some weird conversations, especially when male and female soldiers ended up in side by side stalls. Shower conversations often went something like this. Two male soldiers: “Dude, we are in adjoining stalls, it’s like we’re showering together.” “Don’t read too much into it, man.” A male soldier and a female soldier: “Hey, I can almost see over the partition. I am going to tell your boyfriend that I saw your boobs.” “If you so much as look in this direction I will shoot you, and guess where I will aim.” ” Sorry.” Two female soldiers: “Hey lady! Is that you over there?” “Yeah, I just got off of duty.” “Sing Crazy in Love with me so I am not the only one singing in the shower! Oh, got me lookin’ so crazy right now, your love’s got me lookin’ so crazy right now…”
It was a very surreal experience to shower in such a communal yet private manner, with men and women of all ages hanging out (literally) and hollering back and forth over the partitions while scrubbing up in their respective stalls. The showers had water piped in that ran at whatever the ambient temperature was day by day, so it actually felt refreshing on the hottest days. The water was technically unheated or “cold” running water, but it was preferable to having heated water unless the only time one was able to shower happened to be early morning hours when it was below 90 degrees. Then it was not fun! We were all relieved when the new shower tents — one for males and one for females — was completed as the weather began to cool noticeably.
Moving into the new camp presented many challenges for our company, but as the days went on we made the camp our home and tried to make the best of the time we spent there. We discovered that a supply NCO in the adjoining camp had opened a mini Post Exchange in a Conex shipping container shortly after arrival. He had mostly convenience items such as snacks on hand, and we could find many of our favorite candy bars, cookies, crackers, drinks, chips, and gum. As time wore on he expanded into offering boom boxes, DVD players, CD players and MP3 players, movies and CDs, magazines, and other creature comforts. He liked to blast Michael Jackson through loud speakers when his store was open, so when we heard the songs ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Thriller’ blaring across camp, we knew that it was time to go shopping! Living a rough camp life was made a little easier with the basic luxuries that many people back home take for granted. Just having some hot chow, a cold shower, and a stroll to Sarge’s Conex PX to peruse the latest merchandise was considered pretty gracious living for the earth moving engineers at the Engineer Village in the summer of 2003.