Camp Taji, initially known as Camp Cooke (also referred to as Taji Base), was a located near the Al Taji Army Airfield approximately 27 kilometers northwest of downtown Baghdad, near the town of Taji.
By late 2003, the US occupation forces was producing officers for the New Iraqi Army through the Jordan Training Initiative. The Coalition put these officers through a 9-day vetting period at Taji Base. Each candidate went through the medical and physical tests again, and each went through an interview process, and during the course of exercises were assessed on their ability to operate within the context of the multi-ethnic group and their leader skills. That was a comprehensive assessment phase as we inducted them en route to training for a two-and-a-half-month training period in Jordan.
By late January 2004, engineers from the 1st Armored Division were midway through an $800 million project to build half a dozen camps for the incoming 1st Cavalry Division. Army planners expected to finish by 15 March 2004. The new outposts, dubbed Enduring Camps, were meant to improve living quarters for soldiers and allow the military to return key infrastructure sites within the Iraqi capital to the emerging government, military leaders said. "The plan is for the camps to last five to 10 years," said Colonel Lou Marich, commander of the 1st Armored Division engineers. "They will last longer if we take care of them." Moving to the outskirts of town would allow Iraqi police and the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps to take a lead role in the city's security. North of the city, about 5,000 troops were scheduled to live in Taji, a former Iraqi base.
The memory of a 1st Armored Division senior noncommissioned officer's service and sacrifice lived on at one of the US Army's enduring base camps in Iraq. The former Iraqi air force base in Taji was officially renamed Camp Cooke on 23 March 2004 during a dedication ceremony in honor of Command Sergeant Major Eric F. Cooke, who had been the CSM for 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division. Cooke was killed on 24 December 2003 during a combat patrol in Baghdad when his vehicle struck an improvised explosive device. Camp Cooke was one of several enduring forward operating bases and was located in northern outskirts of Baghdad. Most U.S. military personnel serving in Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom would live on one of these bases.
As of mid-2004, a shuttle bus system had reportedly been set up at Camp Cooke to transport personel within the base. The "Boneyard," a dumping ground for former military assets of Saddam's regime was not, however, serviced by the bus system.
In mid-September 2004, as part of an Army-wide effort to give its facilities around Baghdad friendlier connotations, and try to resolve the issue of constantly-changing facility names, Camp Cooke was renamed Camp Taji.
The quality of life at Camp Taji was said to improve daily by the end of 2004. The Camp had gained the largest Post Exchange (PX) in Iraq , which had a Subway, Burger King, and Pizza Hut. They also had a newly built dining facility, which was 3 times larger and the food selection was unbelievable. There were several gyms and Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) facilities where soldiers could exercise, watch movies or sporting events, and play games. Soldiers lived in air-conditioned and heated trailers, had hot showers, and can eat 4 meals a day in the new dining facility.
Soldiers on Camp Taji had a lot to celebrate on a day full of Thanksgiving activities with the grand opening of a new post exchange and dining facility on 25 November 2004. The new exchange boasted 29,000 square feet of retail space. The additional space gave the exchange the ability to add merchandise that previous locations on Camp Taji were unable to accommodate. The construction of the facility took over 2 months to complete with employees and contractors working through the night to ensure the store's opening in conjunction with the Thanksgiving holiday. It would be able to serve over 1,000 soldiers at a time and up to 14,000 soldiers in a day. The facility was named the Command Sergeant Major Eric Cooke Sports Zone (prior to September 2004, the entire facility had been known as Camp Cooke). This paid homage to the former CSM of the 1st Armored Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, who was killed on Christmas Eve 2003 while visiting his soldiers.
Without the right equipment, performing one's mission at best could be difficult and at worst impossible. With operations that ran around the clock, soldiers of the Headquarters and Headquarters Company and 239th Military Intelligence Company supply sections ensured Bowie Brigade troopers always had the proper equipment. The sign attached to the wooden fence in front of the non-descript warehouse belies the building's true purpose. "Welcome to Little Rock!" the stenciled letters read, the only indication that this particular warehouse was different on the long stretch of road dotted with similar buildings. The 239th Military Intelligence Company and the Brigade's HHC were responsible for the issue, maintenance and accounting of all OCIE (Organizational Clothing, Individual Equipment).
Housed in an unassuming concrete structure, the remnant of a prior regime, a small group of men humbly awaited their next mission. Their job required strength, humility, teamwork and courage. They were the firefighters of Camp Taji. Assembled from the Puerto Rico National Guard's 215th Engineering Detachment and Massachusetts-based Army Reserve units, the 287th and 356th Engineering Detachments, the 1st Cavalry Division fire-fighters on Camp Taji played a pivotal role as first responders to a variety of situations ranging from hazardous material clean-up to crash and rescue services.
Back home, their civilian occupations were as varied as the states they come from, but they all had one thing in common: they all knew how to push cement. Soldiers of the 980th Engineer Battalion (Combat) (Heavy) attached to the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, layed the foundation for an airfield expansion at Camp Taji in October 2004. The 980th Engineer Battalion was a reserve battalion headquartered in Austin, Texas with subordinate units in San Antonio and Seagolville. They were between the combat engineers who were pushing stuff out of the way and the more permanent type of construction performed by the US Army Corps of Engineers. They had the skills to support long-term construction projects. Compared to previous projects, their mission in Iraq was by far the largest since they were deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom II. Their mission was to construct an expansion apron and they poured in the neighbor of 40 acres of concrete. The project included building demolition, grading, concrete placement and apron construction. When the project was completed they had poured over 50,000 cubic feet of cement.
Thanks to a charity organization called the Freedom Calls Foundation, soldiers stationed at Camp Taji could talk to loved ones back home free of charge. The facility offered 30 phones, 4 video conferencing stations, 10 video email stations, and 40 computers with email and internet access.
Inside Camp Taji there was the Taji Training Center that trained new Iraqi military recruits (Jundis or privates). As of February 2006, about 2,000 Iraqis had been trained at Camp Taji. US soldiers were mainly responsible for training the Jundis in the early stages of the occupation. US forces eventually served a more advisory role with the responsibility of basic training being primarily tasked to Iraqi instructors. At Camp Taji, Jundis learned how to man checkpoints, clear rooms, perform first aid, marksmanship and drill and ceremony.
As the partnership between the Iraqi army and Coalition Forces grews, the US Army Corps of Engineers poured more than $3.5 million into the local Iraqi community to open a renovated Iraqi army theater and 2 renovated health clinics. The theater was now available to the 15,000 Iraqi troops who called Camp Taji their home. The facility not only improved the quality of life for the troops, but also cemented a friendship growing between Coalition Forces and the Iraqi army. The Taji Cinema, which was essentially destroyed during the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, had the old roof removed and replaced, 500 seats re-upholstered, and a new restroom area with 8 toilets installed. The project cost $754,000 and took almost seven months to complete. This facility would offer many activities, ceremonies and show a lot of training videos to train the Iraqi army and the new Iraq.
In addition to the theater, 2 143-square-meter health clinics had been built. The $3 million project gave Iraqi soldiers accessibility to medical clinics with some of the latest equipment in medical technology.
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