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ON POINT II: Transition to the New Campaign

The United States Army in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM May 2003-January 2005

Part IV

Sustaining the Campaign

Chapter 13
Taking Care of Soldiers


Soldier Well-Being: Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) in Iraq

The Army spent considerable effort and resources to provide for the health and welfare of its Soldiers in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. In fact, by January 2005, living conditions for most Soldiers were idyllic compared to those experienced by the troops who fought in the World Wars. The effects of the generally comfortable conditions, however, were mitigated by the ever-present danger in a conflict without front lines and against shadowy enemy forces. During the many deployments after the end of the Cold War, the Army increasingly focused on maintaining the health and morale of its Soldiers by providing many of the comforts of home as close to the battlefield as possible. Most units operated out of bases on which they could relax and prepare for the next mission in relative safety. Providing that environment was a major effort for US commanders, combat service support units, MWR personnel, contractors, and others.

One of the Army’s most important objectives was enabling the Soldier to communicate with family members. During the attack toward Baghdad in March 2003, and as units began to occupy areas within Iraq during April and May, communications systems for most tactical units were rudimentary at best. The 1st Battalion, 22d Infantry (TF 1-22 Infantry), part of the 4th Infantry Division headquartered in Tikrit, only obtained two phones for morale calls home in August 2003, 3 months after the toppling of the Saddam regime.80 According to Lieutenant Colonel Steve Russell, commander of TF 1-22 Infantry, even then there were obstacles because the desert heat damaged the electronic components of the satellite phones used for the calls. When the first fixed phone lines were installed on new FOBs over the summer of 2003, prices for calls were about five times the normal rate. Bowing to the demands from local commanders and the Army’s senior leadership, commercial providers dramatically lowered prices. By 2004 phone calls home were routine for almost all Soldiers throughout Iraq.

Yet, phone calls were just one avenue of communication home. The Army also established access to e-mail in August 2003 for the Soldiers of TF 1-22 Infantry and others all across Iraq. Three terminals were set up in the battalion headquarters for Soldiers to use on a rotating schedule.81 Some units would spend their own funds to take care of their immediate needs as CJTF-7 built up its communications systems in Iraq’s primitive infrastructure. In some cases, units took the initiative to construct their own link to home. The leaders of the 1st Battalion, 124th Infantry (1-124th IN), Florida Army National Guard, for example, used its own funds in 2003 to purchase a satellite terminal that provided an Internet link for their Soldiers.82 In contrast to letters sent through the normal postal system, which could require up to 3 weeks or more to travel from the United States to units deployed in Iraq, Soldiers with Internet access could receive Web-cam pictures of family and friends in real time. This was a huge morale boost for the troops.83 According to Staff Sergeant Jose Matias of 1-124th IN, “Before we had [the satellite], it was like being in the Dark Ages.”84 With the new satellite link to the Internet, Matias benefited from the psychological boost that came from talking with his wife and kids almost every day.85 Eventually, most FOBs were equipped with an Internet Café; a subsequent Army study found that an overwhelming majority (95 percent) of Soldiers used these establishments to send and receive e-mail, with two-thirds using e-mail three or more times a week.87

Contact with home greatly enhanced morale, but the Army also provided many services at the FOBs to improve Soldiers’ spirits in their down time. Unit leaders paid great attention, for example, to the quality of meals, recognizing the well-established link between food quality and Soldier health, effectiveness, and morale. The US Army has traditionally excelled in providing rations, or Class I supplies, to its Soldiers, and OIF was no exception. American Soldiers in the 1990s became accustomed to high-quality food service during the campaigns in the Balkans and elsewhere. After the initial problems with Class I supply during the offensive to Baghdad, packaged meals, ready to eat (MREs) were supplemented by portable mess facilities and, eventually, these in turn gave way to established dining facilities on most FOBs.87 As FOBs became more developed over time, and smaller units were consolidated into FOBs that housed many thousands of Soldiers, food service grew even more elaborate. When the 1st Armored Division’s fixed dining facilities in Baghdad opened in September 2003, they featured a wide selection of foods, including prime rib, crab legs, and baked salmon.88 In other facilities, Soldiers could find salad bars, fast-food grills, and dessert counters featuring an array of pies, cakes, cookies, and even ice cream.89

The FOBs varied greatly in the quality of amenities they offered. At one extreme, some boasted swimming pools; at the other extreme, flush toilets were a much sought after luxury. The largest FOBs had well-stocked post exchanges (PXs) that resembled Wal-Mart stores, while the smallest were one-person operations with frequently barren shelves.90 The bases also varied considerably in the recreational activities offered. Most battalions eventually established MWR tents that contained gyms and weight-lifting equipment. Some MWR tents were equipped with movie theaters, big-screen televisions, and recreation centers complete with pool, ping-pong, and foosball tables. Sports competitions and other tournaments became common as well. As in earlier conflicts, some Soldiers devoted their leisure hours to either reading books and newspapers or playing cards and board games. Most, however, brought entertainment with them in the form of DVDs (on televisions or computers), digital music, and computer games.91

Soldiers were also the beneficiaries of specific morale operations. Operation Slugger—established by the DHL Corporation, Louisville Slugger, USA Cares, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Association of the US Army (AUSA)—collected sporting goods that were assembled into sports kits then forwarded to Iraq for delivery to troops. Many other private groups conducted fundraising drives to send morale-building gifts to Soldiers in Iraq. Ambitious Soldiers also found ways to form archery clubs, jazz clubs, and bands for entertainment.92

Some have criticized the Army for these elaborate base camps, questioning their cost and effectiveness and claiming the Army’s focus on them as misplaced priority. The financial cost of building the FOBs and providing extensive morale services is significant. The so-called “Balkan Syndrome,” referring to the beginnings of this practice in the 1990s, has also been criticized because of its implications in campaigns that feature counterinsurgency operations. Significant amounts of equipment, transportation assets, command energy, support Soldiers, and contractors are devoted to sustaining the FOBs. Living on the FOB and making only occasional forays off base, so the argument goes, makes it more difficult for Soldiers to establish relationships with local Iraqis and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and to develop better situational awareness of conditions in specific communities. This practice also created suspicion in the minds of some Iraqis who believed the Coalition was deliberately failing to restore Iraq’s decrepit infrastructure while living in virtual (and some actual) palaces. Many claimed that smaller, more numerous, and more dispersed camps would provide a more successful Coalition presence in contested areas, convincing the worried Iraqi citizens that the Coalition would sustain its commitment to protect them against the insurgents. And of course, within the US Army, the FOB lifestyle has generated a degree of divisiveness as Soldiers who routinely perform missions outside the FOB derisively refer to their FOB-bound headquarters and support Soldiers as “Fobbits.”

While each of these criticisms has some merit, all must be balanced against certain benefits. The rest and relaxation provided by most FOBs was a crucial method of maintaining Soldier morale, health, and unit effectiveness during yearlong tours. In a war without rear areas, the large, well-defended FOBs provided the only safe area for Soldiers when not conducting operations. While some have maintained that US troops should have been more visible in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, others have argued that ever-present US troops exacerbated Iraqi fears of a long-term US occupation and further inflamed cultural tensions. Though beyond the timeframe of this book, during 2005 the Coalition steadily reduced the number of FOBs used by its troops and consolidated them into ever larger FOBs located outside major cities. As the ISF grew in number, this practice supported the goal of transitioning the campaign to the Iraqis.

Chapter 13. Taking Care of Soldiers

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