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The Unseen Life of a Super FOB

Hindsight's always 20/20. Take, for instance, when I first went to Bagram Air Field: I mistook it for a warzone.

I arrived in Afghanistan via C-130; it was me and 25 other 11bs--infantrymen--all secretly nervous about linking up with the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

As we hit the tarmac, the flight crew pulled out 9mm pistols and scanned the area for enemies. Without weapons or body armor, this unnerved us. Scared, ready, we left the plane and entered Bagram Air Field.

Within a few hours, I realized that BAF wasn’t a war zone. Within a few days, I realized that BAF wasted hundreds of millions of dollars. By the end of my tour, I came to hate everything about it.

BAF is a super-FOB. It is a collection of all the assets that “support” troops in the field. Home to thousands of military contractors and support troops, most soldiers believe this base isn’t a warzone.

When morning dawns on BAF, the units get up and conduct PT. The base shuts down the main road so that units can run. Every so often, BAF hosts long distance running events like 5Ks. At Joyce, if we wanted to run we had to wear full kit--body armor, helmet and weapon. (We had a mobile training team came to the KOP once to refresh us on first aid, and they said we should train every morning after PT on medical drills. We asked when we would hold organized PT.)

After PT, the soldiers will head to one of many super chow halls. These chow halls serve dozens of different types of food; some have freshly grilled steaks, think dining commons at a premier college. If you don’t want the food at the chow hall, you have the option of eating at a Burger King or Pizza Hut (though General McChrystal is trying to boot these establishments from Afghanistan, I have heard so far he is unsuccessful.) At a combat outpost, you are lucky to get hot chow and MREs rule the day.

Walking down the street at BAF (yes, they have full blown streets), you will see the throngs of Soldiers in PTs or ACUs, weapons slung behind their backs. Among the thousands of weapons, though, you won’t find a single magazine. BAF is a base armed to the teeth, without any bullets. At a combat outpost, everyone has a weapon, most times their body armor, and always at least a magazine with them.

BAF is not combat; it barely qualifies as a warzone. Unfortunately, the majority of the media, the preponderance of politicians, the bulk of General officers, and all of the celebrities who visit Afghanistan, will never see past this comparatively luxurious base. Life on BAF is a sanitized version of war presentable to the media, but completely unrealistic to the Soldiers and Marines fighting on the ground everyday.

fourteen comments

Yeah, I really like this post, but let me expand.

It’s a common military saying/bitch/whine: the US public doesn’t understand the war/afghanistan/iraq/Soldiers. They want support, understanding, coverage.

But the thing is, you’re average frontline Soldier gets his Sebastian Junger’s War and Restrepo Doc, or dozens of memoirs, and mil. embeds. What we’re not getting is the super FOB. The average public isn’t even aware of what FOB stands for, or how they operate.

I’ve said this to other people, and need to write about it, but if I could I would embed as a reporter, and only cover Super FOBs. Now that’s a book that needs to be written.

First to the comment: You’re absolutely right, the US public doesn’t understand, myself included. I would also read that book on a Super FOB, so please write it.
Second, this is a great post, thanks.

Fingers crossed with timing and deployments, but Michael C and I will write a story on it by the end of the summer.

Michael – great post, this stuff needs to be clarified to the American public. I think you should/could also expand on our numbers we once came up with on actual soldiers in the fight compared to the total number of soldiers deployed. We get the books and what not about the “real fight” but Americans think every soldier does something amazing and heroic every single day and thats simply not the case. I’m not trying to bash on support troops, and there are quite a few actually in harms way, but I’m tired of everyone thinking that just because someone wears a uniform, then they’re a frontline trooper

@ Rob – Have we run that post yet on the numbers you and Michael came up with? If we haven’t, we need to…

When Stephen Colbert, who I like, went to Iraq, he was on a Super FOB surrounded by POGs, guaranteed. But they’re treated like grunts. Just saying.

Don’t want to disparage them too much though. Everyone—frontline or Fobbit, Soldier or civilian—has a right to join in the debate. But not everyone’s level of service is the same. That’s just a fact.

I could certainly write a book on Victory, you have a description of it here almost down to a t, the only difference is you had to have 1 magazine with you at all times (which is usually just kept in a pouch on the buttstock of your weapon 99% of the deployment, except to clean the dirt out of them and check the springs in your magazines).

We had a Greens Beans, a beach volleyball tournament, and a yearbook on our deployment that was made by some Lt. who had nothing better to do. Another Lt. in my BN who sat behind a desk the whole deployment came home with a Bronze Star (albeit without a V). I wish I had had more time off work to fully enjoy the extras you have on a FOB over what you might have in some small remote outpost, but unfortunately I was one of the people in my company who actually had to work during the day. A good portion of my company just sat behind the cable shack all day and played dominos.

I´m also really glad I didn´t have to eat MRE`s for a full year, I probably would have overdosed on ex-lax as soon as I came home.

Many moons ago, during the Thunder Runs when we were invading Iraq, I was the lead platoon of 3BCT/3ID attacking west into Baghdad along the Abu G expressway. On/around 7 April, we took down a Republican Guard base nestled deep in the city.

The base had 40 functional BTR 80s, full motor pool, and headquarters with a working shower. During our seizure, we destroyed a platoon plus of resistance and my commander was wounded by flack from an RPG. After dismantling the BTRs and taking my first real shower in two months, we continued to attack into the city.

Two weeks later, as my company regressed back west to assume a big portion of Abu G, that base was occupied by BCT and DIV support units complete with TV, phones, and Fobbitness. They would not allow us to use the phones. They owned the area.

A year later, I returned back to Baghdad. That compound had become a super FOB.

It is what it is I suppose.

Those are some amazing stories. That’s what we’re talking about.

Hi, my name is Captain [Starbuck], and I lived on a Super FOB.

If I ever write a book, it will be about the profound contradictions surrounding life on a Super FOB. I just hope I don’t sound too petty and disgruntled when I do so.

I’m often asked how I came up with the moniker “Starbuck”. In the novel Moby Dick, Starbuck serves as a common-sense foil to Captain Ahab, who is obsessed with the questionable goal of killing the White Whale. In real life, I had to confront my [senior officer]‘s quest to build a Xfit Gym—“a world-class facility” to stand the test of time—in the middle of a desert, on a base due to be turned over to the Iraqi Air Force within two years. This was my contribution to the war effort apparently.

Our FOB had CHUs, air conditioning, electricity, plenty of water, multiple dining facilities, hardened shelters, fast food, PXs, car sales, and USO shows. There was little we lacked. Well, save for a Xfit Gym.

Thus, we spent $50,000 just in shipping costs to have gym equipment shipped from the US. We cleared out a maintenance hangar just to house the facility. (No kidding, look at it on this site: http://speicheriraqcrossfit.blogspot.com.. )

(As an aside, we were eating in a plywood hut inside the hangar, which was grossly unsanitary. Yet, in [senior leader]‘s rhetoric, the Xfit gym took precedence)

Among or excesses included a $3,000 clock with names of time zones custom-engraved into the thing (Iraq, Zulu and EST). Since our replacements came from Hawaii, it was useless to them, but since it was purchased with FOO money, we had to leave it for them. Three $20 clocks could do the same thing.

We had carpeting on the walls of the conference room, and a decorative water fountain in front of the BN HQ. Details to pull weeds outside the BN HQ? You bet.

The last straw (for me) was watching the purchase of one of those metallic, brown signs normally found outside HQ buildings at stateside garrisons. Did no one else believe the Dec. 2011 deadline?

Edit: Don’t forget color-coded reflector belts based on rank, so as to salute officers at night.

I contrasted this with life on the smaller COPs and JSSs I would land at. There, our complaints seemed petty, as the smaller outposts were ringed with tall buildings, perfect sniper territory.

The profound sense of isolation from Iraq in general was the most disturbing aspect of life on a Super FOB. I was in the middle of a combat zone, yet I was so far removed from the country at large. Many soldiers went the whole tour not knowing they were even at war. In fact, I had to scour the news sources to find the lastest Iraq news, as it was often more accurate than the chain of command and our intel briefings.

Again, I want to include these aspects in an upcoming memoir. I just don’t want to sound petty :)

Well, as I wrote on my first comment, this is a topic we need covere din a memoir, or what I would prefer, a novel. (BTW, I was an English major, so I love the name. I just wonder how many coffee jokes you get.)

That said, I laughed out loud at your Xfit anecdote, and I think that is one litmus test: if it makes someone laugh, write about it.

Also, it isn’t petty. This is about the future of Afghanistan. Unlike a petty junior/senior squabble, this is about real issues and themes. I mean, your second to last paragraph details the isolation—both physical and mental—from the Iraqi people. Great comment.

I am on a mini-honeymoon right now, so I don’t have all the time in the world to respond. I’ll say quickly that to Rob this is all stuff we complained about while sitting at the KOP/Vegas/Vimoto/Restrepo that February. As to Starbuck, I think your experience shows exactly why we need a COIN for Aviators handbook. I Love Pilots, and I love helicopters. They are fantastic COIN weapons, when used properly. Unfortunately too many don’t ever live on the population because they have to be housed at Super FOBs.

Having spent half my deployment on the super FOBs (Balad, VBC)- here is my favorite…

The guys guarding the gate would take pictures of our patrols leaving the FOB…no doubt for facebook.

I think the super FOBs are a great topic. A chapter could easily be written on the pool at Balad.

@ Mike and Eric,

Not sure if those numbers that we talked about were posted in anything yet, but all in all it pretty much broke down to the old 10-1 supporter to warfighter ratio. Maybe a little less than that actually but we were being generous. I’m personally offended that those who chill at the Super FOBs get more attention than the true grunt. I’m not personally looking for that attention, but if its going to be given to someone, why the POGs?
@Starbuck and Eric, it is a truly great point about the isolationist barricadedness that goes on there. Those folks have to be reminded that they’re actually at war.

@Jon – I spent my first deployment to Iraq during the majority of 2004 when it was “go hang on the big FOB and commute to the fight!” We had no idea about COIN at that point. I would rotate through Balad every couple days while pulling convoy escort duty in our Strykers and you’re damn right they had a pool, 2 of them! 1 indoor and 1 outdoor. 6+ chow halls, and a movie theater with Anthonys Pizza! They didn’t like our kind though, something about dudes with lots of guns, kit and ammo running around staring down their women like crazed neanderthal men kinda pissed ‘em off. It was sure a source of pride though! Heck, we weren’t even allowed to live in the trailers(I think they’re now called CHUs) that they had whole supply yards full of, just because we were grunts.

Ah, good times