Separating Plastics From Hand Grenades

JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq—On a blustery December day, 1st Sgt. Sammy Sparger gave me a tour of the changes that President Barack Obama’s troop drawdown had imposed on the 36th Engineer Brigade. First, he walked me through the silent eastern wing of the brigade’s headquarters, which he’d evacuated to make room for a new group of engineers whose current offices are being taken over by Iraqis. Next, he led me through the back parking lot, past a still-occupied subdivision of the “containerized housing units,” known as CHUs, and then down an empty, dusty street flanked by a block and a half of wooden outbuildings. “This was where we stored everything,” Sparger said. “This was where the Air Force construction was, that was the wood shop …”

“What is it now, empty?”

“It’s gutted. Ready to be demolished.”

“What about this one?” I asked, stopping at a shed that contained the computers and phones that were the brigade’s main link to the civilian world.

“They say they’re going to allow us to keep our Internet up,” Sparger responded. Then he made a sweeping motion with both hands, as if bulldozing the surrounding buildings. “But it’ll be parking spaces on both sides.”

The buildings were a casualty of the Army’s Responsible Drawdown of Forces, or RDoF. The program became a verb last spring, when President Obama ordered the Army to reduce its population in Iraq from 110,000 soldiers to 50,000 by Sept. 1, 2010. Since then, Sparger has “RDoFed” (pronounced ARE-doffed) millions of dollars in equipment from the 36th Engineer Brigade. “All the cool stuff we had is gone already,” he explained, toeing a dusty pile of paper shredders and disassembled cots that he’d stacked up like a Rauschenberg combine. “This summer we were hauling beds and frames and three-drawer chests and wall lockers and stuff like that—probably 25 to 30 big truckloads as compared to … well, this isn’t even enough to break a sweat.”

The brigade is headquartered at Joint Base Balad, one of the largest remaining U.S. bases in Iraq. Before the surge in 2007, Balad—then known as Camp Anaconda—housed more than 30,000 U.S. soldiers, contractors, and foreign workers. By the time I reached the base in December 2010, that population had dropped to 17,000, more than half of whom were civilian contractors. But Balad was still home to three football-field-sized chow halls, a 25-meter swimming pool, a high dive, a football field, a softball field, two full-service gyms, a squash court, a movie theater, and the U.S. military’s largest airfield in Iraq. For opponents of the war, both Iraqi and American, “super bases” like this have long been a cause célèbre. The Army would never give these bases up, the argument went. They were, instead, evidence of the war’s true aim: to establish a permanent U.S. military presence in the Middle East.

I know this because it’s an argument I used to make. When I visited Iraq in the summer of 2006, I interviewed the engineers who’d helped to build the Victory-Liberty Base complex, which at the time housed 38,000 people. Here’s what I wrote then:

Amid the billions in cost overruns, embezzlement, fraud, and uncompleted contracts that have plagued the reconstruction effort in Iraq, the engineers of the U.S. Army 17th Field Artillery Brigade have quietly been assembling one project that actually works: the $200-million Victory-Liberty Base complex. The complex, located just to the west of Baghdad International Airport, covers an area equal to Independence, Missouri. Unlike the rest of Iraq, the electricity runs, the trash gets collected, the roads are graded and paved and best of all, according to Cpt. Derek Wischmann, the Utilities Chief for the Directorate of Public Works, it may someday actually be part of Iraq.“We intend this to be a city that Iraqis will return to,” Cpt. Wischmann said from his air-conditioned office at Camp Victory. “This section of Baghdad was the Ba’ath party headquarters. So in my opinion it’s a huge win for the Iraqis if they come in and set up a functioning city in the heart of where they used to be enslaved.”

In 2006, it was fashionable—for good reason—to be skeptical of any and all official claims about the war. Nothing had gone as planned. The bombing of the Golden Dome mosque in Samarra in February of that year had set off a bloody and largely unexpected civil war inside Iraq. A young, combat-hardened lieutenant had driven me to Capt. Wischmann’s office and sat in on the interview. He’d seen plenty of fighting along Route Tampa, one of Iraq’s major highways, after the bombing of the Golden Dome. After we left, he shook his head in disbelief and said, “We’re never leaving this place. … I don’t see anything getting built that isn’t absolutely necessary for operation—bridges, roads, bases. I don’t see us building hospitals. I see us building super bases like this.”

I had decided to embed with the 36th Engineer Brigade in December 2010 in order to figure out which of these predictions had come true. If anybody could tell me how President Obama’s troop drawdown was affecting U.S. military bases, it was going to be the 36th. The brigade’s commanding officer, Col. Kent Savre, was in charge of every construction project, route clearance mission, and bridge emplacement north of Baghdad. He had a dive team for underwater maneuvers. He had a “Prime Power Platoon.” He controlled units with astonishing acronyms, like the Air Force’s 467th Expeditionary Prime Base Engineer Emergency Force (Prime BEEF), whose members specialized in transitioning Army bases from Americans to Iraqis.

What I discovered was that, despite my skepticism, Capt. Wischmann had been right. The Army seems genuinely committed to meeting President Obama’s goal of having no U.S. troops in Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011. Since last spring, according to Savre’s staff, the United States has closed 173 of the 260 military bases it had in Iraq, either demolishing them or returning the property to the Iraqis.

At the same time, super bases like Balad and Victory continue to operate under American control. And the final reduction from 50,000 troops to zero—which will require U.S. forces to withdraw from these last remaining bases—seems likely to present more difficulties than the current drawdown has.

Four days before Sgt. Sparger showed me his RDoFed paper shredders and cots, I had made a 20-minute drive from brigade headquarters to the Joint Base Balad incinerator, where those items would eventually end up. It was a Dickensian scene. There, beneath a huge, vaulted shed, blue-suited workmen from India and Pakistan used push brooms to spread Dumpster after Dumpster of refuse into long, snaking ridges. Then they picked through it by hand, bright scarves tied about their mouths, hands sheathed in thin rubber gloves, separating the trash into metal bins:

Aluminum cans
Computer Parts
Aerosol cans
Printer Cartridges
Hydraulic Hoses
Green Metal
Brown Metal

“We pulled 757 rounds out of the trash yesterday,” explained Wayne Wright, the plant’s civilian assistant manager, as we poked through the bins. “Along with four grenades. We’ve found everything in here, from sex toys to rockets to mortars.”

Once, Wright had to evacuate the sorting area for what he thought was a live pineapple grenade. The Explosive Ordinance Disposal team dispatched a soldier in full Hurt Locker gear, only to discover that the explosive had been carved meticulously from wood. It was here that Sgt. Sparger’s cots would join thousands of other cots, tarps, and tents, whose fabric, impregnated with foreign dust, couldn’t be returned to the United States. Once inspected, sorted, and stripped of any recyclable parts, they would be fed into one of four house-sized incinerators whose smokestacks dominate the horizon beyond the pad.

Last summer, as the Army rushed to meet President Obama’s Sept. 1 deadline, the plant was receiving 110 to 150 tons of trash a day. More than 9,000 mattresses were stacked up in the yard, awaiting shipment to charities in Iraq; a mountain of plywood from decommissioned buildings loomed beside a wood chipper; trucks carrying 40-yard-long Dumpsters backed up three or four at a time. Wright and his crew of 154 employees—hired by contractor Readiness Management Support, which operates the site—smashed computers and dodged grenades day and night.

If any of this impressed Wright, he wasn’t letting on. He has been handling the trash at Balad since September of 2009, when he was assigned to close the “burn pit” up at the northeastern corner of the base, where trash had been set fire in the open air, and open this new incinerator site. For work, he outfits himself in a floppy camo hat, blue-tinted shades, a yellow reflective vest, and a habit of understatement that verges on the religious. “None of it is rocket science,” he said of trash collection at the base.

And yet, the summer’s drawdown—which even Wright, mustering his adverbs, admitted was “really, really busy for a while”—was just a warm-up. Most of the 173 bases the Army closed during that time were smaller outposts, the low-hanging fruit, set up for, say, a company of 150 men.

These remaining 87 bases include the monsters, the red giants, capable of burying an operation as efficient as Wright’s under a tidal wave of accumulated crap. I’ve already mentioned Balad and the Victory Base Complex. But there are more. Large bases like Taji, Speicher, and Marez follow the Tigris northward up to Mosul. There’s Camp Adder in the south, Al-Asad Air Base in Al Anbar province in the west.

Like nascent supernovas, these bases have swollen with the gear, facilities, and equipment of smaller Forward Operating Bases, or FOBs—a process that the Army calls “FOB collapse.” Eventually, however, the red giants themselves will have to collapse. The problem was, at the time of my visit, the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki still had not been seated, which meant that nobody knew how much stuff the Iraqis wanted to keep.“Conceptually, nobody knows for sure,” Savre had told me upon my arrival, as we sat for a briefing in the brigade’s well-appointed conference room. “You have to have a government in place to negotiate with. But the plan is that anything that will be useful to the government of Iraq, for whatever purpose, we will work to transfer back.”

The immensity of this transfer began to dawn on me as we finished the tour of the incinerator plant. The soldiers who’d accompanied me loved the trip. They marveled at the bales of crushed plastic bottles—15,000 per bale—that RMS would be shipping to China, where they’d be recycled into plastic cutlery. We all had our pictures taken outside the blazing maw of an incinerator and struck poses before the ash pit.

Then we loaded into a Chevy Blazer for the drive back to brigade headquarters. Despite the impressive numbers that accompany the summer of 2010 drawdown, a majority of Balad’s infrastructure remained intact.

We cruised northeast on a road called Victory Loop, viewing the bean fields and grape vines that grow out in the Iraqi countryside, just beyond the base’s chain link fence. Then we made a left and wound our way into the heart of the base’s “east side,” finally hitting Pennsylvania Avenue, a bustling, four-lane road separated by a median and miles of modern streetlights. As we drove, my escorts pointed out other engineering marvels on the base. The factory that built concrete barriers, called T-walls, valued at $800 a pop. The white tanks of the water treatment facility, which purified 100,000 gallons of the Tigris every day. The humming trailers of an electrical plant. At some point, we pulled over beside a softball field. Instead of watching the players as they paced the chalked infield, gloves tucked naturally at their sides, I found myself wondering how, in the space of a single year, all this stuff was going to disappear. “So,” my driver asked, only half-joking, “How do you teach an Iraqi to run a power plant?”

Then the batter homered to right center and, beyond the chain link outfield fence, soldiers in huge MRAP trucks—that’s short for mine-resistant, ambush-protected—blared their sirens to celebrate. *

Click here to launch the slide show Breaking Up With Iraq.

Correction, March 16, 2011: This article originally provided an incorrect explanation for the acronym MRAP. The error also occurred in the second entry in the series. (Return to the corrected sentence.)