BALAD AIR BASE, IRAQ — Attack helicopters whir overhead and no matter where we go we can hear them.
A military spokesman tells us that if we hear an alarm screaming “incoming, incoming, incoming,” it means run for hardened shelter or drop flat to the ground and cover your face because a mortar attack is imminent.
Welcome to Balad.
We landed Tuesday afternoon aboard a C-17 transport on its way to several stops in Iraq. The former Iraqi air force academy, about 40 miles north of Baghdad, is a hub for moving cargo and troops by air and ground convoy throughout the country.
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The base is home to about 4,000 airmen, including 446 Airlift Wing reservists from McChord Air Force Base, and about 20,000 Army soldiers, including Fort Lewis units such as the 21st Transfer Company.
It covers about 18 square miles, roughly the size of Olympia or Lacey.
The pilot made a rapid descent, which is standard here to prevent possibly taking fire from the ground.
As we walked down the jet’s rear ramp and onto the tarmac, crews pulled up to unload cargo. In the background, two F-16 fighters rolled past as they prepared for takeoff.
Military officials say Balad is one of the busiest runways in the world and the busiest operated by the Defense Department. The runways are host to cargo aircraft, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles and fighter jets daily.
Our military public affairs escort drove us to our temporary living quarters, which are in several rows of trailers behind large concrete barriers that serve as shields against rocket and mortar fire.
While insurgents drop mortars into Balad almost daily, they fire haphazardly with older weapons and rarely cause serious damage or injury, said Maj. John Hutcheson, the Air Force’s chief public affairs officer here.
We drove through a guarded gate to get to the living complex.
“It’s the only gated community where we still live in trailers,” Hutcheson said.
Most of the airmen and soldiers we saw walked the base without body armor. Many jogged in their “PT” shorts and T-shirts.
The temperature hovered around 90 degrees, although warmer weather is expected soon. Despite the heat, green trees and foliage are interspersed with patches of sand and dust. The base is about a mile from the Tigris River.
It rained heavily a few days before our arrival, causing some flooding, Hutcheson said.
We took a tour, which included a drive along the outer perimeter. The base is divided into several sections. The Air Force is near the two large runways. Army units are stationed in Logistical Support Area Anaconda, adjacent to the air base and the site of the largest of four dining facilities, or “DFACs.”
Military contractor and Haliburton subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown & Root, which operates the dining halls, has its own section on base, called “KBR-Town.” A large special operations section is hidden behind a tall security wall and concertina wire. Our escorts say they’ve never been inside, and signs posted out front warn that deadly force could be a consequence for unauthorized visitors.
We passed a junkyard of Humvees and trucks damaged by improvised explosive devices or accidents. Piles of wreckage offer an eerie testament to the costs of the war.
The base has its own movie theater and an Olympic-size pool with high-diving board that is a remnant from the Saddam era. There also is a fitness center, Internet cafe, laundry station and coffee stand, “Green Beans.” Several U.S. fast-food stalwarts such as Burger King, Subway and Pizza Hut have opened outposts here.
Nonalcoholic beer is served in the dining hall; alcohol and pornography are prohibited on base.
McChord on the move
Reporter Scott Gutierrez, 29, is accompanying airment out of McChord Air Force Base on their mission to deliver equipment and troops to and from Iraq. He will report this week from air bases in Iraq, Qatar and Germany and from aboard military C-17 Globemaster III aircraft.