Base is secret; ache for home isn't

Out in desert near the Persian Gulf is a U.S. air base that's critical to missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I spent two days there before flying to Balad Air Base in Iraq as part of a weeklong journey with C-17 air crews from McChord Air Force Base.

A day at this outpost seemed like a day on Mars. Tents and buildings sat under a colorless sky on flat, rocky terrain. Sand rolled through the sweltering air like a Northwest morning mist. The grit coats your teeth.

"Nothing lives out here except mosquitoes and flies," said Senior Airman Glen Trowbridge from McChord.

Trowbridge is among the 4,000 service members deployed there serving in an array of support positions to the missions supplying troops in the combat zones.

Reporting from this base was difficult. The military bans reporters from disclosing its location under an agreement with the host nation.

I assumed the host government is worried publicity might stir up militants concerned that a Muslim nation is working with the United States.

Not that its location is a secret. Information is widely available on the Internet. Even the BX, run by the Army & Air Force Exchange Service, sells souvenir T-shirts emblazoned with a catchy phrase playing on the base's name.

I asked a colonel whether he thought selling the T-shirts was counterintuitive. He agreed the base should stop selling them but minutes later conceded he, too, had purchased one. Nonetheless, I'm adhering to my agreement not to publish its name or location.

The base is home to the Combined Air Operation Center, or CAOC, the control center for all air operations in the Middle East. A few minutes inside leaves you in awe of the military's far-­reaching capabilities, in both war and humanitarian efforts.

It was at this base that I met a McChord-based active duty crew that last March dropped 32,000 pounds of humanitarian aid - blankets, clothes, food, water and medicines - above four locations in Afghanistan.

The 7th Airlift Squadron swooped in aboard a C-17, flying 80 yards a second at 9,100 feet, and delivered the bundles in drop zones only 600 to 800 yards long. It marked a record for the most aid delivered to the most drop zones in the shortest amount of time.

"It's kind of cool to say we did it. The better thing is that we're helping the people of Afghanistan," said Maj. Gabe Griess, a Little Rock, Ark.,-based officer.

Airmen here seemed to miss home more than the ones I spoke with in Iraq. I attribute it to the miserable conditions. I saw so many countdowns written on dry-erase boards: X-many days left. One airman notched the count of days left on his four-month deployment under the bill of his hat.

Airmen make do here with activities and nights at "the bra," a large open-air lounge beneath two large, cone-shaped tents. The tables fill with airmen cashing in their ration cards that allow them three beers a day. At one end, on a bare concrete stage, airmen bellow out karaoke under the glow of halogen lights.

There was also an Internet lounge, a cafe, and activities such as bingo nights and salsa dancing. Our public affairs escort, May Ann Knabe, started her own abs class in the desert. Airmen call it "Warrior abs with Knabe Kahn."

One airman hobbled up stairs as he walked with us. My first assumption would have been a combat injury. That's until he explained how many squats the reservist major made him do in her abs class.