Winding Down at Sather
The Daily Report offers a last-minute snapshot of life at Sather Air Base as the remaining airmen prepare to leave Iraq.
Dec. 14, 2011—Baghdad, Iraq—The former Sather Air Base here is essentially a fortified ghost town with only a few hundred US service members remaining.
Since the State Department took over the base on Dec. 1, the official name has changed to the Baghdad Diplomatic Support Center, although few airmen are aware of the change. After the US military withdrawal from Iraq is complete by month's end, BDSC will be the only base in Iraq to remain in US control. At the height of operations, the United States ran more than 500 bases in Iraq.
The passenger terminal, which once processed about 1,000 people a day, is now empty. Aerial porters with the 447th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron have even shipped out the dunnage that used to hold rows upon rows of cargo.
Everyone is working 12-hour days, and many will have little or no time off until the last US flight leaves later this month. Young, tech-savvy airmen are learning how to operate without computers, printers, and telephones, as their equipment gets packed up and shipped to the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office that will determine whether the gear will be refurbished and reused, sold, or destroyed.
"We have pared everything down to the minimal size we need to lead the logistical push. Everyone is working long days, six to seven days a week," said Col. Michael Gaal, vice commander of Sather's 321st Air Expeditionary Wing. "There are literally going to be guys who are working to secure the airfield right up until the moment they run to the plane and take off."
The chapel is closed and there are no longer any chaplains on the base, but there are plenty of luxuries left. The Green Bean coffee shop and the pizza place next door are still open, although the hours have been cut dramatically. The base exchange and gym also remain open and wireless network connectivity is still available, although it's no longer free unless you use the computers in the morale, welfare, and recreation area.
The chow hall will remain open 24-hours a day throughout the transition, unlike other nearby bases where troops lived off "meal, ready to eat" rations before those installations transitioned back to the Iraqis. At Sather, there are still five flavors of Baskin Robbins ice cream and an assortment of cakes and pies, but some patrons may find themselves eating a Salisbury steak burger instead of the hamburger they ordered. Everyone is making do with what they have left.
Security remains a concern for both Iraqis and US forces still in theater, but the Iraqis are taking on more responsibility. Iraqi forces now provide security for the outer perimeter of the base while the Americans secure the inner perimeter, including the flight line.
Rockets hit the base on Saturday, Dec 10—the day before Air Force Magazine arrived—waking up some airmen even before the sirens went off. However, no one was injured and the attacks do not seem to be intensifying, said officials.
"We got hit pretty hard last night, so it's happening. It's not like they are laying back on us. We felt it. It was loud and it shook everything," said MSgt. George Sikaffy, flight chief for Sather's 447th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron. Sikaffy, who has been at Sather for about three months, said November was a particularly busy month for security forces, but the attacks appear to be much more intermittent now.
Members of the 447th ESFS are focused on training the Iraqi security forces each night, teaching them how to patrol the flight line, how to conduct foreign-object-damage checks, and suggesting ways to prioritize their limited manpower so they can fill the gaps that will arise when the Americans leave.
Everyone is aware that their time in Iraq is coming to an end. For the most part, it's business as usual in Baghdad, but after eight years in the country, many airmen are just starting to realize the enormity of being the last ones out. They are anxious to go home, but proud to be part of such an historic mission. They are happy with the progress that has been made, but many wish they could have done more.
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