BALAD, Iraq—Anaconda is a company town and a busy one. It's hotter than Satan's stove at this old Iraqi airbase an hour's drive north of Baghdad, now occupied by U.S. soldiers and airmen. Body armor and helmets are clunky office fashion when there's a mortar alert.
Logistical Staging Area Anaconda—a well-gated community of 23,000—hums with crucial support for the war effort. And there's time for humanitarian work.
"The kids were all grabbing and excited," says Sgt. Barbara Tobin, an Army National Guardsman from Pineville, N.C., describing a trip to an Iraqi school where soldiers distributed candy and stuffed animals.
Tobin has been at Camp Anaconda since January, working with engineers in the northern half of Iraq in charge of everything from school renovations to repairing highways after bomb attacks.
She's on a yearlong rotation at the massive base, where American touches such as Pizza Hut and Burger King are available, but the most popular attraction is an odd leftover from Saddam Hussein's regime—two swimming pools, one indoors, where troops slosh off the desert heat.
Anaconda is the largest coalition supply and logistics base in Iraq, a busy center for convoys and aircraft supplying the roughly 140,000 troops in the country.
Its airfield is taking on more supply, medical and fighter aircraft to reduce the burden on Baghdad International Airport, where commercial flights have resumed.
It's also the model for troop support, and within its fences can be seen the future for military centralization.
As Pentagon planners move to shrink and abandon bases flung across Iraq, Anaconda and three other bases—in Talil, Al Assad and a garrison near the Syrian border called Q-West—are growing as hubs to supply their regions.
At base headquarters, a command center functions more like the trading floor for a commodities market each morning as supplies are ordered, divvied and assigned for delivery.
About 2,500 trucks move supplies across Iraq daily with about half the convoys running at night, carrying beans, bullets, a million gallons of fuel and 110,000 cases of bottled water to troops.
"We're doing everything a Fortune 500 company is doing except we're getting shot at doing it," says Maj. Jay Land in the camp's tactical center.
Dust is so thick here it dances in headlight beams like fog. Spc. Roderick Simon of Rocky Mount, N.C., has it worse than most. His sinuses are OK, but he fixes computers and often finds their delicate innards coated with fine grit.
CD-ROMs have a short life here and floppy discs are beyond redemption. Simon wages a never-ending battle against the ancient sands of Iraq, with cans of compressed air his sword and shield.
On the helicopter flight line, grapefruit-sized camel spiders scuttle from their sandy dens at dusk, regarding the barren desert as a teeming buffet of goodies, insects to scorpions.
Scorpions motor underfoot at a speed that suggests they're late for something. Sleek and sinister, they are engineered for combat, pincers on the grille and a stinger on the hatchback.
Scorpions snub humans as a rule, but regard empty boots left on the floor as four-star accommodations, a quirk that tends to bring the two species together with unpleasant results, for both.
Sandstorms are theatrical affairs like something from the book of Revelations. They blacken the sky like a summer thunderstorm, then let loose by the bucketful. When precipitation is a partner, it rains mud, says Sgt. Floyd Swofford of Polkville, N.C., who doesn't like it wet.
By contrast, Sgt. Joe Petra of Salisbury, N.C., doesn't like it dry. Rubbing the end of the rotor blade on his Black Hawk helicopter, he shows where the paint has been buffed clean by desert sand.
"It just eats them up," Petra says.
Among the things helicopter crews are looking for when they fly are children. Kids out in the countryside who wave at the passing Black Hawks sometimes get a memorable experience when the choppers make a fluid circle, come back overhead and—bingo!—out flies a soccer ball.
Johnny Taylor, 59, a chief warrant officer who's a veteran of Vietnam, has been dropping treats to kids in rural regions since his yearlong tour began in January.
"It doesn't hurt anything and some day this kid will grow up, and somebody will ask him to be a terrorist and he'll think back on a soccer ball from a helicopter," says Taylor, from Gastonia, N.C. "And how many people will he tell about this?"
Isolated by danger, language and barbed wire, the residents of Camp Anaconda have their own economy, and 1st Lt. Michael Worley of Wilson, N.C., is its overseer and analyst—sort of a far-flung Alan Greenspan.
Worley is in charge of the base finance office and explains the tidal action of cash on the soldiers' twice-monthly paydays.
"They get that money and take it straight over to the PX. The next day it comes straight back here."
When it does, it goes straight to Sgt. Cynthia Lilly, who rules the vault. She swings open the door on her safe to reveal the camp's treasury, about $1.1 million in cash, some of it worn by round-trips to the military exchange store.
"It doesn't look like much, does it?" she asks, and no, it doesn't. The bills barely fill two shelves in the steel box. A fortune in fives has never been freed from its shrink-wrap.
Anaconda gets mortar fire almost every day. When incoming rounds are detected, sirens sound and everyone must move into reinforced concrete bunkers, spread around like kiosks, until the all-clear sounds.
Sensitive radars often pick up the arc of the incoming missile and if there's enough data to triangulate its source, specialists in mortar huts send one back.
Fired from distances of 10 miles or more, the insurgents' mortars are the equivalent of pitching a dart onto a football field while blindfolded in the parking lot and trying to nail someone in the helmet.
They usually fall harmlessly into the vast open spaces of the base, which has a 23-mile perimeter, though one mortar recently burrowed into a latrine. The structure was unoccupied at the time.
Brig. Gen. Yves Fontaine, who oversees Camp Anaconda, worries that troops will become complacent about the alarms. Powerful cameras that watch the perimeter are sometimes turned inward at the soldiers during mortar alerts to check compliance.
Fontaine knows better than most the random pattern of incoming missiles—one landed right outside his sandbagged office a few months ago.
Concrete humps, old hangars for Saddam's air force, surround the post's air base. One of the vast bunkers has been transformed into a sorting center for mail, with boxes and letters destined for remote bases packed up and made ready for transport by truck or plane.
"We have a word here: fascuracy," says Maj. Ephraim Grubbs of High Point, N.C., meaning that the mission is to move the mail fast but accurately. It's a complicated job because many of his customers are on the go. Grubbs' team takes pride in tracking down soldiers and delivering care packages from home.
When military records fail to pinpoint the location of the addressee, Grubbs' unit doesn't admit defeat. "We've even e-mailed people to ask where they are so we can get them their stuff," he says.
In the cool cavern of the hangar where Saddam's mighty MiGs used to nest, a new generation of wings is found, something pleasant in the harsh desert. Entertaining mail sorters all day with giddy song are tiny birds in the rafters, making the best of their new quarters.
(Washburn reports for the Charlotte Observer.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-ANACONDA