No room for Fobbits in remote outposts

SINJAR, Iraq—If an army travels on its stomach, as was famously said, then the American military force fighting in Iraq could circumnavigate the globe by dinnertime, and probably should to burn some of the calories it consumes in dining facilities your daddy would not recognize.

This is not your daddy's army and America's young men and women don't live or eat like it, with very few exceptions such as Forward Operating Base, or FOB, Nimr in this remote town near the Syrian border.

In places like Camp Victory at Baghdad Airport or Balad or Mosul or even Tal Afar, there are huge mess halls otherwise known today as dining facilities or DFAC's in an Army that abbreviates everything.

The cavernous facilities are air-conditioned in summer and heated in winter. They are staffed by third-country nationals, or TCNs, who work under contract to Kellogg Brown and Root or KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton. They do all the cooking and cleaning and they do a fine job most everywhere.

The hungry soldier has an incredible array of choices. There are taco bars, stir-fry bars, Chinese food stations, an Italian pasta bar, a make-your-own sandwich station, a short-order line serving up cheeseburgers and French fries and onion rings, and a main serving line that normally offers beef, pork and chicken entrees, several vegetable dishes, potatoes and gravy. Oh yes, there's also the salad and fruit bar and the hot soup station and don't let's forget the bakery and dessert stations and the Baskin-Robbins ice cream and milk shake station.

That's just for dinner. Most DFACs have a midnight dinner for those who do shift work, or hungry aviators who've flown in from Lord only knows where in the middle of the night.

At breakfast there are hot oatmeal, eggs and omelettes cooked any way you want them with whatever you want in them. Grits and gravy. In a few places there are fresh baked biscuits you can have topped with creamed beef gravy, or a dish your father might have referred to as SOS. This being a family newspaper I can't translate that abbreviation for you if you don't know what it stands for.

There are pancakes and waffles with six fruit toppings and whipped cream and serving size bowls of dry breakfast cereal and cartons of long shelf-life milk. There are four or five types of fruit juices from dispensers. Plus coffee, tea, hot chocolate.

In places like Camp Victory there are thousands of troops doing admin and support jobs who in a 12-month deployment to a war never once leave the high concrete walls and impenetrable razor-wire barriers that separate the U.S. forward operating base from Iraq. With typical soldier humor such inhabitants are known as Fobbits. Fobbits partake of the KBR feasts three times a day.

If you want to find the Army that your father would stand a chance of recognizing you have to travel to the more remote regions like Sinjar where the Tiger Squadron of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment is headquartered and quartered.

Here at FOB Nimr nestled near the Sinjar mountain range, nighttime temperatures have been in the lower 20s lately. A few days ago it rained and much of the sprawling old former Iraqi army post was under water. Now the water is mostly gone and mud clings to everything.

The soldiers live as best they can in the former Iraqi barracks, which were so thoroughly looted by the populace when Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003 that even the windows, frames and all, were pried and chipped out of the concrete and hauled away. The looters patiently hammered away at concrete overhangs in order to steal the steel bars buried inside the concrete.

Lt. Col. Gregory D. Riley of Sacramento, Calif., commands Tiger Squadron, and he and his troops have worked minor miracles making the heavily damaged army post livable. There's heat and electricity and running water, but none of the trailer house type living quarters so prevalent at U.S. bases elsewhere.

Here soldiers live in the old barracks in platoon-size communal bays filled with cots and pinups and boxes of goodies from families back home and strangers who ship them addressed "To Any Soldier."

Tiger Squadron has its own Army cooks, and they cook a hot meal for dinner. Last night, for instance, it was fried chicken, vegetables and potatoes. You have a choice in their DFAC: take it or leave it. There's a freezer full of frozen ice cream bars for dessert.

They have a volleyball court, but it's a muddy square at the moment. The soldiers laugh over how some of the improvements have only just gone in—in time for them to leave in a few weeks and hand over lovely FOB Nimr to a unit of the 1st Armor Division.

There are no Fobbits at Nimr. Only soldiers living a hard life and doing a rough job patrolling the roads bordered by fallow fields that soon will begin sprouting a new crop of wheat.

Lt. Col. Riley and his troops like things at Nimr pretty much the way they are. They would rather do what they are doing than live the Fobbit life.