Moving forward

When Maj. Dave Flippo first arrived at the abandoned base in southern Iraq, unexploded ordinance littered the ground and gunfire could be heard popping in the distance.

Maj. Flippo, an Air Force logistics officer, was surveying the site to determine what supplies would be needed to convert it into a usable "forward base" for US air forces.

As the front lines advance to within 50 miles of Baghdad, combat search and rescue and close air support missions must move their bases from Kuwait into Iraq in order to respond to emergencies quickly.

"The amount of time we save by not flying from [Kuwait] is critical to saving the troops and airmen on the ground," said Flippo.

But this move comes with risks. As critics of the war strategy have noted, the rush to Baghdad by US ground forces has left them vulnerable to rear-guard actions from irregular Iraqi troops. Flippo's mission illustrates the dangers of forward deployments in areas that remain hot.

Flippo's team arrived by helicopter. From the air, buildings and bunkers speckled the desert. A control tower was visible. And a chain-link fence ran the perimeter of the base, but there were no berms or razor wire. Also visible were multitudes of heavy vehicles, courtesy of the US Army - their protection for the time being.

When Flippo's team hopped off the chopper, they entered a primitive world apparently abandoned with haste.

Teapots and half-eaten meals lay on dusty floors of decrepit buildings. The pita bread had yet to mold. Bathrooms were what you could dig in the dirt. There was no electricity, and no running water.

"You've got to be kidding me? They were living in this?" Flippo remembers thinking.

Hook-ups for water and electricity would need to be installed. Civil engineers and their equipment would be early priorities for future truck convoys and C-130 airlifts. However, his primary mission was to turn the base into a "pit and go" - a bare-bones facility for planes to land, refuel, and take off again. That means fuel - a lot of it - needed to be shipped first.

The next priority would be bombs and bomb loaders. MREs and bottled water would also need to be among the first shipments. Tents, on the other hand, might have to wait.

In the living quarters, slippers still waited for feet. Papers lay scattered on the floor. The Iraqis had slept on three-inch thick pieces of foam covered with bedspreads. They were dirty and stained. Clothes were stored in footlockers. On the wall a clock ticked, and in every room hung a framed poster of Saddam Hussein.

A crank phone sat on a desk. "I didn't press the red button and dial Saddam," Flippo said with a laugh.

While looking around the complex, Flippo said he walked into a bunker and "stopped dead in his tracks" when he saw suspicious-looking wires protruding from a foam mat on the floor. It could have been a booby trap. He walked away.

That night, Flippo slept in a hangar. "You had the wind and everything. But at least you had something over your head," he said. A helicopter rescue squadron kept Flippo and his men company. They fell asleep to the sounds of gunfire along the base perimeter. In the middle of the night, the rescue choppers left on a mission. Practically speaking, the helos were the only way out in an emergency.

"The way we understood it, is the Army had the perimeter," said Flippo, betraying some doubt but no worry. "We never felt unsafe." Bomb blasts woke Flippo's team. The sun was up and A-10s were in the air pounding Iraqi forces nearby. They caught a helicopter ride back to the base in Kuwait later that day.

During the past week, two truck convoys have left for the forward base, bringing with them the first shipment of goods and a contingent of security forces.

"It's kind of trivial for what the Army and Marines do on a daily basis," said Flippo. "But, for my career, it was definitely one of the most dangerous and exciting [jobs] that I've ever had to do."

Editor's note: csmonitor.com reporter Ben Arnoldy is on assignment in Kuwait as part of the Pentagon's program "embedding" journalists with troops involved in the invasion of Iraq. His reporting is collected in the web special project Assignment: Kuwait (http://www.csmonitor.com/specials/kuwait/).

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