Troops get creative with Baghdad airport quarters

Even with no plumbing and limited electricity, US soldiers see the roof over their head as a luxury.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Just outside the VIP lounge at the former Saddam International Airport, a sign is taped to the door. It reads: "Stay Out or Die."

One might be tempted to assume the dire warning is left over from the ruthless government of Saddam Hussein. But, in fact, it was posted by members of the 101st Airborne Division as a means to stake out a prime spot to sleep.

The subtext of the sign reads: "Well, you'll at least lose a hand or something."

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Welcome to the newly named Baghdad International Airport, temporary home to an assortment of US forces who have converted the modern, if somewhat dusty, terminal building into a combination barracks, hospital, supply depot, and recreation center.

You can find the 308th Civil Affairs Brigade in the luggage loading area. The soldiers of V Corps are bedding down on the padded seats at Gates 42 and 43. And the Black Hawk helicopter pilots of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment have set up their cots in the arrivals lobby.

"We are living pretty well," says Brian Hubbard, a corporal with the 101st. He motions into the plushly decorated room where some of Mr. Hussein's buddies must have cooled their heels waiting for flights.

"We're sleeping on the leather couches," he says.

As any seasoned international air traveler knows, there is nothing unusual about occasionally having to camp out in an airport terminal for a night or two. But some of these soldiers have been here two weeks and counting without any plumbing and only limited electricity.

That means no air conditioning despite 90-degree-plus heat, and, more important, no working toilets.

Two enterprising members of the 308th solved that problem by locating several pieces of scrap wood, two halves of a 55-gallon drum, two rolling luggage carts, and a couple of toilet seats.

A few hours later, after a bit of sawing and nailing, Lt. Col. Zbigniew Litynski and Maj. Derek Schneider arranged those ingredients into a two-seat privy.

Some units have strung up field showers - a plastic bag and water nozzle surrounded by ponchos serving as shower curtains. But Colonel Litynski and Major Schneider are unimpressed. They're talking about converting a fuel pump and some plastic pipe into a real shower.

Despite a few obvious inconveniences, the airport terminal carries some distinct advantages for tired soldiers.

"We slept on a concrete slab last night in the middle of a mine field," says Spc. Stephen Shea, a Black Hawk helicopter crew member. He said the wind gusted to 50 knots and the dust and small stones sounded like rain pelting against the aluminum skin of the helicopter nearby. When he awoke in the morning, he was covered in dust.

To Specialist Shea, the arrivals terminal looks pretty good. "It's a lot better than concrete, especially in a dust storm," he says.

Spc. Daniel Crabtree of Streator, Ill., agrees. "It's fairly comfortable having an actual roof over your head," he says. "It's kind of like a luxury." He is positioning large pieces of drywall around a U-shaped area of seats that he is claiming as his own personal space near Gate 42. He says he prefers stretching out across the seats rather than using his Army-issued cot.

The troops do more than sleep and shower here. Just outside the bank in the arrivals lobby, someone has attached a DVD player to a working television set. On one recent day, about 30 soldiers were watching an episode of "Friends." Their laughter echoes though the cavernous hall.

For Staff Sgt. Robert Strawley of Mount Holly, N.J., bunking down in the airport is a battlefield accomplishment more than a convenience.

"This was a key objective for us," says Sergeant Strawley of the V Corps Battle Staff. "So it is a satisfying moment to occupy the airport and rename it Baghdad Airport rather than Saddam Airport."

The building itself is in fairly good shape and will probably not need extensive renovation prior to opening for international flights at some point in the future.

Most of the heavy fighting necessary to capture this strategic and highly symbolic location took place across the runway on the southwest approach to the airport. The only visible combat damage is a few strafed windows. And many of the doors in the building were kicked open by soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division, as they conducted a room-to-room search for Iraqi forces.

In addition to the throng of US troops, the signs of military occupation are everywhere. Tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles rumble past on nearby roads. Humvees are in abundance. Helicopters are constantly arriving and leaving. And multiple flights of C-130 transport planes make the trip from Kuwait daily.

With only a few exceptions, it is now virtually impossible to find a portrait of Hussein at the airport. One of the few pictures still visible is a 15-foot-tall likeness of Hussein in a white suit with a paisley tie, painted on tile. It is located just outside the terminal building.

From a distance it appears untouched. But upon closer inspection, even this tribute has been slightly altered. With an ink marker someone has written in a comic-book bubble beside Hussein's mouth: "I Love France."

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