08 November 2010

Walking the TOC

FORT IRWIN, Calif., Sept. 24--The 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division headquarters stumbles into Forward Operating Base (FOB) Denver, and immediately starts unloading the vehicles and setting up the Tactical Operations Center (T.O.C.). The TOC itself--the nerve center for the more than 3,000 troops comprising seven battalions of mostly Iowa and Nebraska National Guard personnel--is located in the "igloo," a brand-new, two-story, circular building that looks like something straight out of Star Wars.

No, not the Death Star. Instead, you know the scene in which the young, restless, and whiney Luke Skywalker looks across the sands of Tatooine under two setting suns, while John Williams' orchestral score swells up? I'm pretty sure that FOB Denver is in the background.

"You know, that little droid is going to cause me a lot of trouble ..."

Moving into the FOB is chaos, but it is a familiar kind of chaos. In the darkness, soldiers try to figure where they're going to be sleeping later that night, provided anyone gets any sleep. The occasional spotlight lights the way to the tents.

From where we park the Humvee to the TOC is approximately 200 meters. Sleeping quarters for officers--majors, lieutenant colonels, colonels--are located nearby the TOC. The trailers, built for four people, sleep eight or nine majors each. Rank has its privileges, apparently, particularly if you like sleeping really, really close to your buddies. Sleeping quarters for everyone else are another 500 meters across the dunes, in massive foam-insulated tents capable of sleeping about 150 soldiers. There is plenty of elbow room, as well as room for other parts of one's body.

The brigade headquarters company and portions of the 2/34th Brigade Special Troops Battalion (B.S.T.B.) divvy up space in only one of these massive "sleep shades. The term is an apparent holdover from when conditions at the National Training Center (N.T.C.) were so rustic, the tents didn't even have walls.

There's some talk and movement toward keeping squad, section, or shift integrity--grouping together the soldiers that work together in the same places and times. That way, day-shifters won't wake up the night-shifters as much, and vice versa. In turns out not to matter much, however. The rushing sound of an industrial air-conditioner masks the usual snoring and banging around. Signs posted on the outside of the tents, warning that the facilities are for sleeping only and to take your business activities elsewhere, also help.

The smart soldiers quickly figure out that the electrical outlets are located on the support columns around the perimeter of the tents, so the layout of the cots develops more organically than the traditional "dress-right-dress" of traditional bivouac sites. When it comes to recharging cameras and bootleg iPods, it's strictly "first come, first served."

There are eight or nine other sleep tents, lined up in two neat rows. There's one for contractors and role players. One for female soldiers from our unit. One for the caterers who will serve the meals in our chow halls.

The dining facilities are another 200 meters past the sleep tent.

For those of you playing along at home, that means the total distance from Humvee to cot to hot meal is approximately one kilometer. Along the way, one passes clusters of portable toilets, hand wash stations, and 500-gallon trailers called "water buffaloes," from which soldiers will refill their canteens and CamelBaks. There are also some semi-trailers containing shower and laundry facilities.

Over the course of the next two weeks, soldiers will repeatedly observe that nothing on the FOB is convenient, but everything is certainly within walking distance.

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