The sand was inescapable. No matter what I did, it was omnipresent. My bed, my uniform, my M-16, my food, nothing was beyond the sand’s reach. It was as fine as baby powder, my boots sometimes sinking ankle deep into its grasp. It drove me mad; the only time I was out of its reach was the two minutes I was allowed to shower, only to step onto wet sand upon my exit.
Forward Operating Base (FOB) Kalsu was a small base of operations for the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) while we were in Iraq. It was small, compared to other operating bases in Iraq at the time, but it housed a surprising amount of capability once we built the base up.
There were several locations that everyone knew about; the airfield, the mess hall (cafeteria), the barbershop, the shower trailers, the ‘Hadji Mart’, and the ammunition depot. Each was known for some benefit that it could provide, save the ammo depot. Everyone knew to stay far away from that particular location in case a stray mortar or rocket impacted the wrong place. The ammunition depot was a fairly large area dedicated to everything we had that had explosive potential. The ammunition was stored by category in 20′ shipping containers, each container buried in sand to protect its contents from the temperature, and providing protective cover to surrounding containers should the contents detonate.
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Immediately to the right of the ammunition depot was a large corrugated steel gate. Barriers, filled with sand, were stacked 15 feet tall and prevented anyone from looking within. There was no sign; there was no indication as to what lay beyond the hot steel. This was the Regional Detention Facility (RDF).
It housed the detainees who had been picked up by the infantry for various reasons. They could have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, or they might have been digging a hole for an Improvised Explosive Device (IED or roadside bomb).
The airfield lay directly across from that steel gate. It was only large enough to enable Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) aircraft to make use of it. It was primarily operational at night, when the insurgents couldn’t reliably target the aircraft during the vulnerable takeoff and landing stages. They tried, the Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) trademark whistle penetrating the night’s normal buzz.
It was a short walk from the airfield to the center of the base, where the mess hall was built. Originally a bunch of single wide trailers assembled together, eventually it became a veritable fortress. Twenty foot tall barricades surrounded the mess hall, with more surrounding the waiting area. Additional construction by a detachment of SeaBees (Naval construction unit) further reinforced the mess hall into a building impervious to mortar and RPG fire. While the food was edible, the real reason we ate in the mess hall was for that small feeling of protection that the additional construction provided.
One of the perks that sprouted during our time in charge of FOB Kalsu was the ‘Hajji-mart’. Hajji is an Arabic term for ‘pilgrim’ and became slang for all Iraqis, regardless of pilgrimage status. The Hajji-mart became our center for creature comforts. Anything that you could want or desire could be purchased, from black-market DVD’s to Xboxes. We eventually opened up a full-fledged Post Exchange on-base, but it never could compete with the Hajji-mart in terms of volume.
FOB Kalsu started off as a miniscule sandbox with little operational capability. Once the 24th MEU moved in, however, it became a key player in the War on Terror in Iraq. Aircraft launched from our airfield assisted in the assault on Fallujah. Interrogations in our RDF lead to more IEDs being detected and anti-deployment techniques developed. Our mess hall was expanded so that those on the checkpoints could eat a hot meal a day, at the very least. We arrived to a sandbox, but the 24th MEU left behind a base.
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