Cohen: Duty's Tough, But Mission's Vital
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
PRINCE BIN SULTAN AIR BASE, Saudi Arabia, Jun. 18, 1997 Iran and Iraq are determined to drive the United States out of the Middle East, but the United States is just as determined to stay.
That's the message Defense Secretary William S. Cohen gave June 15 to about 400 U.S. troops stationed here. From this isolated, desert base, about 4,000 American, 330 British and 150 French service members launch 35 to 200 air sorties a day to enforce the U.N.-sanctioned no-fly and no-drive zones in southern Iraq.
Cohen traveled to the air base during a five-day visit to the Middle East. U.S. forces moved to the base from Dhahran nearly a year ago, after a terrorist truck bomb killed 19 Americans and injured about 400 others at Khobar Towers.
After meeting with Saudi Arabian King Fahd in the more humid coastal city of Jeddah a day earlier, Cohen got a taste of what it's like to serve with the U.S. Air Force 4404th (Provisional) Wing in an arid, barren land, devoid of all but sand, snakes, scorpions and the occasional wild dog. He got to see the clear blue skies, blinding sun, and acres of sand and scrub stretching to the horizon. And he got to feel the heat.
It was 117 degrees Fahrenheit as the defense secretary, wearing a sharply pressed blue suit, white shirt and red tie, toured the flight line, tent city and force protection measures here. What he saw, along with the sand and scrub, was an American air base running a 24-hour-a-day mission.
He saw fighter jets, tankers, reconnaissance and transport aircraft lining the runway. Maintenance, supply and recreational facilities. More than 700 tents, each home to eight people. A food court featuring Burger King, Pizza Inn and Baskin-Robbins. He saw a thriving American military community where rumbling generators are the only source of power and laboring air conditioning units are the only source of relief from the relentless heat.
Last winter, a base spokesman said, temperatures at the base dropped to a cool 50. Daily downpours during spring's rainy season lasted about 10 minutes, but the moisture evaporated just as quickly as it came. Sand storms and strong winds are common. In the summer, temperatures climb to 120 degrees.
While trailer-based latrines and other facilities can be chilled, cooling a large mess tent is altogether another chore, according to a base operations spokesman. Cohen knows. He addressed troops from a stage in a large tent facility and had lunch in a dining hall tent.
For his address to the troops, Air Force officials installed an air conditioner from an Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft and turned it on hours in advance to cool an area large enough to house 400 soldiers, sailors and airmen. The cooling unit, about the size of a cube of eight hay bales, successfully dropped the inside temperature to about 85 degrees, maybe 90 -- a marked difference from the outside.
Cohen said he could see it was "tough duty" at the Arabian base. But, he told the assembled troops, their service is important to U.S. national security, and it is deeply appreciated back home.
"The Middle East is of vital interest to the United States," Cohen said. "It is of vital interest to the Western world's economy, and what takes place here determines the fate of many countries all over the world."
The United States is committed to remaining a strong, engaged, global power, Cohen said. This means keeping troops forward-deployed in the Asia-Pacific region, Europe and in the Middle East.
"Because in that way, we reassure our allies that we are strong, that we are swift, and we are determined to protect our interest and theirs, as well," he said. "You are keeping the peace. That is a very important mission for you. It is a dangerous one."
The Middle East remains a high-threat area, Cohen said. Saddam Hussein's army is the largest in the region and just a few miles beyond Kuwait's border. Troops have to be on constant alert for themselves and for their buddies. "If you stay alert, you stay alive, and you carry out the mission successfully."
Cohen reviewed security measures at the base during his tour. Located near the town of al-Kharj, about 60 miles south of Riyadh, the U.S. base is actually contained within a Saudi air base. Thus, it has multiple security perimeters, and extraordinary force protection measures are in place, including observation towers, high-tech sensors and trip flares on fences. About 4,000 concrete Jersey barriers protect the airfield, and more than 300 security troops guard the base.
Based on what he saw during his two-hour visit to the base, Cohen said, security measures are "quite extensive" and go a long way toward providing "very good security." But, he said, "This is a dangerous part of the world. The alert has to be high and the precautions have to be high. No facility will be 100 percent foolproof."
Most service members serve 120-day rotations, with some returning two or three times. Officers may serve up to a year-long tour. Cohen acknowledged that duty at the remote base requires a great sacrifice by service members and their families left behind. But, he said, that sacrifice does not go unnoticed.
"So when you wonder why you are here, remember, you are carrying out a mission of extreme importance to us. You are the muscle behind our diplomacy. You are the warriors that make our diplomats successful. They cannot achieve at the bargaining table what we can't win on the battlefield."
The best weapons and technology are useless without the people to operate them, he said. "If we can't keep you highly trained, highly ready and highly satisfied, we won't be the strongest force in the world for freedom [as we are] today.
"You are the swiftest; you are the strongest. That's why our allies bet on us. That's why our enemies have to take a very long look when they decide to challenge us. That's why we are looked upon as the most reliable nation in the world."
Cohen said his trip to the base was a chance to hear what service members think about what the military is doing and can be doing better. "This is an opportunity, not for me to make a long speech, but to have a chance to find out what you think we are doing right and what we are doing wrong." He said he would take their message back to Washington and Capitol Hill.
After lunch, in the fair-to-middling-hot mess tent, Cohen responded to troops' queries about tour lengths and personnel and base cuts proposed in the recently completed Quadrennial Defense Review before repeating his praise and gratitude for their service.
Before moving on to his next stop in Kuwait, Cohen thanked the men and women in uniform -- desert cammies and sand-colored boots -- for all they do for America.
"I want to thank your families for the sacrifices they are making, waiting for you back home, and to let you know that we are truly appreciative of the best fighting force in the world."