Simple Things Boost Morale in Tent City
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
PRINCE BIN SULTAN AIR BASE, Saudi Arabia, Dec. 16, 1997 When nature calls at 3 a.m., it's a struggle to don street clothes and hike to a latrine somewhere down the road. Anyone assigned to the U.S. Air Force 4404th Wing (Provisional) will readily tell you that's just part of life here in Tent City.
In this desert camp of 750 tents, a middle-of-the-night latrine trip is not the solitary experience one would expect. With shift work and 24-hour flight operations, people are out and about at all hours.
Under starlit skies, lone, muscular joggers eerily move past silent walkers. A young woman bearing toothbrush and towel heads for the women's shower tent. Men and women sit quietly on the dark porch of a morale facility waiting for a turn to call home. People stir near a mess tent called "Camel Lot."
Dark alleys between the dress-right-dress tent rows call to mind other desert residents -- snakes, scorpions, wild dogs, the occasional spitting camel. Reaching the welcome light of the latrine, one finds a sparkling clean trailer housing white porcelain, heat and hot water.
Life in Tent City isn't that bad, Air Force Master Sgt. Art Tovar said after spending his first week in the desert. The NCO from the 838th Engineering and Installation Squadron at Kelly Air Force Base, Texas, was set for 75 days' temporary duty. "I was in Riyadh three years ago and we stayed in the villas," he said. "Out here, everybody is in tents. It's a little crowded and little bit dustier, but you get used to it."
Air Force Staff Sgt. Harold Stull, a 4404th Communications Squadron photographer, said field conditions at the base are a little more rugged than he'd anticipated. A month into his four- month tour, Stull said, "I miss friends and family the most, but you get used to it. The human spirit just kind of overcomes anything."
A week shy of completing a 120-day tour here, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Luke Carney, from San Jose, Calif., said facilities at the base are a lot nicer than he expected. "Even though we're living in tents, we still have fairly good facilities and we get very good support." But once he leaves, Carney said, he won't miss having to walk two blocks to go to the bathroom at night.
"Morale is determined by some pretty simple things around here," said Air Force Brig. Gen. Bentley B. Rayburn, wing commander. "A clean bathroom. A place to take a nice warm shower. Washing machines that work when you go to do your clothes. We try to focus on the basics. We're improving things for our troops every day."
At any one time, about 4,500 troops serve at Prince Bin Sultan Air Base as part of Operation Southern Watch. This includes British and French air forces and U.S. Army Patriot missile crews. Of the 4,000 or so U.S. troops, most are TDY from their home stations. They serve rotations lasting anywhere from 45 to 120 days. About 40 permanent party members -- senior NCOs and commanders -- stay for a year
While some units such as a fighter squadron will deploy as a unit, others -- support, security forces, civil engineering and communications -- are made up of individuals and teams from different bases. "In one squadron, you'll have people from Minot [Air Force Base, N.D.], Misawa [Air Base, Japan], Spangdahlem [Air Base, Germany], Robins [Air Force Base, Ga.]," Rayburn said. "As you walk around and ask people where they're from, you realize the entire Air Force is here at Prince Sultan."
Despite the flow of incoming and outgoing personnel, the base "ticks along at a smooth clip" due to quality people, training and leadership, the commander said. "We are trained exceptionally well in a very standard fashion," Rayburn said. "So when Sgt. Smith comes in from Yokota [Air Base, Japan], and works right next to Sgt. Jones from Beale [Air Force Base, Calif.], they fall right into their jobs and responsibilities."
With a little instruction and guidance from leadership, Rayburn said, work gets done at an exceptionally high level. "That's a testament to the training and the midlevel supervision -- the shop chiefs, the flight commanders, up to the squadron commanders -- and their ability to pull people into an organization and pretty much not miss a beat."
Most residents admit Tent City has its drawbacks -- power outages, water shortages, desert heat -- but it also has its up side. Working and living together develops camaraderie, Rayburn said.
"Tent life tends to drive people out into the very pleasant evening air," he said. "You can walk around this tent city 24 hours a day and there's always something going on. Over the course of a four-month TDY, people recognize they've made a lot of fast friends. That's been one of the real pluses to duty here in the desert."
Throughout the camp, people used their own ingenuity and base lumber to build porches on their tents, Rayburn said. With six to eight people to a tent, including some shift workers, people need a place to hang out, he said.
How to retain this "front porch" sense of community is one challenge the future holds for the base commander. Next March, the 4404th Wing is scheduled to move into "Coalition Village," a permanent housing facility the Saudis are building. "Once we move out, we will tear Tent City down and put it back into the boxes for the next time we need it."
Rayburn said he wants to avoid what he's seen at other stations. When troops live in villas, he said, they go to work, go to dinner, go into their villa, flip on the TV and "veg" out. "The place is dead," Rayburn said. "Here, there's always life. What we're wrestling with is how do we capture all the neat part of tent life and not lose that when we move. We're going to make sure we have lots of community facilities."
In the meantime, life continues to improve at the site Air Force officials described as "a survivalist setting" when the Defense Department first moved air operations here in August 1996.
Starting from scratch, troops set up power generators, sewage system, water supply, trash collection and communications. They laid 20 miles of road, relocated 155 trailers and built 20 large aircraft hangers and warehouses. About 78 aircraft and more than 25,000 tons of equipment moved to the base.
Today, tents have air conditioning, real beds, wall lockers, television, VCRs and refrigerators. Plywood floors are covered with Persian carpets troops buy at a monthly bazaar. Dining facilities sport names like Rolling Sands, Camel Lot and The Mirage.
There's also a base exchange, alterations shop, gift shop, swimming pools and fitness centers. An education center and library opened in July. Burger King, Pizza Inn, California Deli, and Baskin Robbins Ice Cream -- affectionately known as "B&R Health Foods" -- are now open. The Desert Diamond Oriental restaurant held its grand opening in November.
Volleyball and basketball courts, baseball fields, exercise bikes, stairmasters, treadmills, ski machines, nautilus and free weights are in demand. Most troops rarely, if ever, leave the desert base once they arrive due to the ever-present terrorist threat. Off base morale trips were canceled recently due to heightened tension between Iraq and the United Nations.
"Most people are surprised by how much there is to do here," said Air Force Maj. Mark K. White. The 4404th Services Squadron commander is four months into his year-long tour. His squadron runs base fitness centers, dining facilities, recreation centers, and a community center.
White said base officials continually improve quality of life for Tent City residents. His squadron is ordering more video games and trying to book more DoD bands and USO shows. Plans also include a golf driving range.