Earlier this week, we shared a report about mold infestation problems plaguing communal showers at Al Udeid Air Base. The facilities we chronicled, part of a compound housing thousands of temporary duty airmen at the busy deployed base, have since been closed according to sources familiar with the situation. Base leaders told airmen the showers would remain closed indefinitely, adding no additional detail. Airmen had previously been told the mold posed no health risks, an assailable proposition.
The mold issue is a subset of a larger, more persistent, and more distressing problem at Al Udeid: the lodging of airmen carrying out the service’s core combat role in substandard conditions. The mold problem isn’t just in the showers. It’s in living quarters and air conditioners. Airmen report that the contractors charged with cleaning bathrooms and common areas do poor work, leaving facilities in a general state of filth. Roofs are leaky, causing floods inside living quarters during the rainy season. Dust and dirt are everywhere. The trailers used to house airmen are in general disrepair.
Housing isn’t the only problem. Morale facilities are intermittently closed — sometimes for repairs or renovations and sometimes without any explanation at all. Dining facilities periodically run short on supplies. The base watering hole, an important refuge for airmen, sometimes runs out of beer.
Conditions at Al Udeid have been horrible for as long as anyone can remember, and there are some logical explanations for why. First, the base has always straddled the conceptual line between a deployed location and a main base. The Air Force has long classified it as a contingency operating location despite its apparent permanence. This has precluded long-term budget stability, locking facility and logistical planners into a perpetual pick-up game.
Second, and related, the base gets a new leadership team every year (though this is reportedly shifting to a two-year expectation for senior commanders) and a new workforce roughly every six months (though many are on repeat rotations). New bosses spend a substantial chunk of their tours acclimating to the issues and run out of time before they can do much to change things. It’s not clear that anyone is responsible for developing a long-term vision for the base, or appropriately empowered to pursue it.
The significance of conceptualizing the base as a “forward” warfighting location, and the way this contributes to subpar conditions there, shouldn’t be underestimated. Over the last decade or so, when airmen have complained that the conditions at Al Udeid — compounded by a top-heavy and mercilessly minutiae-obsessed obedience culture — were more like a prison camp than an Air Force base, they were usually admonished to stop whining and reminded that someone else had it worse somewhere else. This bullying marginalized and tamped down valid complaints, enabling the Air Force to skimp on conditions at the base while continuing to dump money into other, less important priorities.
It also left airmen broadly appalled at the level of intellectual dishonesty embraced by leaders in positions of responsibility. Everyone who has spent time at Al Udeid in the post-9/11 era understands it’s not a “forward” location. It’s distant from the fight, situated a few miles from a modern metropolitan area in one of the richest per capita countries in the world, and has been utterly untouched by the nation’s adversaries. It’s about as much a “forward” base as it is a fairyland castle, and there’s no logical reason for it to be near as miserable as it is.
Behind all the chest-thumping, commanders have understood the frailty of this illogic, which is why some have made modest efforts over time to modernize the base. In 2008, the Blatchford-Preston Complex (or “BPC”) was opened. It provided nine well-appointed dormitories, a community center/exchange, a gym, a dining facility, and a host of other associated structures. The BPC was a major step forward for conditions at Al Udeid.
But the BPC’s dorms were built with limited capacity, leaving thousands of airmen in the legacy Coalition Compound, where they continue to be housed in “temporary” trailers now more than a dozen years old.
This has created an internal class system at the base, with the BPC nicknamed the “Better People Complex” by understandably envious denizens spending upwards of six months in dramatically worse conditions than their teammates. Airmen have reacted with increasing cynicism, exemplified by this darkly hilarious take. Deepening the divide and scorching morale even more: a raft of inane bureaucratic policies limiting occupancy rates in the BPC, leaving many rooms unnecessarily and arbitrarily empty.
Amid the recent turmoil over facility disrepair, many among both the leadership element and the rank-and-file have assigned blame to a single, glaring culprit: an unfinished housing upgrade project nearly two years past due and moving at the speed of desert-baked molasses.
In 2012, officials awarded a contract for the construction of additional billets to replace the temporary trailers in Al Udeid’s Coalition Compound. The $34 million dollar upgrade was scheduled for completion in mid-2014. Having taken nearly twice as long as originally scheduled, contractors are still not ready to turn over the finished facilities to airmen.
A message from Al Udeid’s leaders to the base population explains the most recent excuse (in a long-running list) for the delay. Seems the electrical wiring in the new units wasn’t done properly, and that there is consequently a risk of electrical fire. Wing leaders are understandably refusing to put airmen into the facilities until the problem is corrected and they’re certified safe. The result is an ongoing pissing contest between the Air Force and the contractor, with the Army Corps of Engineers running interference.
Read for yourself:
The decision made by leaders to refuse acceptance of the facilities until they’re up to snuff is obviously the right call. The fact that the contract is late and the work subpar is frustrating for those on the receiving end, and gestures toward failure further up the chain. The fact it took the Air Force until 2012 to start work on the new dorms — basically guaranteeing the existing facilities would fall apart before the new ones were ready — is a gross failure at the executive level. Conditions at Al Udeid were a known issue long before then.
But most distressing of all is that there could be even a single empty room in the BPC as this clown show continues to rage ad infinitum. Not only should the BPC be 100% occupied, but the contingency dorms set aside to house forward deploying staffers from Ninth Air Force should also be fully utilized.
Airmen are not entitled to, nor do they expect, luxurious living conditions. They are entitled to, and rightly expect, the best conditions reasonably possible under the circumstances. Leaders owe a duty to their people to meet this expectation. Al Udeid is an example of multiple leaders at multiple levels over multiple years failing to fulfill this basic duty.
It’s admirable that Al Udeid’s senior leaders are demanding new housing units meet safety standards before airmen move in. But in the meantime, while they push the contractor to meet standards without delay, they need to pull out all the stops and exercise every exception to lift as many airmen as possible out of the substandard conditions of the Coalition Compound.
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