Hall of Shame: The Legacy of Al Udeid’s Failed Commanders

Photo credit: Stephen Mayne.

Early last year, we brought you coverage of the mold issues plaguing transit housing at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, the notoriously miserable, sandswept hellhole housing the US Air Force’s presence in the Middle East. The first piece exposed the issue and criticized the Air Force’s failure to credit and respond to it. The second documented modest progress while questioning what took so long.

To summarize, Al Udeid is and always has been a shithole. We send people there for long stretches of time to do administrative and logistical tasks that could mainly be done from stateside, but because of the political imperative of maintaining a “presence” … whatever that is … we maroon them in a dusty outpost where they will be as bored and depressed as at any time in their lives. To manage the behavioral consequences of treating humans like spiders trapped in jars, we then impose a regimen of batshit crazy rules enforced imposed by the pocket protector equivalent of the legions on Starkiller Base. To top it all off, we refuse to invest in a proper infrastructure to house and care for people, one manifestation of which is the growth of mold in their personal living spaces … to a degree that would get any house on the market condemned by the most craven of slumlords.

That all started to change when we managed to break Congressional fixation on reality TV long enough for the digestion of some choice gnarly pictures and whiteboard tabulations of the electoral consequences of inaction in the face of a scandal implicating ‘Murica’s “fighting” veterans.

This is one instance where I can say without reservation that this blog — and your response to it — definitely moved the needle on an issue that would have otherwise been ignored by general officers (as it had been for a dozen years before). Without the profile getting raised on this issue at a time when legislative staffers and senior blue-suiters were reading these pages, the mold would have continued to proliferate.

We pushed this as hard any any issue since the back-door pension grab of 2013 … because it’s obvious to anyone inside the system that Al Udeid isn’t just the Earth version of Jakku … it’s also a bureaucratic circular firing squad where everyone claims it is someone else’s job to fix things. In the end, nothing usually gets done and airmen lose.

This time was different. As a result of Brig. Gen. Darren James taking ownership of the issue and pledging to correct it, there was an official acknowledgement of a health and safety risk to US servicemembers in a forward-deployed location. Notice I didn’t say combat zone. The only combat at Al Udeid is among the E-9s for who gets to castigate officers who try to order more than their ration of powdered eggs in the chow hall (that’s right bitches … this is a DFAC-free zone).

Here’s what James had to say back in early 2016:

Couple of things about this.

First, it’s the only time anyone in a position of responsibility has taken any responsibility for this issue, and for that James gets a lot of credit.

Second, he’s jumping on a grenade here. This is a problem 15 years in the making, and he had been in command for barely 6 months when he wrote this email to his airmen.

Third, that’s what leaders do. They jump on grenades. James recognized that the only way for this debacle to get turned around was for generals to stop handing it over to one another every summer, meaning someone would have to adopt this mess and drag it around on a leash. He did that, which is a large part of what we pay general officers to do, but a duty which many manage to shirk.

Finally, while he gets a lot of credit, he didn’t do enough. That’s a tough criticism, but an accurate one.

In a Department of Defense Inspector General report released earlier this week, officials give the Al Udeid situation what can only be described as a failing grade, calling it “preventable” and pointing out that commanders have still not addressed the most basic issue: moisture and mold in the living quarters of base occupants, creating a standing health hazard.

Here are two key excerpts.

This is all IG swahili for “there’s still a problem.” And while James’ energy from last year and the IG report are promising signals, they are not enough and not fast enough. What this all means is that we still have people living for 6-15 months in moldy rooms that would not pass muster with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, and that those with the power to fix it are doing jack all about it and saying even less about what they’re not doing.

It’s important to think forward about how this will be fixed, but we can’t know where we’re going without knowing where we’ve been. To that end, I’d like to appeal to the DoD to investigate why this issue languished for 12 years before it was addressed in the wake of media and Congressional scrutiny. I’d like the USAF to answer to why this was never considered important enough by eleven successive general officers to warrant their action, and why none of them got impaled on their swords trying to fix it.

I spent well more than a year altogether at Al Udeid. What I noticed in that time was how much effort leaders put into controlling and directing airmen through the use of rules and policies severely limiting individual liberty. This created a truly miserable experience. What I noticed in parallel was an abject failure to take care of people in even the most basic ways. Al Udeid’s leaders need to spend less time controlling the consumption of alcohol and tobacco … and instead redirect their legion of fun police to making sure airmen have basically healthy living conditions and competent support. Lt. Gen. G.I. Tuck, who commanded Al Udeid during my tour, had his senior E-9 focused on aircrew sleeve rolling and mustache trimming rather than how to find and root out the facility issues compromising quality of life for our supposedly leading edge troops.

I’m not alone in my experience. This is overwhelmingly what’s been registered and reported by Al Udeid survivors since at least the Iraq invasion. This is unacceptable.

The general officers listed below should be asked whether they were aware of the issues impacting airmen in transit quarters at Al Udeid when they were on their tours. If they were aware and did not act, they should be held accountable. A grade determination should be performed on those who are retired, and their retired rank reduced to that which they held before their Al Udeid tour. Those still on active duty should be disciplined. All who failed to take care of their airmen should be publicly reprimanded.

This is an opportunity for the USAF to show it holds leaders accountable for failing to do right by airmen. We’ve seen GOs lambasted for far less. Time to make all that rhetoric real.

Here’s they are, the generals comprising the Al Udeid Hall of Shame. Will they be called to account for focusing on sock color and tucked in PT shirts while mold grew in the private quarters of airmen?

July 2004 – June 2005, Commander, 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, Southwest Asia

June 2005 – June 2006, Commander, 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, Southwest Asia

June 2006 – June 2007, Commander, 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, Southwest Asia

June 2007 – July 2008, Commander, 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, Southwest Asia

July 2008 – July 2009, Commander, 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, Southwest Asia

July 2009 – July 2010, Commander, 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, Southwest Asia

July 2010 – June 2011, Commander, 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, Southwest Asia

June 2011 – June 2012, Commander, 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, Southwest Asia

June 2012 – June 2014, Commander, 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar

June 2014 – June 2015, Commander, 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar


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