Home Fires: In Balad, Smoke and Fire


By Dan Clare, The New York Times

Balad Air Base in northern Iraq was once nicknamed “Mortaritaville” by the soldiers and airmen who called it home. When I was there from 2007 to 2008, mortar attacks were so common and seemingly ineffective that the frequent interruptions were often a welcome break from the daily grind.

For most airmen on base, a trip beyond guarded gates of Balad was unthinkable. Beyond the usual mortar or rocket attack, I know it’s strange to say, one would have to go to the hospital to be sure there was a war going on.

Yet, a dark cloud loomed above us, never letting us forget that we were not on home station.

Balad, like bases throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, burned its own waste. Hundreds of tons of Styrofoam, plastic, uniforms, oil, fuel and other trash went into the air from an open, smoldering pit.

When I first arrived in Iraq, I thought a portion of the base was under attack. We later learned the floating plume was the source of Balad’s signature stench.

At times, the wind would change directions and a toxic cloud would hang low and overwhelm the housing area. It could influence flight line operations, limit visibility and make eyes and lungs burn. It was inescapable. More than once it made me sick. I went to medical for help and was told that my nausea and symptoms were minor compared to people who were coughing up black phlegm and having constant attacks.

Read more at The New York Times

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