Balad Air Base, Iraq 2009- located near Balad in the Sunni Triangle 40 miles north of Baghdad, Iraq. Built in the early 1980s, it was originally named Al-Bakr Air Base.
Photos by Christopher "MOGS" DiNote taken between April 2009-October 2009. [120 Photos]
Posted with permission. The appearance of DoD visual information and description for this gallery is an independent work of military history and does not imply or constitute endorsement.'
Call me MOGS. I took these photos during my Operation Iraqi Freedom deployment at Joint Base Balad (JBB), known over the years by many other names.
Deploying as a wet behind the ears Major from April to October 2009, Balad was a base teeming with activity, spring through summer into fall. U.S. combat forces were in the process of completing their withdrawal from Iraqi urban centers, leaving those operations to Iraqi security forces, and at the same time shutting down or transferring to other operating locations in country. There was a high level of anticipation for the large-scale withdrawal of U.S. forces, to come in 2010 and 2011.
I was assigned to the 332nd Expeditionary Security Forces Group (332 ESFG). My unit consisted of a large USAF Security Forces contingent as well as various support elements. The 332 ESFG under the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing (332 AEW) carried the lineage and honors of the famed 332nd Fighter Group (332 FG), whose emblem was a black panther spitting fire, thus their unit motto “Spit Fire.” Constituted on 4 July 1942, the 332 FG served on the Italian front under 12th Air Force flying the P-39 Airacobra and P-40 Warhawk in a ground support role. After earning recognition as an aggressive and lethal fighter group they graduated to the P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft while operating under the 15th Air Force in a bomber escort role. Their actions during this critical mission role earned them great respect from their fellow airmen earning the 332 FG the right to paint their tail fins in a red color giving them the nom de guerre of “Red Tails” or “Red-Tailed Angels.”
During my deployment, the 332nd AEW flew a variety of aircraft to include the F-16 Falcon (we all call it the Viper, and always will), C-130 Hercules, MQ -1 Predator, HH-60 Pave Hawk rescue helicopter, and the inaugural deployment of the MC-12W Liberty. With this variety of air assets, the 332nd AEW was the premier force generator responsible for the majority of air missions in Iraq and oversaw administration of most of the of USAF Airmen stationed throughout the country, some alone and unafraid filling Joint Expeditionary Taskings (JET).
When the USAF stood up Joint Base Balad (JBB) in 2008, support for the base personnel reflected the many fine amenities placed throughout the base over the preceding years as LSA Anaconda and Balad Air Base to include a movie theater, swimming pool, a well-stocked bazaar, a Turkish café, American fast food, shops, and a base exchange. While there I took advantage of the facilities purchasing some fine rugs and a leather jacket I still wear with pride to this day.
The 332 ESFG provide base defense and law enforcement maintaining perimeter security while disrupting and countering the Indirect Fire (IDF) giving the base its nickname of “Mortaritaville.” Fortunately, by the time of my deployment, IDF significantly decreased, becoming overall ineffective. (Note – the relative calm didn’t last, and things picked up again towards the end of my time there).
Joint Base Balad was incredibly complex with over 28,000 Coalition forces and more than 8,000 contractors calling it home at its peak. This did not include the addition of local Iraqi workers from the district, including Bakir village right outside one of the main entry control points (ECPs).
The 332 ESFG kept busy launching ground patrols in the area surrounding JBB to keep adversaries off-balance in support of the U.S. Army’s battlespace owner (BSO). If you’d like to know more about this, read the book Defending Air Bases in the Age of Insurgency, published in 2014.
Now, let’s get to the pictures. Bremer Wall or T-Wall art was everywhere and inescapable. Official and unofficial unit patches marked territory and presented a timeline of the war. I saw morale art and somber memorials. We had crude graffiti made by anyone with a can of spray paint and murals by talented artists.
I was inspired to help preserve it with the knowledge that none of it would last forever possibly destined to end up repainted, destroyed, recycled, or lost. I was determined to keep some of this history in the making from disappearing forever. Remembering the famous “Kilroy was here” doodles of World War II. Soldier art and graffiti are as old as humankind. We have examples from Rome, China, Egypt, and other cultures from antiquity to the present day.
The T-Wall art on Balad captured every phase of the war in Iraq from 2003 to 2009. We left our mark on it when we unveiled the T-Walls for the security forces group, its squadrons, and other attached units. I especially like the T-Wall for the 532nd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron (532 ESFS) “Lions.” They were the “outside the wire” roaming base defense squadron. The Lions’ sister squadron, the 332 ESFS, performed the “inside the wire” law enforcement role. There’s a lot of history behind this, beginning in Vietnam with Operation SAFESIDE, but that’s for another day.
I spent a lot of my time coordinating intelligence between the units on base, and this required a lot of driving around and walking. I often had my camera with me, so I went out of my way to shoot pictures of interesting T-Wall art along the way. I wandered around the base between shifts, while getting coffee at the Green Bean, in between sleep, the gym, and the Dining Facilities Administration Center (DFAC), still commonly known as the mess at the time. (You don’t seem to hear that term as much anymore).
Living on Balad was, at times, a surreal experience, stimulating me to learn as much as I could about the place. Every organization, whether military, civilian, contractor, all of them, had T-Wall art and challenge coins. The memorials told you who’d had a hard rotation. The humor was dark, irreverent, or stolen from the internet. I think every Big Ten school was represented in T-Wall art. Odd historical facts even cropped up on T-Wall art. I have no idea why someone felt the need to commemorate the drilling of the world’s first oil well in Pennsylvania, 1859, on a T-Wall.
The 332 AEW Tuskegee Airmen heritage memorial was reverent. I saw many famous USAF fighter squadron patches from across the active duty, the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve. So many Army formations passed through that base, it became a walking museum of Army unit heraldry.
Junked, derelict, or destroyed Iraqi military equipment was collected into “graveyards.” There were tanks, truck mounted rocket launchers, and MiG-23s galore. Some likely bombed or shot up, maybe during Desert Storm or in the opening days of the 2003 invasion. Others just cannibalized for parts over the years. However, once something’s been damaged in war, it gathers a certain smell that never really goes away. Those Iraqi MiG-23s accumulated layers and layers of graffiti; “tags,” gallows humor, dirty jokes and vulgar expressions. “So and so was here,” or “Iraq sucks.” However, that graffiti captured years and years of frustration, anger, cockiness, bravado, every emotion felt by every servicemember deployed far from home in dangerous circumstances.
Now I was a “FOBBit,” but the job required some occasional travel off post. We usually went by helo to meet with the Base Security Officer (BSO) out at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Paliwoda. I shot dozens of pictures of the countryside on those trips. In June, FOB Paliwoda became the Balad Joint Coordination Center (JCC). This lined up with the handoff of bases and cities to the Iraqis. I don’t recall any T-Wall art there, but that could be due to my faulty memory or limited opportunities to wander around.
I remember staying overnight around the time it became the JCC. While trying to catch a few winks on a bench in the courtyard, kicking around a soccer ball with some Iraqi National Police guys (at least I think they were) or browsing the library of donated books. My geek flag flew a little more unfurled than usual in this environment, while keeping a few old Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard paperbacks, some with awesome covers painted by Frank Frazetta. I didn’t think those would survive either.
The few times I went overland, I rode with the Lions and tried to stay out of the way. Instead of an M4, I ended up with a full-sized M16, which didn’t fit too well in our Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles. We had hand-me-down MaxxPros, tall and top heavy (which made them prone to rollovers). I didn’t want to be completely useless, so I got trained in the Combat Lifesaving Course and carried a few extra Individual First Aid Kits (IFAKS) instead along with my M9. The rifle usually stayed in the armory.
The MaxxPro MRAP has a particular diesel sound. Then there’s the sound of .50 cal test firing before we depart. Next comes the uneasiness when your convoy stops in traffic in Balad city, and all the intercom banter goes quiet.
Here’s a few more scenes that may resonate with you: A rooftop reenlistment ceremony during a C-RAM test fire. Streams of tracers into the sky with an American flag as a backdrop. We quickly got used to the IDF alarms and became indifferent to them. Well, except for those first and last two weeks on station. And the mud. It’s easy to understand how ancient cities could be built out of that mud. Dust and sand that I was still shaking out of clothes years later. And yes, the burn pits. I kept as far away as possible.
That picture of a small shelter, graffiti all over the wall and seems like an orange filter? That’s the smoke pit. Multi-day sandstorm, July 4th week, 2009. The whole world turned Day-Glo orange. The smoke pit often turned up the best gouge for what was happening on base and built a lot of relationships useful for the mission. The cigars came from care packages or the bazaar.
There were moments of quiet that let you see just how beautiful the country could be. I still miss my Assyrian Christian interpreters (terps) and how proud they were to be naturalized Americans. I met some of the folks of Bakir village and talked to them through my ‘terps. We learned about sheiks and “fake sheiks.”
My Containerized Housing Unit (CHU) was apparently right under the final turn point flight path for medical helos headed to the base hospital, the only Level One Trauma Center in theater. I used to go there to donate blood and platelets, while experiencing the smell of burnt human flesh. During my deployment, flash heat burn injuries from Homemade Explosive (HME) IEDs were common. Strong enough to flash heat metal and cause serious burns to unprotected flesh. As far as I know our injuries in the 332 ESFG were limited to broken eardrums, a few broken bones, burns, and some shrapnel. During my deployment we had more casualties from vehicle rollovers than combat. I’m sure we also had traumatic brain injuries, but I don’t know for certain. I can’t say the same about the local US Army units, the Sons of Iraq or Coalition forces in other parts of the theater; Diyala comes to mind.
True story time. No kidding, I remember sitting on a toilet in a “Cadillac” latrine trailer at the exact moment insurgent rockets flew right overhead, and exploded some distance away, maybe 600 yards or so. I had two thoughts: First, my last words were going to be “It figures.” Second, if one of those things hit the latrine, someone was going to find me dead, completely untouched, but sitting on the throne with the trailer blown up all around me. The thought of some poor schlub trying to explain how I died to my mom terrified me. Those rockets did hit the base and detonate, and fortunately only caused minor shrapnel injuries.
There’s many, many more stories: What I did right, and what I did wrong (if you’re reading this, I’m sorry Getter!). Good and bad memories. I hope these pictures and stories give you some insights.
United States Air Force Colonel Christopher DiNote is the Senior Intelligence Officer of the Continental United States North American Aerospace Defense Command Region, First Air Force, Air Forces Northern and Air Forces Space, or CONR-1AF (AFNORTH & AFSPACE), at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.