January 09, 2006
Back to basics: Lack of space forces Iraq war vets to decompress at Quonset hut camp
By Gidget Fuentes
Times staff writer
CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — It’s supposed to go like this: An infantry battalion returns home from war. Most of the men, being single, settle into their barracks and jump back into their normal lives.
But for about 500 infantrymen with 1st Battalion, 5th Marines — back from its third tour in Iraq — that transition to normalcy was interrupted by a lack of rooms in the enlisted barracks at Camp San Mateo.
Their temporary digs? Quonset huts.
It’s all because San Mateo, one of the northernmost camps at this sprawling base, was an unusually crowded place this fall. Home to 5th Marines’s regimental staff and five battalions — 1/5, 2/5, 3/5, 2/4 and 1st Combat Engineer Battalion — it usually has enough facilities to house three of the infantry battalions during a routine cycling of units overseas. Ongoing combat operations in Iraq and continuing deployments of shipboard Marine expeditionary units have altered those cycles.
Since September, all four infantry battalions found themselves home at the same time, which put a squeeze on available barracks space.
So instead of a barracks room, members of Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Weapons companies are living squad-bay style at nearby Camp Talega — at least until early or mid-January when 1/5 moves into space vacated by 3/5, which will be deploying. Headquarters Company, including battalion members recovering from combat injuries, has been in the barracks.
In the meantime, 15 Quonset huts each accommodate about 30 Marines and sailors in bunk-style living, each with a wall locker to store belongings. The huts are used often by Reserve units and local battalions training in the area.
There is electrical power but no heat. Several nearby huts house bathrooms and showers. A large air-conditioned Quonset hut serves as a recreation room, although the television is small by Marine standards, and a nearby classroom provides space for instruction. Personal vehicles must be parked a moderate walk away. Buses run three times daily between Talega and Mateo so the men can dine at Mateo’s chow hall, which is roughly three miles from Talega.
On weekends, Marines who want to head out into town can either ride county buses or hitch rides with friends.
The 25-acre camp has a small club, chapel, gym and aid station that’s manned by two corpsmen assigned to San Mateo. Wells provide drinking water, which is regularly tested and is fine, despite some cloudiness and smell at times.
It’s not the newest, most modern facility, admits Lt. Col. Norm Root, site commander with Mobilization Support Battalion.
Little at the camp has changed in the past few decades, although a $1 million project added heating and air-conditioning to a large building that serves as a classroom and recreation area.
“They actually have plans to redo this area by 2014,” Root said. Until then, he has to make do and concern himself with worries of what winter rains might do to his $8,000 annual maintenance budget.
The best option
The battalion’s commander said the Talega move was the only palatable option, since the alternative meant spreading out the men into any available rooms at San Mateo and other camps, including Horno, home to 1st Marines.
That prospect, coming as the unit returned home from war, concerned Lt. Col. Eric Smith. He said scattering the men would have left them unconnected to the unit and more alone and unsupervised at a critical point in their return home.
“I made the decision. What we did not want to do was to have them apart. We want them to live as a battalion,” Smith said.
He wanted to continue the “Warrior Transition” program for returning combat veterans that began before 1/5 left Iraq in October.
The transition program includes classes, information and counseling for returning war vets. Supervised transition is important, considering those Marines lived on the edge, in combat, for seven straight months. “I’ll take the criticism,” Smith said.
So far, he said, the battalion has had no serious incidents, suicides or other problems often associated with a unit returning from combat. “We’ve probably been very fortunate,” he said.
The availability of Quonset huts at Talega provides squad-bay living that Smith believed would strengthen the ties among the men and allow his platoon sergeants and squad leaders to closely monitor them and their mental health. “What they need is to be supervised and watched out for,” he said.
Squad-bay living remains a key part of Marine recruit training and the foundation for building camaraderie.
Smith conceded that some within the battalion disagree with his decision, and he said he understands some of the complaints. “It’s not newer, but it’s clean,” he said. “Yes, there’s Marines who are probably not happy about that.”
The battalion’s initial barracks situation got the attention of Smith’s boss — Col. Larry Nicholson, 5th Marines commander based at San Mateo — and the solution got his support, Nicholson said.
Talega “is a 1950s-environment,” said 2nd Lt. Lawton King, a 1st Marine Division spokesman. “If you were a second lieutenant in 1950, Talega hasn’t changed much since then.”
Heat, which is usually needed in only the coldest part of winter, is one issue. Most nights get down to the 50s, occasionally dipping into the 30s. The battalion ordered portable heaters but, by late December, they had not arrived.
“The conditions out there are basic. They are not austere,” Smith said. “Yeah, there’s no cable TV. There’s no Internet.”
But it’s similar to how 1/5 lived in Iraq — minus, of course, the constant danger from indirect fire and the foreign nature of the region.
“Compared to where we came from, these are nice,” said Master Gunnery Sgt. Roland Salinas, operations chief, showing a reporter the Talega accommodations.
Some don’t mind it. Others would rather leave it behind.
Lance Cpl. Cory Pollard is one of them. Pollard, 21, said he prefers barracks living, as he did before the recent deployment with Bravo Company, over sharing a crowded space with 30 other men.
“I like my private space,” he said.
“Compared to overseas, I don’t know, it’s decent,” he said, folding his clothes piled on a lower bunk next to a small television.
“Of course, it gets cold overnight,” he said.
Pollard, a San Diego native, soon will move into a three-man room. “It’s got to be better than here,” he said.
They are there because the other barracks are still filled with the Marines (including my son) who will be leaving for Iraq in a few days. They will be able to move into better quarters then.
man, i loved squad bay life! i thought it was a huge mistake when they went to the college dorm atmo (although it's turned out to be not so bad).
ETA: why is this story dated "jan 09"???
Hey, it was good enough for Recon Platoon in Heartbreak Ridge
Its only temporary, and kudos to the CO for wanting his battalion to stay together...