Broken Urinal

With officials in both the House and Senate making inquires about reports of pervasive toxic mold and other issues with crumbling infrastructure and subpar living conditions at Al Udeid, the Air Force’s sprawling deployed base in Qatar that serves as the “nerve center” of air operations in the Middle East, the chain of command is beginning to respond in a noticeable way.

Two emails emerged earlier today — one from Wing Commander Brig. Gen. Darren James to all Al Udeid airmen and another from the First Sergeant of an Al Udeid flying squadron to deployed aircrews. Taken together, they paint a picture of a service scrambling to react with new speed and energy to a problem more than a decade in the making.

James’s letter is an admirable if belated attempt at accountability and transparency. He takes responsibility for the problem, puts it on his shoulders, and makes a number of concrete assurances that will allow airmen (as well as Congress and the media) to hold him accountable for results or lack thereof.

Consider it for yourself:

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This is particularly well executed by James. He lays out a plan, makes it clear he cares and is focused on follow-through, and does what he can to open communication channels. This is key to making certain he remains aware of how the plan progresses.

What we glimpse here is the first example of assertive situational leadership exercised by an Air Force general at Al Udeid in recent memory.

Of course, it doesn’t answer the question of why his email only went out after Congressional (and to a lesser extent, media) pressure spilled over a certain threshold. It also doesn’t explain why his staff has been focused on things like constructing a “shaming pen” for smokers that prevents them from having a beer while they have a smoke.

Nor does it settle angst associated with logisticians’ inappropriate focus on whether aircrews were grabbing too many granola bars at a base dining facility, or why other dining facilities ran short on chicken, eggs, milk, and other staples while the city of Doha hummed along in well-stocked bliss just a few miles down the road.

But it’s a new start. And with it, the possibilities change. There is now someone leading the effort to unscrew Al Udeid’s longstanding decrepitude, and importantly, someone to serve as the focal point when things stall, go sideways, or outright derail. Just knowing that Congress could call James for hearings, and knowing that he is the truth-telling sort (as his letter exposes), is likely to keep senior Air Force officials on their toes and properly motivated.

On the other hand, there’s ample reason for skepticism. After a dozen years, a dozen generals, and too many delays and broken promises to count, the conditions are finally bad enough and the chain of command seemingly aloof enough that airmen have taken to speed-dialing Congress and the media. This makes recent events seem like a vote of “no confidence” from airmen and James’s message seem more like an attempted glove save than a strategy.

The previous command strategy of telling everyone “stop whining” while ignoring the issues and focusing on trivialities led to a set of conditions well below any acceptable standard. James’s change of course is admirable, but conditioned by the fact that legislators and senior political appointees are now directly involved. Generals now sense there is something to lose, and nothing gets them off the bench like a sensor flashing red with political-perceptual risk. 

Hence the email below, an example of a rash of messages to Al Udeid airmen in the last few days.  There have also been multiple briefings by various O-6s on the base, including one which reportedly accused airmen of envy and sour grapes for expecting the same living conditions enjoyed by others living in a modernized compound elsewhere on the base.

Here’s the message.

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Several observations.

Suddenly, Air Forces Central (AFCENT) leadership is visiting to survey the problem. This interesting for two reasons.

1. Why does AFCENT need to see for himself? Are the assessments of a dozen layers of chain of command and the airmen themselves not enough?

2. Why did it take this happening for AFCENT leadership to become this interested? Were the complaints over the last dozen years not enough?

Of course, the second question may be part of the answer to the first. It’s possible the chain of command has smothered complaints over the years to avoid looking bad, starving senior staffs and generals of an appreciation of the issue. There’s nothing in the record indicating DoD or Congress have been previously aware of subpar living conditions or the periodic outbreaks of respiratory and gastro-intestinal illness that are assumed realities of living at Al Udeid.

Also fascinating that lodging “has ordered mass quantities of bleach.” From this, we may infer that there hasn’t been bleach on hand up to this point. This means not only have residents been unable to clean up their own mold problem, but there’s been no discernible intent on the part of support agencies to stay on top of the problem.

We can probably assume from this that airmen stopped complaining about the mold at some point in the past when they realized there was nothing to be done about it, and that as a result, base-level leaders periodically lost awareness that the problem existed. Any loss of situational awareness about airman living conditions would not be a surprise given the managment element at Al Udeid is ordinarily obsessing over trivial matters like prosecuting airmen for drinking a 4th beer in a 24-hour period, preventing them from smoking cigarettes without public shame, and writing regulations explaining the importance of sock color.

The email encourages airmen to have their AC units swapped out. This is new and significant. My own personal experience, supported by the experience of others, is that asking for a replacement AC unit has always been a dependable way to get laughed at. If that’s changing, great. It should have always been the case that when an AC unit gets too riddled with mold to be healthy, it should be replaced. Lodging officials have been too busy treating dorms like cattle pens to exercise ordinary oversight and detect units in need of replacement. This resulted, over time, in the base weaning itself off the proper budget for AC unit replacement.

Together, these emails show us that if nothing else, there is a palpable response to longstanding complaints at one of the more notorious salt mines in the Air Force, and that in the great shell game that is the service budget, the facility might get some needed attention in the short term.

This is the part where I renew a few suggestions on behalf of airmen at Al Udeid and elsewhere who have generally been crushed when they raise these ideas themselves. Since Darren James seems open at this point to fresh ideas, I hope these will reach him and be seriously contemplated.

1. Make sure EVERY ROOM in the modernized BPC is occupied. Every room. If some rooms are “down for maintenance” … that is unacceptable. Get them repaired and opened. Lodging should be reporting at least weekly on the occupancy of the BPC and explaining why any rooms are vacant. The more people are in the BPC, the fewer are in the CC, and the easier it becomes to maintain that limping complex.

2. Send people home. There are people at Al Udeid who don’t need to be there, but are there because someone created a requirement at some point and no one has the courage to tell the senior commanders involved that they are no longer entitled (if ever they actually were) to that manpower. Here’s the basic test: if it can be done from a computer terminal in the United States, it doesn’t need to be performed at Al Udeid. This is true for essentially the entire Air Mobility Division in the Combined Air Operations Center. Some units are stressed and need every body they have, but others are flush with manpower and could operate more effectively with fewer deployed airmen. Every person who goes home reduces pressure on base operating support and infrastructure.

3. Refocus. Repeal “General Order 1B” and start treating the base like the enduring operating location it is. End the standing oppositions to adult conduct such as alcohol consumption, smoking, dancing, loud music, (gasp) pornography, and yes (double gasp), even consensual sex. Everyone at Al Udeid is an adult. Treat them accordingly and hold the 2% accountable when they fall short instead of barring 100% from adult conduct as a disciplinary prophylactic. This approach will get commanders and SNCOs to stop focusing on rule enforcement and spend more time thinking about how to take care of their people.

The amount of energy wasted at Al Udeid on trivial rule enforcement in a given week — all in the name of “good order and discipline” — could power the solar system for a billion millennia, generating enough sunlight to eradicate all mold everywhere. Diverting that attention away from stupidity would fundamentally alter the attitude and the mentality at Al Udeid. Less control, obedience, autocracy, and antagonism. More authentic teamwork and a more genuine focus on morale.

As the emails demonstrate, this isn’t just a public moment for Al Udeid. It’s a crossroads. As the base acknowledges its enduring and focal status, it’s time for a wholesale adaptation. Is Darren James the guy to lead that effort, and can he get the support he needs from his superiors?

Time will tell, and airmen will judge. Hopefully, they’ll judge while breathing reasonably clean air and showering in mold-free facilities on a base that affirms their dignity and value to national defense.

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