FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALSU, Feb 6 — The theme is brown.
The hard clay underfoot is light brown when it’s dry and dark brown when it’s mud. The camo draped over the buildings and emplacements is a patternless brown. The chunky gravel spread over the mud is brown.
And there’s gray. The 12-foot concrete blast walls surrounding every building are gray. It’s a gray maze by day. At night, it’s black. The walls hold in the light. They keep out blast waves and shrapnel. The mortars and rockets don’t land often, though — I’m told it’s been more than a week since the last one.
When it’s dark, until you’ve memorized your walking route, there are few guideposts for orientation: antennas and dishes against the sky, idling helicopters at the airfield, an orange glow from the dining complex, the palms that alert you that you’re approaching the perimeter. The rumble of diesel generators comes from everywhere, day and night.
Since October, Kalsu has been the home base for the 3,500 Fort Richardson soldiers of the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division. They’re here for a year, but no one would be surprised to find it extended.
I arrived by helicopter Monday afternoon from Baghdad, about 35 miles north. The nearest town is Iskandariyah, about 5 miles to the northeast.
Kalsu was once farmland. Now its fortress walls encircle about 750 acres and 4,500 people, including other military units, Iraqi police trainees, and the multinational, multiracial force of contract employees.
My plan is to spend several days with headquarters staff, getting an overview of operations, then go out on some operations. The soldiers of the 4-25 are trained paratroopers, but there are no airborne missions here. They patrol in humvees and on foot.
A little more than half the Fort Rich brigade is in Kalsu. The rest are scattered at bases mainly in the Shiite areas south of Baghdad. An isolated battalion is in Fallujah, in the Sunni triangle, where a nasty civil war involving al-Qaida forces is being waged.
Trainer contingents of the 4-25 are also embedded with Iraqi forces, which is how 17 Fort Rich soldiers found themselves in the middle of the fight to the death near Najaf on Jan. 29 of the doomsday Soldiers of Heaven cult. Another group is in Karbala, site of the brazen attack Jan. 20 in which militants in U.S. uniforms got into provincial headquarters and left with four Fort Rich soldiers as their hostages, whom they later killed.
For troops out deep in the provinces, they’ve already had a big share of the spotlight.