Living in Hangars

From The Daily Union, March 19, 2003:

By LINDA GILMORE
The Daily Union

Sgt. 1st Class Steve Moser wakes up to all the comforts of home — a roof over his head, his grandma’s quilt on his bed, a finger painting from his kids hanging nearby, tasty meals, big-screen TV nearby — but no walls.

Moser is a member of a North Dakota National Guard unit billeted in one of the aircraft hangars at Fort Riley. His temporary lodging is a room full of bunks, gear and about 350 soldiers. The military contingent reflects the differences and similarities among today’s citizen soldiers, said Col. Bob Lowery, 6025th Garrison Support Unit commander.

Lowery’s unit is responsible for housing the activated soldiers and making sure they complete all required processing for deployment.

“What you see here is American ingenuity at its best,” Lowery said, referring to the way some soldiers have added personal touches to their living spaces.

Soldiers living in these kind of quarters have an advantage, Lowery said. It provides a transition from living at home to living in tents in the desert.

The national guard unit from North Dakota shares the building with an Army Reserve unit from Nebraska. Moser said the soldiers have been there almost three weeks. He wouldn’t speculate about when the soldiers would ship out, but many of them were packing Tuesday afternoon.

The soldiers in the hangar and others housed in barracks and one of the gyms elsewhere on post aren’t just passing time until shipping out. They have a full schedule of training and pre-deployment screenings to complete before they are considered ready to go. Lowery said only when all the training is validated, all the paperwork is in order, all the check-offs are checked off, will he certify the soldier is ready to deploy.

While activated Reservists and National Guardsmen are at Fort Riley, Lowery said he has tried to make sure they have everything they need. Laundry and shower trailers are set up outside the hangar. Buses take the soldiers to the mess halls for meals, which he praised.

“The food is so good,” Lowery said, “it’s like having a free pass to Cracker Barrel.”

Last weekend, the soldiers had a cookout and enjoyed the nice weather. The soldiers can play basketball outside, and they have access to the gyms on post. The buses also take soldiers to the PX or to other facilities on post.

The two big-screen TVs are surrounded by chairs that came from one of the lounges on post, as well as what one of the soldiers called “stadium seating” — metal bleachers.

Some of the waiting soldiers have also been practicing military strategy — a Risk game was in progress, spread out on a table, waiting for the players to return. It looked like the armies in Australia were poised for world conquest.

Most of the soldiers have added individual touches to their spaces. Some have fashioned cardboard boxes into makeshift dressers. Others’ bunks were neatly made up with all gear stowed beneath them. Some had acquired portable folding chairs decorated with a flag theme. Others had hanging racks set up at the ends of their cots.

Moser has made the most of his allotted 40 square feet of space, using kits ordered from Cabela’s to turn his bunk into a semi-private living space. Moser’s cot/tent is one of the more noticeable efforts at creating a home away from home.

“You’ve got to be able to bring a little bit of home with you,” he said. The deploying soldiers are allowed to carry four duffel bags filled with gear and personal belongings.

Moser looks proudly at what some of the other soldiers call his “gypsy bunk” and points out the bed skirt complete with mesh compartments for his gear — another Cabela’s find — and his Ziplock bags. He said he has lots of Ziplock bags, which come in handy for keeping gear dry and safe from sand and scorpions.

His Army blanket forms the top of the tent, draped across a cord strung between the poles at either end. Cards and drawings from home are clipped to the cord where he can see them from his cot.

It may sound like an overgrown dorm room, but it’s orderly. Lowery said the fire marshal and noncommissioned officers walk through every day and make sure that electrical outlets and plugs aren’t overloaded and aisles are kept clear.

Lowery looks around the room and says the soldiers in these units really represent America.

“You’re looking at the heart of America,” he said.

Lowery said he gets attached to the units he’s trained, and he’s trained a lot of them. He’s been in the Reserves for 29 years and will retire in August 2004.

“I’ll be happy to see these folks come back and demobilize,” Lowery said.

Until then, the soldiers are training for what seems a certain deployment into harm’s way. Lowery said the soldiers temporarily housed at Fort Riley are very focused and are training very hard. He said they’re eager to do their jobs.

“When I see them at the very end, in their desert fatigues, ready to get on the plane to go, it makes your heart burst,” Lowery said. “It makes you proud.”

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