How the Mean U.S. Fighting Machine Lost Its 'Lean'

  • Share
  • Read Later

Four G.I.'s leave a Kosovo grocery store bearing sodas and chips

Amid all the tales of overworked, stressed-out and depressed U.S. military personnel, at last some good news: A new government study finds our soldiers deployed in Bosnia eating so well that they're actually fattening up during their Balkan tours. "The dining facilities at all U.S. camps operate 24 hours a day," the General Accounting Office reports. "Sandwiches, soups and beverages are always available. Unit officials in Bosnia said that the quantity and quality of the food is so good that personnel are gaining weight."

In fact, the GAO survey of the 11,000 U.S. troops now serving in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia found that most of them are pretty satisfied with their living conditions. What with round-the-clock rations, free e-mail, laundry service, gyms, outdoor running trails, pool tables, libraries and movie theaters, what's not to like? Well, the only gripe the troops seem to have is that their peacekeeping jobs are boring, and that even when they're off-duty, security concerns restrict most of them from leaving the bases.

The GAO found that three key items keeping soldiers happy are, in order of importance, housing, e-mail and food.

More than 90 percent of the troops in the Balkans said they were happy with their accommodations, which generally consists of metal-roofed plywood structures. Each soldier is supposed to get 80 square feet of living space, and an electrical outlet to call his or her own. They also have air conditioning and heat. Soldiers who are deployed to keep Kosovo's ethnic communities from killing one another live in more primitive conditions —abandoned buildings, unfinished warehouses and tents. But even these folks get water and portable toilets provided by Brown and Root, the U.S. contractor providing logistical support to U.S. troops in the Balkans, along with one hot meal a day trucked in from the main U.S. base in Kosovo.

E-mail has profoundly changed the way soldiers view life in the field. This correspondent well remembers the flush of joy he felt in a muddied Balkan tent in mid-1999 when he was able to send — and read — e-mail from family and friends while sitting atop a crate of MREs (Meals-Ready-to-Eat). It's obvious the troops feel the same way. All soldiers have access to government computers for e-mail, and nine out of 10 surveyed by the GAO use this facility at least 10 times a month. One third make daily use of e-mail. The soldiers also have access to telephones (although they complain that, at about 75 cents a minute, the cost is too high) and — in some locations — video cameras linked to computers that create real-time video-phone with family members visiting a similarly equipped computer at a stateside base.

The Army has improved living conditions in the field by increasingly relying on Brown and Root, a major U.S. services contractor, for food, laundry and other services. The company has an open-ended contract with the Army originally signed when incoming Vice President Dick Cheney ran the Pentagon. After leaving the Pentagon, Cheney ran Halliburton, the company that owns Brown and Root. Outsourcing logistics isn't limited to the Army, either — the Marines recently announced they plan to dispense with about 1,000 of their 3,000 cooks, largely by hiring private contractors to do the chow.

More than $2 billion of the $14 billion the Pentagon has spent in the Balkans since December 1995 has gone to private contractors led by Brown and Root. Generally, the company makes a 9 percent profit on the money it spends supporting U.S. troops in the Balkans. The GAO, in an earlier report, suggested that some of the money might be wasted. "Many officials acknowledged that the level of some services may be above and beyond what is really needed," the GAO notes. "DoD officials with whom we met in the Balkans told us that they could not explain the frequency of services being provided, such as cleaning some offices as many as four times a day, cleaning latrines three times a day, and conducting routine construction and maintenance activities 24 hours a day."