The U.S. military is preparing for its withdrawal from Iraq, and some equipment is already on the move.
The delay in Iraq's national elections, which had been scheduled for January until a political dispute over the election law erupted last month, has posed some uncertainty over just when U.S. troops will begin to leave. The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, said recently that the American military is flexible, and that the drawdown of American forces could start as late as May.
But some things won't wait, and that includes figuring out how to move the massive amount of equipment — from tanks to telephones — that the U.S. military has accumulated during nearly seven years of war.
With characteristic understatement, Odierno acknowledged that he's facing a problem that is bigger than just putting troops on a plane and leaving Iraq. "Because I will admit that we have six years worth of stuff that we've gathered here as the U.S. military," he says.
Much of that stuff is inventoried at the sprawling Balad military base, north of Baghdad.
"Imagine if you never went through your garage or attic for seven years," says Col. Gust Pagonis, the Army officer in charge of logistics. "Well, that's kind of where we are in Iraq."
Actually, imagine a garage not with broken lawn mowers, but with accumulated machinery like the MRAP. The mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle is the big armored truck that was developed to protect soldiers from roadside bombs.
"This thing weighs 58,500 pounds," says Spc. Ronnie Williams, an Army engineer who drives an MRAP. Thousands of MRAPs will have to be carried out of Iraq on trailers called HETs, or heavy-equipment transporters.
"If we were moving them to Kuwait, we'd put them on HETs and we'd drive them down," says Lt. Meghan Keefe. "It's a big operation. These are big pieces of equipment. I think they're a monster-truck junky's dream."
Keefe belongs to the Army's 37th Engineer Battalion, which has thousands of pieces of big, ungainly equipment like this that, sooner or later, are going to have to be hauled.
In all, military logistics teams will have to move an estimated 1.5 million pieces of gear from some 300 bases around the country.
Some of the equipment will go to the Iraqi military, but that is a process that involves the Pentagon and the State Department "making sure that what the Iraqis want is something that we're able to give them," Pagonis says.
The task for Pagonis and his team is compounded by the fact that there are still about 100,000 American troops in Iraq, "and they still have to eat, they still have to get fuel," he says.
The timetable for withdrawal is based on President Obama's mandate to have combat troops out of the country by September, and Odierno's assessment on whether the country is secure enough after national elections next year.
"When they tell us to send the rest home, we'll get the rest out of here," Pagonis says.
Take the military version of the D-9 Caterpillar bulldozer. The tractor, with its armored cab, looks like something out of a Mad Max movie.
"It's about 48 tons of armor and engine, and it'll take anything out of its way," says Lt. Douglas Pelletier of the 87th Engineer Support Company. Including road surfaces, he adds. "You don't want to drive this on anything you don't want to destroy," Pelletier says.
The giant pieces of equipment are probably among the last things that will have to be moved. But a lot of gear is already on the move.
At the shipping yard, Capt. Jason Vivian watches as a Terex crane picks up an armored truck and loads it onto a flatbed truck. Vivian is in charge of the central receiving and shipping point, known as CRSP, or "crispy."
The armored truck's destination might be Afghanistan, if it is needed there, or it might be on its way back to the United States, to be reconditioned and rebuilt.
Pagonis' immediate problem is sorting out equipment that is no longer needed and figuring out what to do with it.
"That's really what we're after right now, is getting all that extra stuff out, because most of it is good stuff, and we could use it the next time our nation calls upon us," he says.
And then, there's the not-so-good stuff: "Eight-year-old computers that you can't buy repair parts for anymore ... maybe we don't move that," says Pagonis. "And that's got to be looked at in each individual case."