This story, originally published on Feb. 23, has been updated with new information.
One on hand, it has a swimming pool, access to travel and "you get three beers a day." On the other, mold cakes the walls, showers and air conditioning filters; bugs nest in food and urine and feces flow out of broken bathroom facilities.
It's the tale of two Al Udeids, a base in Doha, Qatar, home to over 9,000 service members and civilians working in support of U.S. and allied operations in the Middle East.
And airmen have a lot to say about it. Not much of it is complimentary.
Responding to an earlier Air Force Times article, "Just how bad are living conditions at Al Udeid?," airmen past and present sent in uncomfortable stories, but also pointed the finger at an alternative culprit: themselves.
The area within Doha has been used since the 1990s. Service members for about 10 years used to hunker down in tents (some readers even say this was a better model than what is now there). Fast forward to 2003, when groundwork began for the first permanent facilities at Al Udeid.
Between 2003 and 2007, Congress appropriated and approved about $126 million (in 2015-16 inflation standards, that would be roughly $165 million). Since then, the Air Force has requested millions more to build on to the facilities.
For living quarters, the base looked to turn over to the Blatchford-Preston complex dormitories in 2008, commonly known as BPC (Better People Complex, nicknamed for the people eligible to live there). The goal under the five-year construction plan has been to move airmen from the older Coalition Compound complex, or CC, quarters to the newer BPC, which is now in its fourth phase of construction.
The base expects 20 new lodging facilities with integrated, quality bathrooms in the summer of 2016, Maj. Angela Webb, spokeswoman for the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, told Air Force Times on Feb. 18.
The bathroom units, dubbed "Cadillacs," are the facilities airmen who live in the CC use day-to-day. They are a continuous work in progress.
The wing "has $378K worth of known requirements to maintain the Cadillac facilities and we have received, or are awaiting delivery of, over $350K worth of materials. We anticipate no issues being awarded the remaining amount," Webb said.
The Cadillacs may be a complete abomination as some have described, but if a maintenance issue is reported, contractors or civil engineers work quickly, said retired Col. Mike Menning, a former commander of the 379th Expeditionary Medical Group.
Airmen with the "Cadillac Maintenance Team," part of the 379th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron, for example, have completed more than 600 work orders, with more than 23,000 man hours since Dec. 31, the Air Force said. That included 41 jobs in one day.
The bad, the good and the ugly
Multiple responses to Air Force Times chronicled the way conditions are deteriorating because members who fail to keep basic cleanliness — such as using a urinal instead of the floor — leads to more maintenance issues.
"This is all a matter of perspective," Menning, who was in Al Udeid for a year in 2008, said. "What you see on some of these Facebook pages...isn't poor maintenance, that's vandalism,...and there needs to be respect between fellow airmen," he said.
"There are a few airmen who have a complete lack of respect for the facilities,"
said retired Col. Mike
, a former commander of the 379th Expeditionary Medical Group.
"If we are going to act like children then we might as well be treated like children," one tech sergeant wrote.
And some say the situation could be even worse:
"After a few trips to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Mali I soon realized…YOU ARE DEPLOYED, DEAL WITH IT!"
says Maj. Scott Noke.
"We are there to do a job, not on vacation at a five-star hotel," Cory, an airman who didn't provide his last name, said. "There are bound to be some or even multiple discomforts."
Other readers say that regardless of the basic hygiene and appreciation service members should practice, the bigger dilemma is the conditions the establishment only has control over: collapsing roofs, water and mildew in the walls, growing mold that has the potential to cause illness and stale, if not contaminated, water from the plumbing.
"I got extremely sick and was hospitalized for several days," Master Sgt. Scott McKenzie, who left Al Udeid this month, wrote to Air Force Times. "I was asked NUMEROUS times by the attending staff if I ‘used the sink water to brush my teeth?’ My initial reply was yes because we were never informed that the water could be a problem or potential health risk."
A few airmen returning stateside between December and February said that a handful of members also experienced salmonella poisoning.
But the Air Force says major illnesses have not been identified.
Maj. Angela Webb said. , spokeswoman for the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, told Air Force Times on Feb. 18.
"Due to the expeditionary nature of this base, with large numbers of personnel rotating in and out within a short period of time, we do occasionally experience upticks in gastrointestinal distress for a very small percentage of the base population," Webb said.
The base has not received any reports of food poisoning, or any illness to that nature, she explained. But, she added, "most recently, we experienced a slight uptick in GI distress, affecting approximately [one percent] of the base population, that was not associated with the dining facilities and lasted for less than one week."
the building materials cannot withstand the consistently humid environment, officials say. But that’s just the nature of Doha, which can reach 120 degree, sweltering heat.
"[Air conditioning] units, the most important thing, would break or overheat," an airman identified as Anthony wrote. "Just to be met with the response from the dorm managers by telling us to turn them down or turn them off briefly. This meant allowing the...heat to slowly cook your room rotisserie-style as you toss and turn all night."
"It is not uncommon for there to be fires because the A/C units are so old and filthy that they overheat and catch fire," an airman, who asked he not be identified, added.
When they arrive at the base airmen are told that air filters need to be cleaned out on a daily basis to keep the mold out. "Airmen need to be better prepared about some truths about Al Udeid — it's hot, it's humid, and the quarters that you live in...need to be cleaned daily," Menning said.
The buildings become victim to heavy rains and sandstorms, deteriorating and collapsing walls and ceilings. And most commonly, waterfall-like streaks of black mold.
"Short of replacing ceiling tiles all the time, there's not a lot you can do," Menning said.
Bathrooms in complete disrepair will need a complete renovation, which will cost approximately $130,000 per facility, Webb said.
Back in 2014, the Air Force warned airmen about the detrimental effects of black mold. A release,"Recent humidity increases mold growth," advised airmen with preexisting respiratory conditions that they could react to molds growing in air conditioning units or from the "black mold" on the walls. "Certain individuals with chronic respiratory disease...may experience difficulty breathing," the release said. "Individuals with immune suppression may be at increased risk for infection from molds."
A screenshot of the Air Force's press release on growing mold during humid temperatures. The Facebook page, "Air Force amn/nco/snco," highlights the portions referring to potential health risks.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Air Force amn/nco/snco Facebook page
The release has since been scrubbed from the Air Forces Central Command webpage, but resurfaced in the " Air Force amn/nco/snco" Facebook group, a community page for airmen to post about careers, aircraft and trending news.
"While most molds do appear black in color not all are 'black mold,' or Stachybotrys," the release said, labeling the proper term for the fungus. "The mold itself is not toxic, but under the right conditions can produce a toxin."
The enduring mission
"My main concern regarding my experience there was the safety of the flight operations due to the inability to get good rest," said Maj. Travis Grantham with the Arizona Air National Guard. "And also the toll the living conditions take on the immune system and morale in general."
Nonetheless, hundreds of missions continue per day for the high demand for aircraft over Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.
Al Udeid has become an integral part to missions in Afghanistan, currently called Operations Freedom's Sentinel or Resolute Support, and to the fight against the Islamic State group under Operation Inherent Resolve.
Operationally, C-130 units on rotation to the base provide airlift, airdrop and aeromedical evacuation to areas within U.S. Central Command. In January, the KC-135 Stratotanker refueling fleetat Al Udeid completed more than 14,700 sorties for operations tied to Freedom’s Sentinel and Inherent Resolve.
"What you're not seeing or hearing is how awesome Al Udeid really is compared to the other deployed locations," Menning said, citing these crucial missions supporting today's conflicts.
Additional planes at the base also include the C-17, C-21, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft such as the E-8C Joint STARS, RC-135 and P-3.
Menning also said that there is a clear disconnect between AFCENT members headquartered at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, and those deployed. "It leads to a huge funding issue" to what those deployed need, especially at Al Udeid because it needs constant upkeep, he said.
"This is a permanent base now, and some people still only view it as temporary."
Oriana Pawlyk covers deployments, cyber, Guard/Reserve, uniforms, physical training, crime and operations in the Middle East, Europe and Pacific for Air Force Times. She was the Early Bird Brief editor in 2015. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.