Monday, December 19, 2011

Lousy Places to Be Stationed

The shorter term, of course, was "Shithole."[1]

First, there were two types of permanent duty: Accompanied and unaccompanied. The difference was whether the military would move your family and all of your shit there. For unaccompanied tours, the answer was "no". Unaccompanied tours of duty lasted generally one year. For an accompanied tour, the answer was "yes". The shortest accompanied tour was a department head on a warship, that was an eighteen month tour. Most tours were longer and, depending on what the job was, it could be three years or longer.

By now, you should be getting the picture that a "permanent move" meant no such thing to a military family.

In the Navy, there were a couple of places that were known service-wide to be shitholes. They were Naval Air Station Adak and Naval Station Bahrain.[2] Adak was accompanied duty, Bahrain was unaccompanied duty.

Bahrain was, before the Persian Gulf Wars, primarily a shithole for surface sailors. Bahrain was the location of the Commander-in-Chief,[3] Middle East Forces, which was a Navy afloat command. That meant that traditionally, the admiral in command had to have a flagship.[4] That ship was the USS La Salle, a former LPD. To say that it was ghastly hot in Bahrain, especially in the summer, is sort of like saying that dry ice is kind of chilly. Even with painting the hull of the ship white and installing a large air-conditioning plant, life on that ship was reportedly not fun, especially in the engineering spaces.

Bahrain, at least back in the day, was not exactly known as a fun liberty port, being possibly a bit more relaxed than Saudi Arabia, but not by much.

The USS La Salle did not exactly get the cream of the crop when it came to personnel assigned. A common deal in the Navy was to re-enlist for a set of orders. Or, if your enlistment was up and the Navy wanted to send you where you didn't want to go, you refused to re-enlist, at first. As it came time to leave your command, you'd be transferred for a few days to the Navy Retention Barge, where career counselors would work on you to get you to re-enlist and they'd work on BuPers to get you a better assignment.

So sailors who had orders to the La Salle would work the system to get out of them and, if they were Petty Officer A.J. Squared-Away, they often got out of them. But if they were a lifer first class petty officer with 16-18 years in who was never going to make chief, they went to the La Salle. As far as BuPers was concerned, those guys weren't going to get out to avoid the tour and, if they did and went into the Reserves, the Navy would not have to pay them retirement until they turned 62. So despite what the CO of the La Salle and even the 5th Fleet CinC wanted, the La Salle was populated with sailors whose personnel records were populated with marginal evaluations.

For aviators and certain other specialties, the shithole was NAS Adak. Adak was in the Aleutian Chain off Alaska. While you couldn't see Russia from there[5], it was close enough. Adak wasn't known for being exceptionally snowy or colder than, say, upstate New York, but what Adak had was ferocious winds. 110 mph winds or stronger in the winter were not unusual, with milder winds of 50 mph or better in the summer. Adak had all of the amenities, including a college, fast food and a good hospital, but what truly made Adak a shithole was its location.

The only airline service to Adak was out of Anchorage. The length of the flight was equivalent to flying from New York to New Orleans. Not a lot of people wanted to go to Adak for fun, so the commercial flights were expensive. It was possible to get a "space available" flight off the island, riding on a standby-basis aboard a military passenger or cargo aircraft heading to Anchorage or CONUS, but the rule for traveling Space-A on leave was that before you could go, you had to show that you had the funds to buy your own tickets back.

That was prohibitively expensive, especially for families. So taking leave in Adak meant going off base, renting a room, and drinking heavily. The Navy wanted sailors to take leave,[6] for leave was a way to regain one's equilibrium and recharge. But until the Navy changed the rules for Space-A travel[7], a known tactic was to show up at Adak with a negative leave balance at the maximum (thirty days) and then take three years to build up to the maximum positive balance (sixty days). But three years of duty with only two or three days off at a time meant for seriously cranky people, so the Navy discouraged that practice.

When the Cold War ended, so did the need for NAS Adak and it was largely abandoned. Bahrain is still an active naval facility, although it does not currently seem to have an assigned flagship, as the Fifth Fleet command has been effectively absorbed into Centcom.
[1] The title difference is due to a need to be family-friendly, as least in the title of my posts.
[2] NAF Diego Garcia was also known to be a shithole, but I never knew of anyone who had been stationed there. I did know people who had been stationed in Bahrain and Adak.
[3] This was before a certain former president became unsecure when anyone else had the title of "CinC".
[4] This is why the sloop-of war USS Constellation served as the Atlantic Fleet flagship during the Second World War.
[5] You could from Little Diomede, which was too small for military uses.
[6] Leave was earned at a rate of 2.5 days per month of active duty (30 days a year).
[7] They eventually did, but only for Adak.


Frank Van Haste said...

Dear Miss Fit:

In re: note [1], again, I thank you for your consideration.

Joy of the Season,


Comrade Misfit said...

And to you, Frank.

Jimh. said...

That was in interesting post! I hope your days grow longer and warmer and your nights remain warm and cozy! Happy Holidays!

kaigun said...

Never stationed at Adak, but I was living in Alaska when I came in and I live here now after retiring. I know guys who loved Adak for the fishing and hunting and who retired here in Alaska because of their Adak experience. But it wasn't for everyone, that's for sure.

Bahrain is still a shithole and I cringe at thinking what it must have like before the first Gulf War.

merlallen said...

I had fun in Bahrain. The Australian beer was probably why. I was only there for about 10 days.

MCPO Airdale said...

Yeah, everybody loved that NAS Keflavik duty! /sarc