An earlier version of this story misstated the name of an Army unit. It is the 1st Theater Sustainment Command.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Army ceremoniously rolled and sheathed its flags in Iraq, sending a very clear signal: The war is over. But in the sandy environs of Kuwait, the Army is waging another campaign.
The war might have ended, but the logistical battle to move roughly 4 million pieces of equipment—from armored vehicles to computers stripped of their hard drives—won’t be over by Christmas, as the war was for the troops.
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Army logisticians put the timeframe closer to the end of March, when gear moved out of Iraq and into Kuwait reaches its final destination, be it Afghanistan or Wisconsin.
The story of the massive logistical undertaking began with Operation New Dawn in late 2010, when Army and Pentagon planners began to unpack the problem that confronted them: How to shutter the 24 major operating bases across the country.
Roughly 80 percent to 90 percent of the equipment in Iraq is “theater-provided equipment,” or equipment that soldiers deploying to Iraq found waiting for them when they arrived, said Army Col. Jeff Carra, chief of operations for the Responsible Reset Task Force at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait.
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The other 10 or 20 percent, he estimated, was “organizational property,” meaning that if the 1st Infantry Division out of Fort Riley, Kansas, brought 10 trucks to Iraq, then those 10 trucks would be returning to Kansas with the unit.
Of course, equipment of both types accumulates during almost a decade of war—and at the end of the conflict, everything must be liquidated.
Here, in a nutshell, is how they approached the issue, which has so far been a success, according to Army officials and military experts.
Early on, soldiers in the field began crating up nonessential items. “We had soldiers packing up half of Baltimore,” Carra said. The 20- and 40-foot containers moved in convoys toward Kuwait, the hub of Army logistics for the Iraq War. As trucks snaked their way south carrying cargo out of Iraq and into Kuwait, the logistical lines “collapsed”—moved southward—as well.
“We were the catcher’s mitt,” said Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dowd, the commanding general of the 1st Theater Sustainment Command.
In Kuwait, at Camps Virginia and Arifjan, soldiers inventory and clean any equipment bound for the United States. If it’s not clean, it won’t get through customs or meet Agriculture Department standards. “The USDA is very, very tough,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Gus Pagonis, who oversaw the drawdown after the Gulf War in the 1990s.
Not everything, though, will make the long voyage across the ocean back to the United States. Some items, like stoves, refrigerators, and gym equipment, stayed with the bases that passed to Iraqi control. Others went to Afghanistan, or elsewhere within the purview of Central Command, the combatant command responsible for Iraq and 19 nearby countries.
Military officials are not saying exactly how much will go where. But how logistics experts make such decisions is a little more clear. The communications process, sped by the Internet, allows them to talk quickly with each interested layer of the Army and Pentagon hierarchy and decide, for instance, whether an item will be sent to a depot in the U.S. or off to Afghanistan. The whole process now takes 72 hours; it used to take three weeks, Carra said.
What’s next for Dowd and his soldiers will be getting 1,500 containers off to their destinations over the next 90 days or so, before the logistics coda of the Iraq War terminates—another deadline for withdrawal.