AL UDEID AIR BASE, QATAR – In the middle of the stark Qatari plains, nomads herd camels through the desert, alongside burly workers struggling in the oil fields that dot the lunar-like landscape. The son of a Waimea couple is now part of a third group found in this tiny Middle Eastern nation.
Air Force Airman First Class Joseph A. Lee, son of Joseph and Florence Lee, of Waimea, is a shift-working fuel journeyman in this rough air and space camp that is the hub of war on al Qaida. Desert dust never settles while Lee talks about sustaining an expedition to the moon-like terrain of Al Udeid. It is a flat land of tumbling tumbleweeds over ancient camel trails. And a runaway sized to land the Space Shuttle on.
“My job in Qatar is I receive fuel and store it in (portable) bladders until ready to be transferred to our storage areas,” said the 2000 graduate of Waimea High School. “This job’s very serious, due to the constant demand for fuel.”
Al Udeid is a frontline center of intercontinental fueling, monitoring and cargo operations in the war on al Qaida from Northeast Africa to Southwest Asia. The accents of American, British, French, Belgian, Canadian and Dutch military members are heard throughout the camp. These GIs control all the air traffic in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan – without radar or satellites. They also fly over the Arabian Sea to gas most of the special operations and bomber planes over Afghanistan.
“The mission at Qatar for us is to supply the planes with fuels so that they can refuel fighters flying over any part of the Middle East, particularly Afghanistan,” said Lee. “We also supply the base with ground fuel, diesel and unleaded gasoline, to keep this place operational.”
GIs store their gas in makeshift plastic containers, and these wartime fuel “bladders” sometimes blow up in the heat. Fuels troops wear special suits and jump directly into the flammable flood with vacuums on dangerous mop-up and “fuel recovery” details.
“Whenever an emergency occurs, such as bladders bursting, we pull together as a team,” said Lee. “Everything we learned as far as transferring the contained fuel to an emergency response bag, all the way to cutting the bag up and replacing it is applied.”
The base camp runs with minor local media attention, considering it is just miles from where Qataris own “the CNN of the Middle East,” and Arabic TV network known as Al Jezeera. By night, Al Udeid’s cantina offers familiar beverages, and sports on TV. After work, Lee or others fumble in flip-flop shower shoes past desert mice on block-long walks to the camp’s bathroom tents in an area that looks like the dark side of the moon.
“Life in Qatar is what I always thought the military was like as a child. Living in tents, taking combat showers (two minutes under cold water), and just working in the heat.” said Lee. “As far as working with the bladders and old R-22 pumping units, well it’s truly an experience.”
Living hidden for security in this rocky hub of hubs and Qatari tumbleweeds definitely offered Lee an opportunity to raise some dust in a war. And the unearthly cloud may thin soon. The anti-terrorist caravans just began driving over eight miles of new paved roads. The camp itself is beginning to look and feel less like a lunar expedition in the war.