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The thermometer hanging in the shade outside my battalion headquarters building read 150° Fahrenheit. Decades-old experience as a battalion food service officer prompted the thought “we’re 15 degrees below serving temperature!” It later turned out that the reading was off, about 25 degrees high, due to design limitations of the consumer-grade thermometer we had. So it was only in the 120’s Fahrenheit. But it was a dry heat—like a blowtorch!
Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld would later say “you go to war with the Army you have.” So, in 2003, the Army went to war in Iraq with the equipment it had, which was designed for Germany and Korea. That went for everything from sleeping bags to vehicles. Temperate zone sleeping bags and no washing machines prompted requests for bed sheets in first letters and emails home. The trucks were not armored, so just keep the windows down and drape a wet bandanna on the back of your neck. Soldiers quickly remembered evaporative cooling and tied water bottles in wet socks off the rear view mirrors to get drinkable temperature water at convoy stops.
But what about sleeping when the air temperature in a dry desert only drops about 30 degrees from the daytime high? How do you sleep on top of your nylon cot in a giant food warmer? Very poorly—until my resourceful staff from the desert Southwest solved the problem and brought blessed relief weeks ahead of our neighbors who had spent their lives in cooler or humid climes.
As we moved into the old Iraqi airbase north of Baghdad, we saw the buildings had been stripped by local residents. I immediately recognized the broken drum fan units on the ground and the remaining ductwork on the roof. Lots of homes and businesses in Arizona and west Texas had the same thing—evaporative coolers.
The operations officer researched historical humidity tables for our location. Sure enough, it was just about like home. The humidity would usually be low enough for evaporative coolers to work. Our intrepid supply officer took advantage of access to shops on the civilian economy before the resistance got going. He came back with a truckload of simple evaporative coolers and water storage tanks.
We mounted the storage tanks above the coolers, using gravity to feed water into the coolers, controlled by simple float valves. The coolers were boxes with straw pad air filters on three sides. A small water pump dripped water over the pads while a drum fan pulled hot dry air through the damp pads, pushing cool slightly moist air in through the window. This dropped the interior temperature into the 90s, letting everyone sleep.
But what about the water supply? No problem. Our friendly neighbors in the water supply battalion provided the smallest of their storage tanks, which looked a bit like a giant onion, and topped it off every few days. Morning chores now included running a hose to the water drums or refilling them with five-gallon jerry cans. The simple fans and water pumps were durable and consumed so little power we could run them along with computers, radios, and light sets, using only our 10 to 60-kilowatt tactical generators.
How the box of photos I mailed home went missing, then not, then irretrievably missing, is a tale for another day. Here is a picture of the kind of unit in the American Southwest that inspired us. It is about the same as we were able to find on the local Iraqi economy. One of the sides with straw pads is open.
Our neighbors turned up their noses at our solution. “Swamp coolers!” Just not good enough. So the contracts were let for various air conditioning units and lots of civilian generators, which required lots of extra maintenance and fuel. Eventually, we joined the crowd, after the power and cooling units were proven reliable. But for a while, one little piece of Iraq became like one little piece of old-style Arizona.