CAMP VIRGINIA, Kuwait - Situated between one tract of sand and the next, Camp Virginia is not an exceptional site in the exceptional desert landscape of Kuwait.
Sand and dust follow close on the heels of sturdy breezes that whip through rows of tents and semi-permanent trailers as the rumbling sound of generators fill the air.
Massive concrete barriers line passageways and structures throughout the camp. They are known according to size. The smallest is the Jersey Barrier - like those dividing highways and construction zones throughout the United States. The Alaskan rivals that of a two-story home.
Similar to a history book with pages strewn throughout the encampment, previous units have symbology painted and signed on the 12-foot-high Texas Barriers - marking their time of service. As each new command arrives, and eventually leaves, barriers are shuffled about to make room for a new tenure of command.
Droves of service members traveling in and out of Iraq have seen this place.
Sometimes the camp is a stop on their way in. Most other times, it is the first stop on their long journey home.
For the Wyoming Army National Guard's 960th Brigade Support Battalion, the camp has been home for the last nine months. Its Texas Barrier is painted bright with landscapes of home, marking yet another concrete page in the history of Camp Virginia.
The battalion acts as the command and control for the camp, running everything from security escort missions to destroying weathered uniforms battered by military service throughout the globe.
The unit conducts sustainment and replenishment operations, provides security and maintains a safe redeployment mission for U.S. and coalition forces within Multi-National Corps - Iraq. The mission is to "ensure a secure permanent party and transient tenant life support area, with the best possible quality of life."
The camp is like that of a small town, requiring the support and services of any other self-sustaining community. This requires that each element within the unit work together in order to successfully accomplish daily tasks.
Imagine coordinating each individual function of a city equivalent in population to many of Wyoming's small rural communities - including every element from the town mayor to the sheriff's deputy and the school lunch lady's menu.
For example, the Camp Virginia dining hall will have provided meals for a number of service members equal to slightly less than the entire population of Wyoming throughout the unit's stay.
Quality of life is no small task
Isolated from the long stretches of Kuwaiti highways and urban metropolises, the camp is self-sufficient. Generators run everything from the camp's telephone lines to the lights spotlighting the Wyoming flag flying high above the ground.
For some within the unit the deployment is a welcomed relief compared to previous mobilizations, where they kicked-in doors and patrolled Iraqi streets on foot. Others prefer the higher pace of war, and have likened this deployment to that of Bill Murray's recurring escapades with Punxsutawney Phil in the 1993 movie "Groundhog Day."
Still, though the dangers are less obvious at Camp Virginia, the mission is no less important.
When the unit arrived in 2009, the camp was in need of reorganization in order to streamline the all-encompassing support processes.
Sgt. Danny Laughner, of Custer, S.D., said accountability of resources was an early issue to reevaluate.
"We went from jumping through hoops, working 15 to 16-hour-days, to now, we can do it in 8 to 9-hour-days," Laughner said. "Now, we've got 100 percent accountability."
This increased efficiency enables the unit to properly source and support the different flows of transient service members coming through the camp. Now, he said, they know how much of something they have, how long it will last and whether or not they need to order additional supplies such as water or ice.
Unit Supply Sergeant, Sgt. Kandy Gorsuch, of Douglas, Wyo., said it is important to provide for these service members - making sure they are properly equipped to make the trip home or abroad.
"Basically, we're here to help the other Soldiers in any way we can," she said. "We're a team here."
Another portion of this support is the utilization of contractors. Besides the command and control elements provided by the 960th, most other services are contracted out and executed by individuals known as third country nationals, or, TCNs. These services include everything from conducting waste removal to maintaining roadways and managing contract food vendors.
Master Sgt. Adam Martinez, of Cheyenne, Wyo., helps to manage these contractors and said that building relationships is vital. Although language and cultural barriers can be difficult to deal with at times, he said they have been successful at building working and personal relationships beyond superficial interactions.
"Relationship building here is more in-depth than it is at home," Martinez said. "It is part of our mission to teach (the TCNs) things."
And maintaining these relationships is critical to the overall goal - providing a quality living environment for service members traveling in and out.
"Everything must be running when they get here," Martinez said. "Bottom line is, I'm trying to take care of customers. Some days its hundreds, some days its thousands."
Equally important is that each person has a place to sleep.
Sgt. First Class Timothy Smith, of Torrington, Wyo., the force flow and billeting non-commissioned officer in charge, deals with current and future force flow issues.
"Over the last nine months, we've gotten pretty good at adapting," Smith said.
His job is to provide current and future personnel projections, which ultimately affect the planning and preparation of support for the rest of the camp.
He said the job is certainly different than a traditional ground-pounding mobilization, but no less important. The job is rewarding, he added, because it provides the "ability to send folks through Camp Virginia and send them home."
Still, along with the jobs of maintaining comfortable billeting, efficient contractors and sufficient supplies, someone still needs to keep the camp clean and provide general maintenance. Sgt. Sean Howie, of Casper, Wyo., and Sgt. Samuel Funk, of Ten Sleep, Wyo., are part of that team.
These sergeants, along with six TCNs, conduct what they call "the dirty jobs" - like collecting the camp recycling and rounding up trash as it blows through passageways.
"We're basically the fill-in-the-gap, master of all trades," Funk said. "We're Johnny on the spot."
For Howie, however, the deployment was drastically different than what he experienced in his first mobilization.
"My first deployment I was in Baghdad for a year," he said. "You come into something like this and it's totally different."
One portion of their contribution was filling sand bags - more than 1,000 tons-worth. To put this amount into perspective, 100 sandbags is the equivalent of 2.5 tons of sand.
But beyond sand bags and billeting, the other functions of this self-sustaining community require a leadership to help coordinate its efforts.
Near the top of this structure is Command Sgt. Maj. Candice Anderson, of Cheyenne, Wyo.
Anderson said the key focus point for the mission is providing the "best possible quality of life."
In order to maintain this excellence, she said high standards must be maintained from senior leadership down to the lowest ranking Soldier within camp.
"If you have Soldiers that have personal courage to do the right thing, that's exceptional," Anderson said. "I think we are extremely successful."
Anderson cares deeply about the Soldiers within the permanent party of the camp as well as those transitioning through. She said the battalion's role is to provide a safe and comfortable environment for them to operate and that she and her Soldiers take that responsibility very seriously.
She added this could be the first stop out of combat areas where service members have been operating. It is because of this, Anderson said, that the mission is imperative to begin their journey home in a quality environment with quality support.
Anderson said "pad managers," or Soldiers responsible for specific billeting areas, provide a critical link between the comfort of transitioning service members and those responsible for such support.
The pad managers execute a non-standard mission, she said, but do so exceptionally.
"These (transient service members) don't want for anything," she said. "Our (pad managers) are exceptional."
Yet higher still in this chain of command is the 960th BSB Commander, Lt. Col. John Papile of Fort Collins, Colo.
"(Col. Papile) is the true driving force," Anderson said. "He sets the standard."
And although Papile is regarded highly among his peers, he attributes the battalion's success to the individual Soldiers that make the unit whole.
"We've got a lot of really talented Soldiers here," Papile said. "They take such pride in the work that they are doing. I feel like we hit a home run with this one."
He said one of the keys to the success of the unit was understanding each other's roles, and executing those tasks to the best of their ability.
Still, learning roles in a new battalion that was split up among the entire brigade did bring early difficulties. Papile said one of the biggest challenges was to deal with losing portions of his unit while reassembling and redistributing the rest.
When the 960th Brigade Support Battalion deployed as part of the 115th Fires Brigade in spring 2009, it had been established less than two years prior to departure from Wyoming. The unit had only trained together twice prior to their pre-mobilization training at Fort Hood, Texas.
But staying true to the Wyoming National Guard mentality, the unit adapted and overcame these difficulties to ultimately earn an exceptional reputation not only with service members traveling through the camp, but also throughout the entire operating region of Kuwait.
In the end, the message from Wyoming Soldiers is that of pride in the job they continue to accomplish and the example they are striving to leave.
"You've seen the difference that you've made," Anderson said about the battalion's accomplishments. "Camp Virginia becomes a part of you. We have to leave knowing that we did a good job."