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Published: 4/1/2007

Thirsty Marines awash in heaping supply of bottled water

BY CAPT. DANIEL FRITZ
U.S. MARINE CORPS
Bottles of water arrive in huge, blue cubes bundled into thousand-bottle units by a 5-foot roll of industrial cling wrap. This water is processed in a plant on the edge of base, and it is distributed by racing forklifts. Bottles of water arrive in huge, blue cubes bundled into thousand-bottle units by a 5-foot roll of industrial cling wrap. This water is processed in a plant on the edge of base, and it is distributed by racing forklifts.
CAPT. DANIEL FRITZ/ACE HMH-363 H Enlarge

NORTHWEST OF BAGHDAD - As I walk to work this morning, I can't help but notice a giant mound of bottled water beside the road.

Almost every faucet you find on base is accompanied by a sign prohibiting the consumption of tap water, so we drink only the bottled water on base. The idea of only drinking from sealed bottles for six months straight does not sit well with me. I consider the alternative and recall a young pilot in the squadron who spent three days doubled over in pain after he opened his mouth in the shower.

I have a hard time walking 50 meters without encountering a stack of water bottles that seem to be haphazardly piled on oversized wood pallets. This was once an orderly cube that has eroded one bottle at a time as thirsty Marines pass by.

Although unsightly, the water stations have been strategically positioned all over base to prevent dehydration and keep the Marines sipping water as they move from place to place.

The average Marine will drink one bottle an hour, and more when exercising or working in the sun. Add a few more for coffee and that works out to about 12 bottles daily, so a squadron of our size goes through almost 7,000 bottles every three days.

I quickly run the numbers through my mind and consider the impact, and yet with all that consumption you almost never see an empty bottle on the ground, almost no litter at all. The Marines are very particular about their empties and tend to pick up litter in lieu of walking over it. With no recycling in the desert, I can't help but wonder where all the empty bottles go.

But we are not just drinking the bottled water. You ll find water bottles are used in unexpected ways all over base.

Bottles are stacked on window sills to protect from an explosive blast. Almost every door has a water bottle hanging from a cable to guarantee it closes behind you, and boxes of bottles form field-expedient furniture in many offices and barracks rooms.

Marines are instructed to use bottled water while brushing teeth to avoid getting sick, and many choose to shave with bottled water too.

Although the base is outfitted with shower trailers with running water, these rely on diesel generators and faulty water mains that regularly let us down.

Marines adapt and overcome by outfitting each shower stall with a modified shower head a water bottle with a smattering of holes punched in the bottom dangling from a string. This apparatus allows a Marine to pour a bottle of water in the cup, which provides almost 30 seconds of water to lather or rinse.

There are two varieties of drinking water on base, and the best type comes in polished plastic bottles with heat shrink consumer quality labels. These bottles come packed a dozen at a time in heavy grade cardboard boxes that we save to mail our gear home.

An import from Kuwait, each bottle proudly displays contemporary Arabic writing that exudes quality.

The bottles are larger than you would expect, just perfect to fill up a big camelback or provide a 45- second shower.

On close inspection, the label explains that the water will expire one year after the production date and that it has been approved by the International Bottled Water Association.

The second type of water has no labels or boxes. We learn that this water is made locally in a processing plant on the edge of base, and they are distributed from there to here by racing forklifts.

These no-name bottles arrive in huge blue cubes bundled together a thousand bottles at a time with a 5- foot roll of industrial cling wrap. This water comes in slightly smaller containers, which are easier to fit into the leg pocket of a flight suit or a bike s bottle holder.

The local water comes in lowgrade plastic bottles that scuff and attract oil from the aircraft, leaving the water looking cloudy and tasting odd. Although we are disappointed to learn that the International Bottled Water Association has not endorsed this product, we find comfort in the fact that it will not spoil anytime soon.

My half-hour walk to work is almost over, and as I approach the flight line I realize that full water bottles seem to congregate by the side of the road near speed bumps and potholes.

This phenomenon baffles me until my walk home where I encounter a Marine who speeds past me on a mountain bike. I envy his velocity for a moment as he strains to see the road with the flashlight he taped to his handlebars.

What he didn t notice was a sizable hole left from a mortar attack that consumes his front tire, snapping the bike and whipping his body to the curb.

Before he regains his composure, I can hear a full water bottle depart his bike and skid across the street, finally coming to rest among a few others left by the previous speed bump victims.

Like most things here, even simple acts like riding a bike after dark are accompanied by unforeseen hazards, and I resolve to not make any assumptions until I am back in America drinking tap water.



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