What began in 1990 as a generous but temporary measure, handing out bottled water to troops gathering in Saudi Arabia for Desert Storm, has grown into a financial and logistics problem that runs counter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's drive to make the military lighter and more agile, according to a report by David Wood of the Newhouse News Service.
In Iraq alone, 45 million 1.5-liter bottles a month, are drained and tossed aside. And while GIs consider bottled water an entitlement, some generals regard it as coddling.
"Spoon-feeding troops bottled water a mistake," Gen. John Keane, the Army's vice chief of staff, insisted in an interview. "We want them to have mental toughness."
In the sun-scorched compounds occupied by 130,000 Army troops in Iraq, soldiers have two potential sources of water.
One is bottled in Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia or Greece and shipped to Kuwait, where stevedores wrestle crates of it off ships. Then, in giant, windswept marshaling yards, forklifts labor in ankle-deep desert grit to stack it into cardboard-box mountains.
Next, it is loaded onto tractor-trailer trucks that groan north in snaking convoys pallets of cartons, 12 bottles to a case, truck after truck.
The military buys so much bottled water, from so many vendors, through so many different agencies, that no one knows precisely how much, at what cost, it takes to slake its thirst.
The other, traditional source is the 400-gallon steel tank sitting on a trailer in the desert sun. That's a Water Buffalo, in Army lingo.
The Buffalo holds water that's been purified by the ROWPU boys the soldiers who man the Reverse Osmosis Water Purification Units. They've been trained to drop a hose into any swamp or saltwater ditch and pump out something drinkable.
ROWPUs work by forcing water through a series of filters, which strain out various poisons and "most" smelly stuff, according to a recent Pentagon assessment.
Still, after the ROWPU water has been pumped into a Smifty (that's a Semi Trailer Mounted Fabric Tank a huge, rubberized bag on a flat-bed truck), hauled to a battalion headquarters and transferred to a Water Buffalo, what comes out when a thirsty soldier turns the spigot may be less than palatable. Worse, in some units this summer, ROWPU water was rumored to be making soldiers sick.
"We have ROWPUs producing tons of water that soldiers don't want because of expectations we set in Desert Storm," Lt. Gen. Charles S. Mahan, the Army's logistics chief, told Wood. "Was that a mistake? Absolutely!"
But the man whose idea it was to start the military's bottled-water trend is unrepentant.
"Yeah, I made that decision. I thought it was a great idea," said William "Gus" Pagonis, the Army's logistics chief for Desert Storm. "No question it tastes better than ROWPU water. And if you can't give soldiers great food, why not at least give them good water?"
In Dahran, Saudi Arabia, in August 1990, no ROWPUs or Water Buffalos came with the thousands of troops in early-arriving units. But there was a Saudi desalinization facility nearby, making fresh water out of saltwater, and a bottling plant down the road. Pagonis hired them and made history.
"Bottles are easy to transport. You put the stuff in trucks and you don't have to figure out how to disperse it down to soldier level. You just hand them out and soldiers put'em in their pockets they fit almost perfectly in your side pockets," said Pagonis, now a senior vice president for logistics for Sears, Roebuck and Co.
In Iraq, the Army is still wrestling with how to distribute bulk ROWPU water. One intractable problem is those Smifties. Barreling along with a 3,000-gallon bag on the trailer, drivers find the water sloshing back and forth, and if there's a hard curve up ahead, "all of a sudden you've got a Smifty upside down," Mahan explained to Wood.
One solution is to equip the Smifties with baffles. These redesigned Smifties are called Camels and Hippos or would be, if they were built. "I haven't been able to get the dollars," Mahan said. Building better Smifties "doesn't compete" with buying new weapons.
Meantime, there is another problem: empties.
If distributing bottled water is difficult, what about policing up the trash, in a nation that has no known recycling program?
But that's another story.