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Weekend Pass

Seeking R and R in Qatar

Orly Halpern

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Four soldiers in Qatar
(Orly Halpern)
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In the old days, U.S. soldiers stationed abroad would be let loose for a few days to let off steam. Many would find their relaxation in the brothels and bars of the country where they were stationed. But that's not the case in Middle Eastern combat zones. Not only does the U.S. military completely prohibit alcohol, but soldiers never leave their base for fun because they could be targeted anywhere.

So in 2004, the U.S. Central Command set up an R&R--rest and recuperation--program inside a military base in the peaceful Arab country of Qatar, off the Persian Gulf. The goal is to give soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines a short break, without taking them out of the Middle East. Since its inception, more than 150,000 soldiers serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and Djibouti have flown in for a four-day pass.

But isn't a military vacation an oxymoron? What can U.S. servicemen and women do to have fun if they are still on an Army base in the middle of a conservative Muslim country? Orly Halpern flew to Camp As-Sayliyah in the Persian Gulf and spent four days with the men and women to find out.

Day 1:

From the outside, it's a big beige warehouse and it blends in with the other military buildings on this U.S. base in the desert of Qatar. But walk through the door, and you're in the Oasis Club--one of the hot spots here in Camp As-Sayliyah. People are playing pool, dancing, lining up to order beer. It seems like any bar in America. Except for a few details.

"All right, this is the last call," the DJ says over loud speakers. "Last call for alcohol, the last call. You've got 40 minutes."

What? It's only 11 pm, and already last call? And soldiers are only allowed three drinks a night?

"I had two beers and one wine," John Vasquez tells me while standing glassy-eyed and glum on the edge of the dance floor. Vasquez is a tall soldier with a shaved head from East LA, who is fresh off duty in Baghdad. It's his first day of R&R and, like a lot of the soldiers here, he's not ready to stop drinking yet.

"I decided on the wine because I've been real stressed out lately at work in Baghdad going out on patrols," says Vasquez "and the wine is extra strong. It's extra strong."

Alcohol is one of the main attractions on these R&R passes, because drinking is forbidden on most U.S. military bases in the Middle East. But since these soldiers haven't had a drop in many months, their tolerance is low--so the military sets limits. That's not sitting well with Vasquez. He says he's not buzzed enough yet to forget the stress of the job he goes back to in four days.

"This is my second tour here," Vasquez says, his voice heavy. "I was supposed to get out in November of '07 and as you can see, I'm here in Qatar. They stopped my contract and started it again, so I have to do another extra year and a half. All I want to do is get out. That's my whole focus, to help out Americans, rather than Iraqis. Cuz they're still blowing us up. What's the point? You know what I mean?"

The Army's recent stop-loss policy has kept Vasquez in Iraq much longer than he expected. He thinks that's why his commanders let him go on this short vacation, even though four-day passes are hard to come by.

Of course, finding ways to relax battle-weary soldiers is not a new challenge for the military. What's new is how organized the military has become in their efforts.

"This is not your father's R&R," Col. David Cotter says resolutely as we talk in his office here at Camp As-Sayliyah. Col. Cotter is the commander of Area Support Group, basically the commander of the base. He says that in the past, R&R during wartime often meant a lot of booze and prostitutes. In 2004, the military tried a kinder, gentler approach, and created this R&R compound--a sort of military Club Med.

"Everyone remembers the R&R of the Vietnam era, when the soldiers would go to Thailand or Singapore," says Col. Cotter. "It enjoys a reputation of debauchery.

"Our intent is to get the soldiers out of the fight for four days at a time, give them a chance to relax, have a bunch of hot meals, hang out at the swimming pool, maybe see some of Doha, camel ride, that kind of thing. It's not an intent to recreate the Sodom and Gomorrah of the late 60s and early 70s."

Day 2:

Of course, the military doesn't specialize in fun and relaxation, but, since that's the task at hand, the people running this program work hard to achieve their objectives. The chow hall recently won an award for serving the most delicious food in the military. The base also provides top-notch facilities. Soldiers can work out at a state of the art gym, swim in the pool, play Dance Dance Revolution at the Top Off bar, eat a steak at Chili's, or see a film at the movie theatre.

"Here's the USO," says First Lieutenant Karly Mangen, head of the R&R program, as she shows me around some of the facilities. The USO is a "chill-out room" with deep sofas, donated by the United Service Organizations.

"It's open from nine in the morning til five in the morning," says Mangen. "They take their shoes off and put them in the bins here. It's a no-shoes zone. You can read books, put your feet up."

And to complete the family-room effect, there are even a few furry dogs hanging around.

"That's the military search dog," Mangens says, correcting me. "They're doing training."

Soldiers are encouraged to let their hair down here. Sometimes quite literally. I run into one female soldier in the ladies' bathroom brushing her waist-length brown hair. She tells me it's the first time she's worn it down in nine months.

Indeed, time at this R&R compound is all about the little things, explains some Air Force women I meet who are on leave from a base in Bagram, Afghanistan.

"We needed girl time," one tells me as five of us sat around a table at the Top Off Bar on base.

"To go shopping," pipes in another.

"Yeah!" they all agree.

"To sit in a room full of purses," says a tall servicewoman with long brown hair. "Like today we did nothing, but today was the best day. We slept in, we got our hair cut, she got her nails done, we just did what we wanted�and the showers are hot, not cold."

"You can shave both legs in the showers, without the hot water running out!" chimes in another and they all laugh in agreement.

On R&R the soldiers are in civilian clothes and don't wear a weapon.

"Oh yeah, the no weapon thing--it's like walking around naked!" said another airwoman.

And it's not just women who enjoy a little pampering. At the spa here on base, you can get a manicure, pedicure, massage and facial. When I visit, I find Sgt. Edmund Burkhalter, a 225-pound guy with about 30 tattoos.

"I'm getting a facial and a massage and�a pedicure and a manicure," he tells me.

On-duty, he serves in the freezing cold mountains of Kandahar, Afghanistan. But right now his feet are soaking in a tub of hot water and a Filipino woman is filing his fingernails.

"You can't tell anybody about the pedicure and the manicure though," he adds with a smile. "We're gonna keep that a secret."

Day 3:

One of the exciting parts of the R&R pass is the opportunity to go off base. Most soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan never leave base unless they are on a mission. Here, soldiers can go on organized sightseeing trips to state-of-the-art shopping malls in the nearby city of Doha, where besides going to their favorite stores, they can go ice-skating, take an boat ride in the indoor lake or slide down a giant ice-hill.

Or they can take a bus tour of the city. I go on one with about 30 servicewomen and men of all ages dressed in civilian clothes. We started out early in the morning and it goes something like this:

Tour guide (in a heavy Indian accent): "Good morning!"

Servicewomen and men (groggy but excited): "Good morning."

Tour guide: "OK, actually we are going to show you around downtown. Myself, you can call me Ram."

Servicewomen and men: "Ram."

Tour guide: "So let me highlight you the places we are going to visit. First of all we are going to visit animals market. Camel and mountain goats are there." That was a popular photo stop.

There are other fun trips off base each for about $35, like jet skiing in the sea followed by lunch on a boat, or having a barbecue and playing beach-volleyball on the shores of the Persian Gulf. Another popular trip is to an Iranian restaurant where you can eat Persian food and smoke apple-flavored tobacco from a water-pipe.

Most soldiers I meet are enjoying themselves. But some are disappointed, like Andreas Cramer von Clausbruch, a 44-year-old active-duty soldier serving in Iraq. Von Clausbruch is from Fort Polk, La., and has been in the military for more than 20 years. He tells me he preferred the freedom of the R&R passes of the past.

"It was a lot more, 'Okay, be back on a bus in a week, see ya' later, here's your hotel. That's it,'" says Von Clausbruch. "There's a lot more restrictions on being a soldier nowadays. I guess because a lot of people are too immature. Back then they cut you loose. You got in trouble, you dealt with it."

Von Clausbruch and I take the lunch at the beach tour together. There are about 30 of us and we are divided between about some six SUVs which drive us precariously over sand dunes to a quiet beach to relax and have grilled meat, rice, and salads. Von Clausbruch wants to drive the SUV himself, he wants to stay in a hotel, he wants to explore the country on his own. And he wanted his wife to visit. But that's not allowed. This R&R does not impress him.

"Okay, we do a little sightseeing," he says. "But we're in a warehouse, no hotel. Three drinks a day. Whoo hoo," he calls out sarcastically to the chuckles of the other R&R passengers.

"Why is it that we, the defenders of freedom, can't go out and have our fun?" he asks. "Once upon a time, there was the Dirty Dozen. Remember how they got their R&R before they went on their mission? They pulled up a truck full of women and wine. That was R&R."

Times have definitely changed. Now, ladies' bathrooms on the base have signs calling on soldiers to "Stand Up Against Sexual Assault."

Kurt Brinkley and Dave Sheets, a couple soldiers serving in Iraq who are here on R&R, tell me over lunch on the beach that sometimes violence breaks out over the attention of a servicewoman here.

"There was a guy killed here last month that got in a fight with another guy over a woman," says Brinkley. "So the other guy stabbed him."

He looks around him on the beach and waves towards a female servicewoman in a bikini. "As you notice there's only three or four chicks and 20 guys," he says, as he bites into a grilled chicken leg. "The testosterone raises very high."

The Army says that it was an accidental death. But First Lieutenant Mangen, the head of the R&R program, acknowledges that women have complained about too much attention.

"We do get comment cards, and a lot of girls say it does kind of suck being a female here because there's a lot of guys," she says. "They like to crowd around."

Female soldiers are not allowed to go off base in the company of only one male. When I came here, a military official recommended that I wear loose sweatshirts--just to play it safe.

Day 4:

My last night of R&R. I go to the Top Off Club, on base. It's Friday night, karaoke night. Just as I'm leaving I see John Vasquez, the guy I met on the first day, who wasn't ready to stop drinking. I ask him if he ended up getting what he needed out of his R&R.

"I was feeling kinda like, man I wish I was at home doing this instead of feeling half-way buzzed and not being able to get another beer," he remembers. "But as the days went on it's been all right, you know. I haven't really been looking to get all too drunk, or nothing."

In Vasquez's brief break from the mortars and the road mines of a war zone, he has had a chance to think about what he wants to do with his life once he returns home.

"I want to be a sheriff and all that stuff," he says, "but my real--like--I want to be a screenplay writer or an actor. But, that's dreamin' high instead of low, baby. Dreamin' high instead of low. We'll see what happens. Must make it through this tour."

Vasquez heads back to Baghdad tomorrow.

"I feel depressed right now 'cuz I know I'm leaving tomorrow," he says. "I guess my friends back over there need me. Gotta help them. We'll see how that goes. ... Gotta do my job. Bring everybody home. That's all I can do for now."

More stories from our Weekend Pass series


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Darnell Langlais


    I'm keen on the variations.

    By Elsa Bader


    Your images look terrific !!!

    By Phoebe Thornton


    Merely on the internet checking things out ... love the photos! I attempt to learn by looking at various other photos, as well.

    By Thomas Lassek 1SG Army Ret

    From Eufaula, AL, 04/10/2011

    The DOD authorizes qualified individuals a 4 day pass equivalent to the R&R facility in Qatar in order to relieve the stress of combat related duties through a system of Rest and Recuperation.

    In this effort, the DOD is well intentioned, however, as in any bureaucracy, it's impossible to assemble a program wholly acceptable to everyone within the system. It simply cannot be done, however, in general, I would have to say that the program "as is" remains somewhat acceptable to those who use this system offered by the DOD, which as always, is oriented towards mission accomplishment while mirroring current values and norms of our society.

    In the end, if your 4 day R&R DID NOT relieve the STRESS of combat related duties and you did not RECUPERATE to some extent by the experience, then it becomes your "duty" to forward change recommendations upwards so that others that follow will receive the intended benefit of the program.

    By Brad Wright

    From Issaquah, WA, 11/27/2010

    I was in Qatar in 2004 stationed at Al Udeid AFB. I went down to the army base a couple of times to swim in the pool. While we still had a few hurdles to jump through to get off base, it wasn't nearly as restrictive as it sounds for the army. We'd go off in groups of 3-4, fill out a little paper work to tell roughly where we were going, take a base cell phone and go explore. I had some of the best times as a young 20 year old. We went out to eat, explored the sights, took boat rides, did whatever we wanted on a whim. Being in a small group didn't intimidate local people and I had many come up and put their arms around our shoulders and get pictures. I think that the army is being overly restrictive on letting their members explore. That's how true cultural understanding happens.

    By William Benson

    From Rockford, WA, 05/25/2010

    I had a four day pass in Qatar while deployed to Balad, Iraq 2008-2009. The Army wasn't sure that there would be enough leave slots, and our soldiers that went outside the wire on mission (I was a CP Rat) had top leave priority- I thought that it was very decent of the command to make sure of that... I remember wandering around As-Sayliyah in a sort of daze, along with a hundred other guys and gals... It was nice to relax and have a beer, but it sure wasn't anything like the liberty I enjoyed while in the Marines in the 80's and 90's. As-Sayliyah was surreal...

    By Red Green


    Corey Mondello is a bonafide IDIOT. Corey's website is proof.

    By Common Sense


    Will, neither political correctness nor the moral majority has nothing to do with it. BTW, those two "institutions" are not really associated. Since you're probably associating all Christians with the "moral majority", I'll tell you that if we had that kind of power, we wouldn't waste our time with the military. I'm a Christian and admit that I detest that we cannot have alcohol. There are many of us who could easily handle a daily ration. Reality is that our primary responsibility as leaders is to make certain that we bring all our soldiers home alive. From a policy standpoint, we don't allow fraternization because we "intend" to prevent the break up of marriages by preventing STDs and pregnancies. Alcohol impairs judgement and easily convinces a soldier that it's okay to have sex, when the soldier "might" otherwise use better judgement. Impaired judgement can lead to sexual assault. What if your daughter, a soldier, were raped by a male soldier who wanted only to get drunk and have sex? As a father, wouldn't you demand that your daughter's commanding officer do everything possible to make sure your daughter returns home to her family intact? Brothels and prostitution are the harbingers of human trafficking and the financial contributions of soldiers in a combat zone, if unleashed, would only serve to put more women in bondage or slavery. Again, what if it were YOUR daughter who was kidnapped and forced to have "dates" several times per day? I agree with the idea of soldiers being allowed to have that kind of freedom, but reality is that it just isn't wise. I understand the length of time away from my wife and the pleasures of marriage. I understand the stress and I understand the loneliness, but I volunteered to meet these standards. As a soldier who is on his way, again, I can tell you that I'm defending my wife and two sons...and I would be sacrificing BOTH if my intent was to get drunk and have sex.

    By George Davis

    From Murrieta, CA, 04/05/2009

    Aside from conquest, isn't the point of occupying a foreign land to exchange cultural values and change the culture through confrontation both intellectually and in the field? I am disturbed about the problem of hiding Americans away behind walls and fences inside foreign lands and giving them chill out rooms, fake bars, and "American" restaurants to make them feel safe. This sort of adds credence to the stereotype that as American tourists we can't pay attention or care about anything around us wandering through the Vatican listening to Snow Patrol or whatever unable to embrace the surrounding culture and thinking only about ourselves. Authentic human exprience is probably more of what the military folks really need. Are we such a delicate flowers that no one should be allowed to wander and discover things freely. If we are so hated and need to be protected by this "soccer mom military" mentality, it makes you wonder if we are even wanted or have any relevance in this land?

    By Major Joe


    Typical military BS political correctness. Not even on R&R can we take a damn break from mind numbing military organization! I tell you what 90% of guys want. We want four days with NOTHING to do with military restrictions. We want to get drunk and we want to get laid. Is that so flipping hard for the military to understand. It's what nearly every soldier has wanted since the beginning of warfare. Is it so unreasonable to let everyone have fun for 4 lousy days?! Get me the HELL out of the over-controlling, mindless, bureaucratic modern military. Thank GOD I can retire soon. After Iraq and Afghanistan, I've had enough.


    From BOSTON, MA, 03/03/2009


    By Catherine Canchola

    From San Jose, CA, 12/21/2008

    Ok so I am with a soldiers who is diployed.This is my first time being away from him.However how many homes have to be wrecked back in the states due to RR?I am an army brat.So when it comes to military I am not naive.Yes soldiers need to get away,however they shouldn't put themselves in situations where it is easy to destroy a home.You tend to forget about whats important when its out of site.Especially when alcohol and freedom are upon you.We are human.Men are not the only guilty ones.The woman soldiers that are there know exactly what they are doing as well as the men.And we as women can get what we want by being manipulative.So maybe the best way to keep homes in tact is to have a plan for soldiers to do just what they have planned.What I mean is that alcohol is a deppressant so when you put a bunch of drunk soldiers together and they miss life at home it becomes a way out which in the long run make things worse.I guess my concern is,is that I am here able to do whatever I want while he is diployed.I am not tempting or puting myself in situations where I could lose him.So clubs,drinking,hanging out with the opposite sex,could lead me to do something stupid just so I can relax myself from him not being here.

    By noof noooof


    no comments

    By Jenny Johnson

    From San Francisco, CA, 10/20/2008

    They could at least let them have 4 or 5 drinks. It's not like anyone is going to get alcohol poisoning and go crazy from that.

    I think the soldiers should order 3 wines right away and slam them all so they can get a good buzz at least.

    Maybe they could change it so they can have one drink per hour or two hours or something. 3 drinks is just a bunch of crap.

    Maybe they should set up private rooms that can be checked out for like 15 minute intervals that have computers that aren't watched so they can browse porn and enjoy themselves a little. Probably not as good as sex but since that isn't an option. Yeah, it sounds a little gross, but it's better than them having to silently do that in the bathroom or something.

    By Paige Turner is dumb

    From NY, NY, 10/20/2008

    Wow, Paige Turner sounds like a moron. I'm not sure if I saw any complete sentences and you can't even spell the work Iraq. WTF. Just because your husband is a soldier serving over there doesn't mean that YOU know anything.

    By Paige Turner

    From NY, NY, 09/03/2008

    It is rather sad that you find such different opinions on anything and everything in the world, even if it comes to a little break that the soliers are getting whilst protecting all YOUR freedom.

    Issues discussed are so far feched...
    No SEX ? Rididculous
    Too much sex ? Rididculous
    RAPE ? Please ! Prevented by a baggy sweater ?! Hello ?

    There are enough female soldiers, that turn up pregnant whilst deployed - did they not wear their baggy sweater ?

    Alcohol yes or no and how much if so ???

    I guess some people say and believe that you have to protect the soldiers from their own STUPIDITYs while they are on R&R - as a matter of fact as a military wife it is your duty - ok like WHATEVER! Please what is 1 unlucky female supposed to do against and ARMY of .... female soldiers eager to get their share of ANYTHING ? I mean what does a woman need to join the USMilitary for anyhow ? Knowing that they will be deployed ? PLEASE !

    OK, so put up some signs, and get them checked when they leave their mission to actually go home to their "loved ones" and leave all the physically loved others behind for a while - the ones that support them throughout their deployment by SENDING the boxes !?

    Who is protecting US from the soldiers stupidities ? Lets just be INFORMED that HPV-infections that cause cancer and genital warts are just as much not curable as other more drastic STDs one can aquir ! AND the vaccines ARE KILLING young girls us mothers would so much like to know PROTECTED!

    I am not laughing when I imagine the Cenario of the USArmy getting wiped out by their own irresponsible people they are creating after "enslaving" oh sorry I meant enlist them into the service !!!

    Leave alone all this mess created by the soldiers who are OVERSEAS creating desastrous Situations for local residens, who bare their "bastard" children befor they return to their own "real" Families back in the States ?
    The military officials are also protecting THOSE soldiers, by making it almost impossible to get anyone charged for Adultery.

    Don't get offended, if someone tells you to wear a sweater for your Protection, maybe they are too overworked to realize that CONDOMS are actually a much better PROTECTION...

    Please Let everyone wake up and be responsible for themself !

    Then we would not have to discuss any of these issues we are on a daily basis and we could just get back to enjoying the freedom that these young men and women^^ are defending for "US".

    Anyone been there on R&R that might want to share THEIR opinion ?
    I am sure with or withought sex a curfew or alcohol you had a few days without being alarmed 24 7 !
    Anyone here who got drunk who got laid who got pregnant ?

    Whatever - that is life - we should live everyday as if it was our last, but we should take in consideration...

    If you cannot tell the truth anymore, it is time to let some things go...

    Paige Turner

    Military Wife of a deployed Soldier

    Mother of 2

    Friend of a Female back in Germany who is fighting for getting childsupport out of an married E8 who is fighting for your freedom in Irak!

    Author one day

    Eyewittness and bereaved of the Stupidity in PEOPLE ever dawning day !

    By Lara Chapman

    From Baghdad, Iraq, 08/10/2008

    As a female Army officer, I found this article refreshing and straightforward. I get the impression that the average American really has no clue what's going on over here. As the author of this article mentioned, the location of this conflict dictates a lot of our restrictions - we would be hammered for inappriate behavior if we changed most of our current limits, particularly on alcohol and sex. Remember, the Qatar pass is a FOUR-DAY allowance typically reserved for Soldiers who cannot take the 18 days of R&R elsewhere (i.e. they are not on the full deployment) or they are using this pass in addition to an 18-day R&R because of combat stress, reward, or incentive (i.e. reenlistment). Furthermore, sexual assault and harassment ARE a reality for women in uniform, although it is certainly not an indicator of our military as a whole - in my opinion it is simply due to the low percentage of women who serve, compared with the number of men. Not many other organizations have this unique situation. With a military that is made of such a small percentage of volunteers in our population, it IS interesting to me how many people have an opinion but aren't willing to actually sign up and work on changing anything.

    By Corey Mondello

    From Boston, MA, 07/20/2008


    “a military official recommended that I wear loose sweatshirts--just to play it safe.”

    I find it disturbing that someone in the Military would tell a journalist to wear more baggy clothing, as to not temp the male troops.

    What century are we in?

    Do we still blame a woman when she is raped?

    A US military official recommends a female US troop dress a certain way, NOT to protect her from Muslim Extremists, but from male US troops.

    How disgusting and disturbing!!!

    The military has proved itself once again to be a disgrace to Americans, Troops and Veterans who would be offended if they believed that their "officials" do not trust them enough to think they are unable to be around woman when they have clothing on that may not cover them up as much as a burka!!!

    Corey Mondello
    Boston, Massachusetts

    By Will Schreiner

    From Saint Louis, MO, 07/20/2008

    Three drink limits, 11PM curfews, no sex, spas??? As a taxpayer, I would like to apologize to our service men and women. They sacrifice their lives and families to keep us safe and where do we send them for R & R...the equivalant of a girls night out or church camp. We should all be ashamed that political correctness and the "moral majority" have had this kind of effect on the lives of the defenders of freedom. What in the hell are they defending if they can't even get drunk and laid?

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