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Friday, September 26

Soldiers enjoying short-lived R&R

By Gina Cavallaro | Army Times

CAMP AS SAYLIYAH, Qatar - Call it Spring Break for Warriors.

A steady stream of battle-weary American soldiers is flowing away from the combat zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, temporarily trading the stresses of dangerous duty for shorts and broad smiles. They're heading for the beach, the pool, the basketball court and the beer.

"This is so weird!" Spc. Natasha Vanderbur of the 514th Signal Company said, savoring the sea spray on a 40-foot recreational boat churning toward an island getaway three miles offshore from Qatar's capital, Doha.

This is a world away from Diwaniyah, the Iraqi town 100 miles south of Baghdad that Vanderbur and her Fort Bragg, N.C.-based company now call home.

"We're out in the desert where it sucks and smells and it's hot and, all of a sudden, here we are on a boat," said the 20-year-old from Sterling, Va. "How do you explain that to people?"

Vanderbur, who has been deployed since February, is one of the latest participants in the Army's Fighter Management Program. Every day, 250 troops - about 220 from Iraq and the rest from Afghanistan - arrive at the U.S. air base at nearby Al Udeid for some R&R - rest and recreation. Since June, when the program started for troops deployed to Afghanistan, more than 12,000 soldiers have cycled through.

Meanwhile, the first troops participating in a separate midtour leave program are in the midst of a 15-day trip back home. Up to 270 soldiers were part of the first wave of what could include as many as 800 soldiers a day.

The Qatar R&R program, unlike those at provisional R&R sites at Iraqi palaces, offers enlisted soldiers and officers an oasis out of country where they can leave behind their worries and lay their heads on cool, clean pillows.

"As a first sergeant, I don't sleep very well," said Randy Lange, 38, of 4th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. His Black Hawk company has been in northern Iraq since February.

"Here, I can forget about the worries and not knowing what's going to happen the next day. I don't have to think about my soldiers on convoys when they go out to get parts."

About all Lange has to worry about here is whether his soldiers get sunburned or break the three-beer limit. Security is tight at this post of 2,500 and outside the gates. Although the emirate and the United States enjoy good relations, the State Department advises Americans to keep a low profile in Qatar.

The R&R begins for soldiers here after they are briefed on the dos and don'ts and issued sleeping assignments in one of the comfortable open-bay quarters. Although the R&R is billed as four days, two include arrival and departure, so it's a compressed vacation.

Until recently, soldiers in the R&R program were allowed to go into town but, for security reasons the Army won't detail, restrictions were put in place that keep most soldiers on post. Now, 80 soldiers a day are selected through a lottery to go off post to shop, jet ski or take part in other recreational activities.

Many soldiers opt to stay on post, where they can have free rein of facilities that include a swimming pool and hot tub, basketball, volleyball and tennis courts, a day spa, a 24-hour computer and phone center, television and video room, movies and a fitness center complete with an Orange Julius fruit-drink bar. They also can choose from Burger King, Subway, Pizza Inn and a poolside Chili's restaurant.

Computers are set up on rows of long tables in a room lined with television sets, the remnants of a media center that was bustling at the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom earlier this year.

The building also houses the post chapel in a sizable room once used for media briefings.

Capt. Andrew Harewood, a reservist with the 109th Chaplain Team out of Willow Grove, Pa., has counseled and listened to hundreds of soldiers since the start of the R&R program.

"There are a lot of soldiers, quite frankly, who just need to cry," said Harewood, who has been in theater nine months. "There are a lot of pent-up emotions, whether it's sexual frustration or just anger."

By taking some time to talk things out, he said, "hard-core soldiers can get back in touch with who they were before they came to the theater."

Of the 600 soldiers Harewood and another chaplain see in an average two-week period, he said, about 65 percent of them are R&R soldiers.

Decompression comes in different forms and can take place anywhere, whether with a chaplain or another soldier.

"I've had more than one soldier break down crying in the Jacuzzi," said Maj. Edward Cagle, executive officer of Army Forces Central Command in Qatar. "Our soldiers are heroes. We try to treat them that way."