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Going on R & R in Good Ol' Qatar

$100 on dinner, $1,400 on booze, and a Brazilian bellydancer for the ages.

The author gets the tinnies in

​At some point during the summer of 2003, someone with stars or birds on their collar decided that since we were going to keep soldiers in Iraq for a year or more, it might be a good idea to institute a rest and relaxation program. Qatar, it was decided, would be the destination. There was already a sprawling military base there with good amenities.

When our infantry company got a couple of slots for the trip, me and another soldier from my platoon were selected to go on the first round. We had no idea what to expect, but were happy to be getting out of miserable Baghdad.


My platoon mates scribbled lists of things they wanted me to buy for them and handed them off to me before I loaded the truck to Baghdad International Airport. Once there, we took off our body armor and handed our rifles to our buddies who would take them back to the base until we returned. We suddenly felt very helpless. No weapon and no armor. We were completely at the mercy of other soldiers who still had theirs gear.

Like most military movements, we eventually found ourselves waiting, laying down on the concrete under some slowly shifting spots of shade, using our assault packs as nylon pillows. We drifted in and out of a hot sleep, conversations buzzing about what we'd do once we got there and whether today counted as one of our four days or not. Military aircraft took off and landed with regularity. It was comfortable.

A sergeant from our group approached after walking out of a nearby trailer. "We're waiting on a return trip from Qatar," he said, "Once its lands we'll quickly load up and then be on our way."

Shortly thereafter, a hulking grey C-130 landed and taxied nearby. The ramp dropped and a bunch of paratroopers from our unit walked out towards us. This was the Qatar bird and they just returned.

They came over to us and we all paired off with someone we knew, exchanging information. I found a platoon sergeant from another company. This platoon sergeant was actually one of my Drill Sergeants from basic training a couple of years earlier. Back in the states, he showed up to my unit a few months before we deployed. I saw him in the hallway one morning as we passed each other. We both stopped and stared for a moment, remembering terrible days dripping sweat in the hot Georgia sun.


"Ho-ly – shit!" he said as he stared at me with a cocked head, incredulous that I was there.

Infantry Drill Sergeants like to remind their trainees during training that the reason they train you so hard is because one day – just maybe – they'd be fighting together with you somewhere in the future. I remember struggling to stay in the push-up position, muscles failing, listening to him say those exact words, calling bullshit in my mind. That was back in May 2001, and the idea of ever fighting somewhere overseas was a foreign one. And to actually be in a war there with one of my Drill Sergeants seemed an impossibility.

Yet, here were were. Not really fighting, per se, but here in the war.

He approached me. "Gomez! Qatar is a blast man." The engine of the C-130 he just got off was still roaring and he had to shout to be heard. "Hey, pull out a piece of paper and write down this number, quick."

Our lead sergeant screamed over the roar of the engine and all the chatter. "Get on the C-130! There is a mechanical problem with the engine and the pilot is afraid that if he shuts it down, it won't come back on, so he wants to fly out now! Move!"

My peers quickly got up and grabbed their gear, forming a line heading to the C-130.

My Drill Sergeant-slash-new friend rattled off a phone number and I dutifully copied it down. "That's the number of a Marine Major at the base there. He's ex-Army and loves paratroopers. He can sign you off post and take you out. You'll go to this rooftop restaurant. They have this super-hot Brazilian belly dancer. It's crazy! You have to go. Trust me."


I nodded and thought about how cool it would be to check this out, but felt completely strange about the idea of cold-calling some USMC Major, asking him to take me to dinner. I was just a junior sergeant at the time, and officers were strange creatures to us. I barely spoke with my own Lieutenant, and he was just a couple of years older than me.

I caught up with the rest of the guys and got onto the C-130, strapped in and went to sleep.

It was about a three-hour flight. We landed in Qatar and were funneled into a large hangar where were received a short brief on our vacation from a cheerful Army staff. They read off a bunch of rules.

We'd be here for three full days. We were allowed three beers a night. The bar (a giant, empty hangar) opened at 1800 and closed at 2000 daily. To drink, we would have to purchase tickets and then exchange those tickets for the beer. Your ID card was linked to the ticket, this way they could try to control how much each person can drink.

During the day, we could go on scheduled trips to a local mall or beach. While on the small base, we could use a pool, a giant dining facility, high-speed internet, phones, games, go shopping, get massages, and more. The big draw was a Chili's restaurant next to the pool. The uniform here was civilian clothes, a welcome break from our torn, dusty desert fatigues. I brought a pair of jeans with me and a New York Fire Department shirt my dad had given me before the invasion.


We were warned that this was a working military installation and that the Uniformed Code of Military Justice still applied to us. That meant just because we were on vacation, we could still get in trouble. We were also told that we could not leave the base with the exception of the planned Army-led excursions if we wished, or if we had someone who was stationed at the base sign us out and take responsibility.

The guy up front telling us all this finally warned us against trying to find a love interest while in Qatar. While most of the people there were male, about ten percent of the folks on R&R were female soldiers. Before we even left the hangar rumors were flying about where to go if you were interested in finding love in three days (inside the sandbag bunkers or the porta-potties). Some guys (and girls) made it their number one priority.

Day 1. Ten hours of sleep, hot showers, shopping, good food, cold air conditioning, boneless buffalo wings at Chili's, weight lifting, video games, three beers in the evening, more sleep.

Day 2. Having done everything there was to do at the small base on day 1, I stood there in the morning, wind and dust blowing around me, staring down at the piece of paper with the Major's number on it. I wanted to check it out, but I didn't have the guts to make the phone call.

So, I did what anyone would do – found a guy who didn't give a fuck and made him make the call.


He spoke with the Major on the phone and confirmed the trip. In order for us to go, we'd need ten people and $100 each for the dinner. We were also warned that we had to be on our best behavior. Our instructions were to get the people and cash together and meet up at the front gate at 1830 tonight.

Me and my buddy split up, finding other guys we knew and enlisting them in our adventure. Anyone we talked to was in – it was all a matter of finding them before 1830.

By 1745 we were all there. The sun was beginning to set and our pockets were stuffed with foreign bills fresh from the ATM. Combat deployments are generous to the bank account and we hadn't had the ability to withdraw any money for months.

At 1800 we each bought three beer tickets and turned them in all at once. We had thirty minutes to down our beer ration before heading out.

Drinking wasn't allowed in Iraq and the combination of no alcohol for months, weight loss, and constant stress meant that our tolerance was extremely low. The effects of one beer were felt immediately. Getting three beers down in thirty minutes wouldn't be easy, but there was no way we were going to leave the base without using our beer ration.

I slammed the beers, one after another. I felt bloated, gross, and gassy as I put down the can of my last beer.

At 1830 we made our way to the front gate where we met up with the Major and two of his friends, a Marine Corps Sergeant Major and a Gunnery Sergeant. They were friendly and happy to see us – kind of odd. We exchanged pleasantries. They said how proud they were of us and it was their pleasure to take us out to let off some steam. This was still early in the Global War on Terror, and the feeling in the air was one that this whole thing was going to end pretty quickly. We felt like a rare breed of animal that was going to be extinct soon. They treated us like royalty.


We walked into an orderly room and the Major signed us all off post.

The author, his mate, and a bollard

We piled into two cars and sped away from the base. It was dark and we got to see Doha at night, city lights blurring past. We parked somewhere downtown and split into two groups. We had an hour to kill before the dinner started at the hotel. Me and a couple of other guys broke off and went with Gunny.

We walked around a jewelry district. I was already drunk, but holding myself together pretty well. I enjoyed people watching as we moved about. It felt so strange to be there, wearing jeans and a plain black t-shirt I bought at the base store earlier that day. No weapon, no body armor. Me among the people. Some women wore what I would consider then to be very "western" clothing – jeans and t-shirts – while other women wore the full abaya and niqab, the traditional long black robe and face veil. No one ever looked at me twice, even though I felt very out of place. I was completely ignored. I both liked it and hated it.

I wandered in and out of shops, buying things for my girlfriend (a palm tree necklace and an Indian dance CD) and some things for buddies back in Baghdad (a power converter).

Eventually, we made our way to the hotel. We walked inside and into an elevator, getting off at the top floor, the "penthouse." Our escort, the Major, collected our cash and slipped away for a moment as we were seated by a waiter at a large, rectangular table. I took a few pictures on the rooftop overlooking Doha.


Inside, there was a large dance floor separating our table from the others on the opposite side of the room. Seated there was a small party of Saudi businessmen wearing long white robes and headdresses, just like we pictured they would. I felt kind of uncomfortable, like we were ruining their evening.

There was a band setup in the front and one of our guys went and sat on the drums and banged away for a minute, grinning widely before returning to the table. The Saudi businessmen watched, unamused. A waiter came by and one of us tried to order a drink. The Major interjected: "Guys, it would be better not to drink." The waiter stated "You can order drinks at the bar." There was a one-second pause as we all looked at one another and then every single one of us stood up and walked to straight to the bar. This is the point that the Major lost control of us.

At the bar, we each ordered the strongest thing we could handle. We opened a group tab. I ordered a Jack and Coke on infinite repeat.

Back at the table, we sat and talked. The Major asked questions about Iraq and what it was like "on the streets." We told him war stories about exotic places like the city of As Samawah, the al-Doura neighborhood, the al-Bayaa mosque, and late-night raids. He ordered himself a beer and watched us with a slight smile as we slammed our drinks. He wanted to be closer to the war and this was how he did it.


Food arrived. We started to snack and before we knew it another course came. It was a no-shit 21-course meal, nonstop. We kept eating and ordering more drinks. A Qatari family arrived, mom, dad, son and daughter. They sat on the side with the Saudi businessmen. We were getting louder and more American with each drink.

"Where's the belly dancer," I shouted to no one in particular.

The Major looked to me and grinned. "Don't worry."

Shortly after that, the lights dimmed and the large room became very dark. A drumming, Arab-pop beat began to play and out she came. She was attractive, and everyone at the table locked in their gaze, only breaking to go back to their alcohol. She danced and we continued to eat and drink. She twirled and writhed and contorted. She coaxed one of the Saudi businessmen to get up and dance with her. Then she came to us and coaxed two of our guys to do the same. I pulled out my camera and snapped pictures, my vision becoming more and more fuzzy after each round of food and drink.

She kept dancing, the music got louder. Laser lights were shooting in all different directions, cutting the blackness with vibrant colors. The Major said things that we couldn't hear.

The night went on and I never made it to whatever the main course was supposed to be. I was full on drinks and appetizers. I watched the dancing and observed, eyes getting heavy. People were smoking now and a thick grey cloud hung over us.


Time passed and the dancing stopped. The lights came on slightly. Everyone squinted and suddenly realized just how drunk they were. The Saudi businessmen and the Qatari family were gone.

Before the dancer could escape, one of the guys pleaded with her to let us take a picture. She allowed it and we posed around her while the Major snapped pictures.

Everyone was sloppy. I couldn't see very well but I was cognizant enough to know we needed to settle our bar tab. I walked to the bar and the bartender handed me a slip of paper with our tab. I struggled to focus my eyes. It was in the range of $1,400. I laughed at how ridiculous that was. The lights in the place came on the way they do when a bar is closing and they're trying to kick everyone out. I quickly moved around the room collecting money from everyone. In their drunken state, they eagerly handed me whatever they had. I made my way back to the bar to settle up. I could hear the Major behind me laughing. The guys were still taking pictures with the belly dancer as she tried desperately to escape to her dressing room.

A belly dancer does a belly dance. 

I settled the tab and left a generous tip with the extra cash. As we made our way to the elevator, the owner came out and expressed his gratitude for our visit and wished us back whenever we wanted. We spent a lot of money that night, after all.

We got back into the cars and made our way back to the base. It was well after midnight. Our escort driving turned back to us in the rear and told us to straighten up as we approached the checkpoint. They were obviously nervous about how unruly we'd become. We tried to stop laughing and look professional but started giggling like idiots whenever it got silent. We managed to hold it together as the driver handed his ID card to the military guard who let us through with no problems. One of our guys in the other car threw up just as we got to the gate, we'd learn later. The guard waved them through anyway.

The Major signed us back in and we all scurried back to the barracks, eager for sleep. I didn't even say goodbye or thank you to the Major. I just wanted to go to sleep. The barracks were dark and cold. The other soldiers there were already asleep and snoring loudly.

I stumbled to my bed and lay in it, grinning. I was one of the lucky ones who found a way to really get out and have a good time while the other guys had a sanitary, Army-sanctioned good time. My head was still pounding with the music of the night. I smelled like cigarette smoke and felt like I was definitely going to be sick. I fell asleep.

I woke up with no hangover, just wild memories. I spent my last day in Qatar relaxing like it was Sunday after a night of parting, looking for people to go brunch. I got the pictures developed from the evening. I lifted weights and ate at Chili's one last time. I prayed that our plane would break and we'd get to stay another day in Qatar. It didn't, and we left the next morning.

When we landed in Baghdad, I did the same thing my Drill Sergeant did – I found a friend and told him to call the Major. I learned later that when my friend gave him a call, no one ever picked up.

Follow Don on Twitter: @dongomezjr

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