BAGHDAD — As U.S. troops prepare to leave Iraq, the few perks of living on military bases are among the first casualties of the withdrawal. Fast-food restaurants, boutique coffee shops, activity nights and other comforts of home that have helped soldiers get through the years will be closed this summer.
Their closing has met with some muted grumbling from soldiers, and highlights the fine line the military has struggled to walk — making life as pleasant as possible for troops in grim places without coddling them.
Not all commanders thought much of the perks, anyway. Iraq, after all, is still a war zone — even if many of the estimated 46,000 troops who remain are "fobbits." That is, they almost never leave the Forward Operating Bases where they live, or see anything of Iraq and its people, since combat missions ended last September.
Heading into the Green Beans coffee shop at Camp Victory outside Baghdad, Army Lt. Randy Williams said it's a needed respite from his high-stress job as a health information systems officer.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
"I'm here often," said Williams, 46, of Lakeland, Fla., who was collecting his evening espresso. "The environment, the vibe — it's low key and calm. You feel you can exhale."
Private contractors for years have been cashing in on soldiers in Iraq by serving them a slice of home from Pizza Hut and Burger King kiosks parked on bases. Cinnabon and Green Beans, which is the soldier's equivalent of Starbucks, serve the best joe on post.
"You just need a break every once in a while, so it's good to have Subway or coffee when you're missing being back home," said Army Spc. Nicole Meixner, 33, from Detroit, who was recently leaving the Subway at Camp Victory with a sandwich bag in her hand. "But you have to expect change here in Iraq. You have to roll with the flow."
The perks aren't just food and drink. At Camp Victory, there's a speedway where troops and contractors can race their remote-controlled cars. And at the massive Balad airfield north of the capital, a movie theater this week was showing the blockbuster "Thor" to residents.
But as the Dec. 31 drawdown deadline nears, the post exchange retail shops have stopped restocking the newest iPods and Wiis. The PX in Basra in southern Iraq has even limited how many bottles of shampoo and body lotion each customer can buy in the ebbing war, which economists estimate has cost U.S. taxpayers nearly $12 billion monthly since 2003.
When he took command of the estimated 10,000 troops in Baghdad late last year, Maj. Gen. Bernard Champoux decided the looming military withdrawal gave him the perfect excuse to shut down some of the services he feared would make his soldiers soft.
"Green Beans coffee. Salsa night. Baghdad speedway. Are you kidding me?" Champoux said in an interview. "There is no longer salsa night. Symbolically, I said that's the first thing to go."
If closing the venues rubs people the wrong way, "then we're not doing a good job of keeping them busy," Champoux said. "We're at a point where we are not going to be able to support some of the quality-of-life stuff that we have right now. ... That self-denial, the 'taking a blue collar as opposed to a blue blazer' kind of approach to this is going to be important."
It's also a matter of safety. Every Burger King and other eatery requires a power generator, which runs on diesel, which in turn needs to be trucked in on roads that are still unpredictable and dangerous. Nearly all soldiers who are killed in Iraq are attacked when they are outside the wire.
In Afghanistan, too, military commanders have grappled with whether a Whopper is worth the risk.
After taking command there nearly two years ago, now-retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal shut down fast-food places that he considered frivolous for U.S. and NATO troops. When he was replaced last summer by current commander Gen. David Petraeus, the eateries were allowed to reopen to boost morale.
In Baghdad, two Green Beans and a Subway so far have been shut down on bases as part of the massive withdrawal effort. Across Iraq, three more bases will close next week, leaving 58 to be shuttered by the year-end deadline even though politicians in Washington and Baghdad are weighing whether to leave some troops behind to continue training and security missions.
If that happens, at least some equipment, housing units and, yes, dining facilities also will stay. That means remaining soldiers likely will be confined to meals in traditional chow halls — albeit hangar-sized ones that serve up all flavors of food, including Baskin-Robbins ice cream, to be eaten while watching flat-screen TVs.