Qatar Pass Program Geared to Refresh Servicemembers
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
AS SAYLIYAH, Qatar, Apr. 17, 2006 People use the term "decompress" a lot at U.S. Central Command's Rest and Recuperation Center here.
Servicemembers enjoy video games in the USO lounge at the As Sayliyah Rest and Recuperation Center in Qatar. Personnel from Afghanistan, Iraq and the Horn of Africa can get four-day passes to the facility. Photo by Jim Garamone
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The center allows servicemembers and Defense Department civilians to leave the stress of service in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Horn of Africa behind, said Army Capt. Pernita Duggal, in charge of the R&R Pass Program facility.
The four-day pass program gives servicemembers relief from the stressors of their duty stations while also giving them a taste of the culture of this Persian Gulf state. More than 100,000 servicemembers have participated in the program since it started in 2003.
About 350 personnel per day take part in the program. "We've been as low as 150 and as high as 500," Duggal said. The availability of transportation to and from the frontline zones is the limiting factor.
"Some soldiers arrive expecting MTV's Beach House Party - that's not the intent," Duggal said. "But it is a chance for them to wear civilian clothes and relax while they are on pass."
Army Staff Sgts. Michael Dion and Ross Desmit, both of the 126th Infantry of the Massachusetts National Guard, are based in Kuwait and said it was a good break. "It's enough sometimes just to sleep and not be bothered," Dion said. Desmit said he enjoys just wearing civilian clothes.
"It's a break from the uncertainty of Iraq," said another soldier. "You can go out on a patrol every day there and nine times out of 10 nothing happens. But that 10th time can be tough. It's the not knowing part that is so stressful."
"For some of us, it was enough to come here and just not have to carry a weapon around," said Spc. Brian Lascomb, an infantryman based in Baghdad.
And it is a chance to get out and see some of Qatar. The program offers trips to five venues each day. Force protection measures mean that not the same venues are offered every day, and each trip is limited to 25 personnel. The program offers a dhow cruise. "This is the typical Persian Gulf dhow that anchors off shore along the coast and allows servicemembers to swim and eat Arabic food," Duggal said.
Another popular trip focuses on water sports, with jet skis, banana boats and waterskiing. There's an inland sea picnic where personnel drive to beaches and go swimming, have a picnic in an Arabic tent, play beach volleyball or just walk the coast.
Other special outings, such as golf at the Doha country club or trips to the different shopping malls in the country, are available as well.
The program also offers cultural tours of Doha. "This is the most popular tour," Duggal said. "For many it is an eye-opener, because they see an Islamic state that welcomes them."
While the off-base activities are a draw, servicemembers also use on-base facilities. These include a Chili's restaurant with a swimming pool, a fully stocked 24-hour gym, miniature golf, and two clubs - the Top Off and the Oasis Club. The Oasis Club is open 24 hours a day and serves food all through that time. The clubs serve beer at night, with a three-drink maximum.
The Top Off is growing, and by the end of the month will open an Irish Pub, an Arabic Tent, the Monte Carlo Wine Bar and a Cyber Cafe.
"We've gotten great cooperation from local vendors," said Army Maj. Ben Dennis, the Morale, Welfare and Recreation chief here. The club will also soon have an eight-lane bowling center and an improved dance floor.
The USO also funds a room in the center, with video games and a movie room, where servicemembers can just relax.
Volunteer organizations play a role too, with many donating clothing, the latest video games, books and DVDs to the center. These include Soldiers' Angels, the Special Forces Association and the USO.
"It's a great program, but a lot of units do not participate," Dennis said. "Some may have it confused with the R&R leave program. This is in addition to the two-week R&R leave." Servicemembers on a one-year tour in the region qualify for two four-day passes, Duggal said.