News: US Central Command Rest and Relaxation Program Ends
Story by Sgt. Ryan Hohman
CAMP AS SAYLIYAH, Qatar – The military’s Rest and Relaxation Pass Program is getting a break of its own.
The U.S. Central Command program is closing after nearly a decade of operation, having provided 197,583 military members and Department of Defense civilians four days away from combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan or from the high operational tempo of Kuwait.
The program, which started in 2002 on the Army’s Camp As Sayliyah near Doha, Qatar, is being shut down because of a large vacancy rate, brought on by the drawdown in Iraq and “rest in place” or other similar in-country programs.
Over the past three years alone, the program has dropped what amounts to about six percent capacity. In Fiscal Year 2008 the program hosted 29,907 military members. In Fiscal Year 2009, it dropped to 18,350, and in Fiscal Year 2010, that number was down to 7,765.
So far this fiscal year, 1,479 military members have participated.
Of these, a little more than half have come from Kuwait and a little less than half from Iraq. Only seven military personnel have come from Afghanistan.
“I’m sad to see it go, especially as a former soldier myself,” said retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Clarence Moore, who works as a program shift supervisor for Easter Solutions Group.
“Those coming from combat areas, you can see a difference in the guys,” he said about observing troops at the beginning of their four days and again at the end. “There’s definitely an attitude change.”
Venue briefer Joshua Wells has been working with ESG at the center since September 2010. He recently manned the program’s customer service counter on his 4 p.m. to midnight shift, helping soldiers sign up for off-base trips such as to local shopping malls or for deep sea fishing.
Wells has seen the benefits of the programs from both sides of the counter. “I came through, I believe, in July 2005 while on a 12-month Army deployment to Iraq,” he said. “I thought it was great. It was nice to relax and get away from Iraq for four days.
“I think the program has gotten better since then,” Wells added. “There’s more stuff offered.”
In addition to the off-base trips, there is a wide range of ways to pass time on camp, including a large TV lounge, United Service Organizations center, clubs, bowling alley, a swimming pool, driving range and miniature golf course.
Wells believes his time as a Soldier helps him better take care of military members. “I’ve been there,” he said. “I know what they’re going through and what they’re coming from.”
While the program is extremely popular with the troops, explained Area Support Group – Qatar Morale Welfare and Recreation lead recreation specialist Lee Barclay, one reason for the drop in usage is the amount of time it takes to get to and from Qatar.
“One big issue that comes from participating is the time it takes to get here from Iraq or Afghanistan,” he said, leafing through a folder with dozens of comment sheets. “That’s the biggest complaint we get.”
Troops must take military flights to Qatar, and those flights may not always be available in a timely manner or may require them to fly through an intermediary location.
“It may take a week to get here, and a week to get back,” said Barclay about travel from Iraq or Afghanistan. “[Military members say] ‘My command can’t support that.’”
One comment from a colonel summed up the difficulties: “Two flights from Baghdad cancelled,” it read. “Flew to Kuwait, waited two days, no flights … asked at the counter and they were getting ready to fly a C-17 [transport] out for repairs. Only four of us in terminal out of 28 waiting had time to fly out.”
With the program closing, the time to fly here has past. The last group of 29 arrived in early March and was expected to leave by March 12 – depending, of course, on availability of flights.
Tech. Sgt. Crystal Collins was one of the program’s last participants. “I love it,” she said while checking her Facebook account.
Collins is assigned to the U.S. Forces – Iraq staff judge advocate office in Baghdad. “It’s a great break from being on a base and not getting attacked or having to carry a weapon,” she said. “It’s great.”
While this was Collins’ first trip to the program, her husband, Jason Worley, made the trip here in 2004 while serving as an Army engineer in Mosul, Iraq.
“There’s no shortage of events,” said Spc. Thomas Whitworth, another first-timer, as he watched the movie “Reservoir Dogs” on the big-screen TV. “It’s a great program and I’m sorry to hear they’re closing it down.”
With the final troops departing in the coming days, the program will enter a 45-day shutdown period by the 17 Eastern Solutions Group employees, with final closure coming on April 30.