U.S. soldiers in Iraq spend hours — sometimes days — on patrol hunting insurgents and dodging roadside bombs. But when they get back to base, they can pick up a case of Dr. Pepper, buy the latest DVD and take a Pizza Hut meal back to the room to relax after a hard day at war.
A soldier's life isn't what it used to be.
Commanders say providing a good quality of life is essential to keeping volunteer troops in the military. Having a chance to skip the mess hall and go to Pizza Hut, Burger King or Subway — Popeye's Fried Chicken and Taco Bell will be added this month — makes a big difference, soldiers say.
"I think it's great. The dining facility gets old after a while," said Spc. William Oates, 25, a 1st Cavalry Division soldier from Asheboro, N.C., after finishing a Whopper at Camp Liberty, just outside Baghdad.
The Army & Air Force Exchange Service operates 23 fast food franchises at 16 U.S. bases in Iraq, with 25 more approved and under construction. They also have Seattle's Best and Green Beans coffee shops.
Terry McCoy, the food program manager for Iraq, opened the first Burger King at Baghdad's airport in May 2003, before the military even set up its first mess hall.
"This generation of soldiers has grown up with name-brand fast food," McCoy said. "It's the taste from home that they're missing. It not only gives them that little moment of comfort, I like to think it ... takes them back home for just the 15 minutes they are enjoying a Whopper."
The staff is a mix of American AAFES employees who volunteer for combat duty and workers from third countries hired through a labor company in Kuwait. Part of the base is set aside for their living quarters.
Armed convoys deliver the fast-food ingredients to the bases along with regular military supplies, McCoy said. Making sure the stores have enough stock for those times when the supply convoys don't run for security reasons is the biggest challenge, he added.
While the fast food is extremely popular, AAFES' main mission is to operate 3,150 retail stores for troops on bases in 35 countries. Their motto is "We go where you go," and stores range from medium-size tents on remote fire bases to large department stores at the main camps.
At Camp Liberty's post exchange, or PX, soldiers can buy anything from a 50-cent granola bar to a $3,499 42-inch, plasma-screen television. AAFES sells everything at prices comparable to those in the United States, with profits going toward troop morale programs.
Through its Web site, www.aafes.com, AAFES lets people donate phone cards and gift certificates to wounded troops overseas.
The Camp Liberty PX is on track to sell $80 million worth of goods this year, said Rick Mora, the general manager for Baghdad. The store is second in sales only to a larger facility at Kadena Air Base in Japan, he added.
AAFES also operates a phone service with AT&T so soldiers can call home cheaply. Troops can buy new cars and motorcycles that can be picked up when they get home. Iraqi vendors are rented space so they can sell souvenirs, art and other things to the troops.
Spc. Rakesh Pal, 23, from Modesto, Calif., said he likes to walk through the PX when he has free time, even if doesn't intend to buy anything.
"It reminds me of being back home at the mall," he said. "It doesn't feel like I'm in Iraq when I'm in the PX."