Petty Officer Corey Baughman stared with narrowed eyes at the objects on the ground in front of him. Sweat beaded on his upper lip. He knelt down and leaned in for a closer look.
The Navy explosives ordnance expert had a difficult choice to make, one that could haunt him for life if he erred.
Should he buy the striking carpet from Kazakhstan with blue accents against an ochre background, or a rich, wine-colored one from Turkey? These carpets could be expected to last 90 years with proper care, the rug seller reminded Baughman as he struggled to decide.
After several more minutes of silent contemplation, and a small bit of haggling, Baughman bought two Kazakh carpets, closing another deal in one of the strangest shopping environments on Earth: the modern-day military mall.
In the trailer next door, Alcon Moroney was selling Harley-Davidsons at a rate of about 30 per week, based solely on pictures in a catalog. Around the corner, Spc. Brian Andrews was sitting in the beauty salon waiting for the clear polish to dry on his freshly pedicured feet. At the jewelry store, Capt. Bill Wold was eyeing gold bracelets for his wife.
Downtime is rare for troops in Iraq, but when missions slow down, troops go shopping, and on-base shopping has come a long way since the first PXs, or post exchanges, were established. No longer are troops limited to browsing for rough-hewn underwear and socks at a single store. Now retail centers and food courts are considered crucial to boosting military morale, particularly in places such as Iraq, where every trip into the city is rife with risk.
The result is an eclectic mix of retailers and their employees -- usually non-U.S. citizens looking to earn more money than they would back home -- catering to mainly twentysomething troops with little to do in their free time but spend money. And spend they do, on everything from that most American of motorcycles, the Harley, to ornate silk carpets from Iran, which the U.S. government accuses of sending weapons to Iraq.
"It's really odd that you can go out during the day and people can be shooting at you and trying to blow you up, and then you can come back here and buy a plasma TV," said Baughman, who was shopping for rugs to outfit his apartment in Sicily, Italy, where he is based. "It's available, so people do it. It's probably better than spending all your time sitting inside with a PlayStation."
Like the other stores in this corner of Camp Liberty, the Ahtamara rug shop was granted a concession to operate by the Dallas-based Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which oversees retail centers at U.S. military outposts around the world.
The shops are a reflection of troop requests, said Lt. Col. Dean Thurmond, an AAFES spokesman. The goal is to offer the men and women the comfort items they have back home in hopes of making their deployment slightly less arduous, if only for a few minutes at a time. He described one young soldier's first bite of a Whopper at a Burger King in Baghdad as an example.
"It's meat and a bun," he said, "but for a brief moment, that soldier wasn't in Baghdad anymore. He was home."
Aesthetically, at least, these shopping areas are anything but homey. Most resemble hastily erected trailer parks surrounded by blast barriers and concertina wire.
Functional, not fancy
Ahtamara and the other stores occupy about a dozen simple white trailers without elaborate signs or windows, so there is no hint of the treasures inside. The red-white-and-blue labels outside each trailer identify them only by what they sell. Ahtamara's says "Rug Shop."
But drawing customers is not a problem, because the trailers line a narrow walkway hemmed in by concrete blast walls. Anyone walking to the beauty salon, the T-shirt shop, the jewelry shop or the gift shop must pass the rug shop, in addition to the motorcycle and car dealership next door.
Kamuran Sercan, one of Ahtamara's salesmen, said the U.S. war of words with Iran had no effect on sales of his most expensive carpets, the silk Persians from Iran. They are his best sellers, Sercan said as he ran his fingers over the turquoise- and rose-colored flowers adorning one of the rugs. He flipped the corner over to show the perfect hand stitching.
It took someone seven months to finish this carpet, a 2-by-3 gem so beautiful, Sercan said, that it belonged on a wall, not a floor. The price was $950, and by early afternoon he had sold at least one.
"To be honest, the Iranian ones are the best. They are the best in the world," Sercan said as he went from one pile of carpets to another, dragging his favorites out for shoppers to view.
Sercan is typical of the vendors. He earns $1,200 a month, twice what he would get for the same work back home in Turkey. He sends most of his earnings to his family.
It wasn't money that drew Moroney, the motorcycle salesman, to Iraq. It was a yearning to see something other than his native Ireland. The Exchange New Car Sales dealership where he works is nothing more than a trailer with three desks, and walls plastered with photographs of Harley-Davidsons and Ford and DaimlerChrysler vehicles.
"Most of the guys know more about these vehicles than I do," Moroney said, speaking in a thick brogue. "I'd worked in Ireland since I left college. I thought it was a bit of excitement and a chance to see what's going on here. It has been borderline exciting, but also a bit scary."
As he spoke, a tiny woman with a look of consternation on her sunburned face burst in. She was Sgt. 1st Class Patricia Moore, and she was checking on the fire-engine-red Harley-Davidson Dyna Super Glide that she had ordered as a gift for her husband, who is also in the Army. Moroney sent an e-mail to the supplier and assured Moore that the Harley would be waiting for them back home in time for their May leave.
Buying a Harley, or any of the other vehicles offered by Exchange, is pretty much like buying a pair of pants online. There are no tires to kick, no engines to rev, no big stickers on windows to remind you of the price.
There are simply catalogs with photographs of appealing new vehicles, ranging from the $80,000 Dodge Viper sports car to the top-of-the-line Harley, a $20,000 Ultra Classic Electra Glide. The shop's location, next to the AT&T; call center, helps business. Most customers come in, ask a few questions, then go next door and call home to get a spouse's approval.
"I'm going to mull it over and talk to the old lady," one young soldier said.
Moroney is quick to tell drop-ins who just want to pick up a catalog about the advantages he says Exchange offers them. They pay no taxes, and with extra rebates and discounts offered to the military, they can expect to pay 10% to 20% less than if they bought in the United States, he says. Exchange even gives motorcycle buyers $250 to attend a safety course. Buyers can select a delivery date to coincide with the end of their deployment or their R&R.;
Should a buyer die before taking possession, the deposit is returned to the family, he said.
Harleys are by far the most popular item and outsell the cars, trucks and SUVs combined. "A lot of the guys here are making extra money and not paying taxes, so it's a good opportunity for them to buy something like this," Moroney said.
Kids in a candy shop?
Not everyone supports the idea of having big-ticket items for easy sale to young and often vulnerable customers, many earning less than $2,000 a month as enlisted soldiers with fewer than five years in the military.
While posted to Iraq, they don't pay federal taxes. They also get hazard pay and, if married, family separation pay, all of which can give them a false sense of financial security, said Wold, the Army captain shopping for jewelry.
But when they return to the United States and see those few hundred extra dollars a month vanish, many find themselves burdened by debt, he said.
The most vulnerable are the troops stationed in areas without decent shopping. "They come through here and go on a spree because of the selection," Wold said as he tried to choose a bracelet for his wife, Aurora, in Fayetteville, N.C.
He ran his fingers along a delicate gold chain on the jeweler's glass counter and asked the price. The jeweler, after weighing the bracelet on a tiny scale, told him $300.
Sensing that the price was too steep for his customer, he brought out a nearly identical but less ornate one, for $215.
"I'll take it," Wold said, and handed over his debit card as the jeweler tucked the trinket into a cotton-lined box.