The U.S. Military's Beauticians Bring Home Less Than You'd Think

Last weekend, the Washington Post's Ernesto Londoño spent some time at the military salon in Forward Operating Base Marez in Afghanistan. My friend (and That's So Jane's! victim) Josh Foust did a little fact-checking.

According to Londoño:

The women at the salon work for a subcontractor of the Army & Air Force Exchange Service, a command that runs stores known as post exchanges, or PXs. AAFES has about 1,500 "third-country nationals" staffing 89 stores, 228 fast-food restaurants, 642 concessions and 72 phone centers at bases in the Middle East, spokesman Judd Anstey said.

Those third-country nationals at FOB Merez, in fact, come mostly from Kyrgyzstan, where there isn't currently a war raging but there's plenty of poverty. One of the women told Londoño:

Back home she made $400 in a good month, said. In Mosul, where foreign workers have few living expenses, she can make as much as $1,200 per month.

"We can save money and come back and buy an apartment," she said.

Sounds great, right? They make good money, the military dudes get their pedicures in between shooting at things. Londoño's story continues

But Aina Isaeva, 45, a nurse from Kyrgyzstan, didn't think twice when the opportunity arose to work in Mosul for a year as a beautician. U.S. defense contractors have brought thousands of laborers from Central and Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America to keep American military bases humming and service members well fed and comfortable.

"Nurses earn very little money" back home, Isaeva said as she worked on the feet of a former infantryman now employed by a nonprofit organization. "I have two sons and a girl. And I am a widow. I need the work."

Hmm. Despite the fact that soldiers can be punished for having sex with foreign nationals, I've heard enough about American contractors being raped over the years that having defense contractors import poor women with few other economic options to forward operating bases (read: the most dangerous ones) to supply American soldiers with luxury services sounds worrisome.

Josh made the same assumptions but, being there (be safe!), he decided to check it out.

Here is where my story diverges from that WaPo story: some two-bit FOB in Mosul is clearly superior to the primary American base for all of Afghanistan, because our beauty shop is certainly not as nice. Granted, it is perfectly serviceable in a rather Almaty way, but it is certainly not on par with what that reporter described (and it is absolutely not as well-lit, either). Regardless, I tried mumbling my best approximation of zdravstvooytyeh at the man at the cash register, and put my name down for a 30 minute back rub ($8; they offer hour-long full body massages for like $16) followed by a shampoo and haircut.

Those, by the way, would be the full-body massages that Londoño reported aren't offered "to eliminate the possibility of sexual conduct between soldiers and salon employees." Nonetheless, Josh got a back massage that is making me more than a little jealous at the moment, and then a haircut, leaving a $20 tip for the masseuse and $10 for the hairdresser, on a total bill of $19. But he's not done.

There is, of course, a dark side to this as well. I asked around a bit, and learned that these women are barely paid. The reason AAFES, the company that runs most (if not all) Base Exchanges and Post Exchanges, pays them so little they might as well work for free, is because they are meant to rely on tips. It is like working in a restaurant, only instead of the $2 per hour I made waiting tables one really unfortunate winter at a Northern Virgina Olive Garden, they're paid more like $2 per day. Some of them are also not given days off.

Two dollars a day, and no days off. This is an American company's mostly female employees — Josh said the male cooks imported to the mess get Sundays off — and they are treated as though they work in a Nike factory in China, except that they're beholden to the soldiers for tips.

But these Kyrgyz women, who work really long hours pampering sometimes cranky and disrespectful servicemen, get nothing. One said her contract didn't give her any vacation time for two years-and that included taking a day off for herself. Like many of the other TCNs, or Third World Nationals, I have met working on far-flung American military bases, they work in conditions that would be considered unacceptable in the U.S… even as the soldiers here are fed limitless mountains of ice cream and fried chicken three meals a day, every day.

But, hey, I'll bet the executives who run the post exchanges get plenty of money exploiting poor women with our tax dollars and the comfort of our soldiers. Ain't that America (even when it's not)?

On a Base In Iraq, The Pedi-Cure [Washington Post]
Dispatches from FOBistan: The Kyrgyz Magiciennes of Bagram [Registan]