KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – They're forced to relieve themselves in communal latrines without doors. When they "bathe," if you can call it that, they can do little more than wash themselves with baby wipes or the rare cold shower. When they sleep, it's outdoors, under the stars in freezing temperatures.
These aren't the suspected terrorist detainees at Guantanamo Base in Cuba. These are the American soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division, scratching out a barebones life in southern Afghanistan while fighting the war on terror.
"A little ridiculous," Spc. David Ardinger, 24, of Clarksville, Tenn., said of the no-privacy latrines. "I've never been in a situation before where everyone can see you walk in and do whatever it is you do."
While the international press dedicate excoriating columns to allegedly inhumane treatment of the Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners at the U.S. camp in the Caribbean, the 3,700 U.S. troops based at Kandahar airfield are still waiting for the day they can live in tents.
Because even shelter as simple as that might give away the positions of troops who guard trenches on the perimeter, the sentries have to curl up in sleeping bags, sleep in Humvees or in foxholes – even when the ground is covered with frost.
Even the lucky ones say the nights can be hard. But the soldiers know that, in war, victory comes before comfort. When Marines commandeered the airfield six weeks ago to make into a center for U.S. operations, the little touches stateside Americans take for granted had to go on the back burner.
"We train for this so we know how to deal with it," said Pfc. Mansel McEwen, 20, of Rock Hill, S.C., who sleeps in a tent because he installs computer lines instead of guarding trenches. "But it does get cold at night sometimes."
When it comes to chow time, the American soldiers aren't getting the specially prepared and culturally sensitive meals the Al Qaeda and Taliban at Camp Gitmo can enjoy.
U.S. troops on trench duty are the lucky ones. They get hot, cooked food like Tuesday's meatballs, rice and beans. The other get prepackaged, notoriously hard-to-swallow Meals-Ready-to-Eat.
Until recently, when purifiers were installed, water had to be boiled or bottled. For a time, there were portable showers — but the Marines who installed them took them away when they turned the base over to the 101st last week.
Spc. Gregory Pagan, 25 of Topeka, Kan., said he's had just two hot meals in two weeks and no shower. But he has grown used to using baby wipes.
"I knew what I was getting into when I signed up," Pagan said. "I'm glad I'm here doing my part."
But it's the toilets that get some. Until a few days ago, when wood panels were put up in front of the doorless concrete male latrines, men could be seen sitting in rows — up to 10 at a time — with their rifles. Each morning, Afghan workers burn the waste in metal drums. The smell is not for the faint-hearted.
Women soldiers have separate, hastily built wooden latrines that also handle more than one person at a time.
For shaving and washing hair, there are "hygiene stations" — mirrors set up on counters. Water is heated in metal buckets on propane burners.
"It's as sanitary as we can make it at this time," Lt. Col. Chris Pease, the airfield's deputy commander, said, noting that the airfield's sewage lines need decades worth of repair. "With the resources available, it's as good as it can get."
Pease said military needs come first. And, since everything must be flown in, soldiers and vital equipment like helicopters and ammunition take priority over portable showers and other non-necessities. The runway still hasn't been repaired fully since it was bombed by U.S. aircraft when Kandahar was a Taliban stronghold. Just 3,000 feet were useable when the Marines came Dec. 14. Now that figure is 8,000 feet, but still short of the target 10,000.
CIA agents and Special Forces troops leading the hunt for Al Qaeda and the Taliban depend on the Kandahar base for their quick in-and-out mission
But better times are ahead, Pease said. Chemical latrines are on order and within weeks, there could be shower stations, a fitness area, washing and drying facilities, and more computers for e-mail access. Even those long nights patrolling the perimeter may be getting a store selling candy and cigarettes.
"It just takes time," Pease said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.