FORWARD OPERATING BASE SALERNO, Afghanistan—Inside a building here dubbed the "Hard Rock Café," U.S. soldiers are dealing cards, shooting pool, and playing a close match of doubles Ping-Pong, but the television in the corner is tuned to news about Barack Obama, John McCain, and stateside election returns.
Though the polls back home will be open for hours, here it is nightfall. Outside, trucks drive without headlights because of a mandatory blackout, a precaution against the mortars that Taliban insurgents have been lobbing at the base with greater frequency these days.
Despite the distractions of war, troops are keeping an eye on the news. At one folding table, soldiers playing poker pause their game to say that they are pulling for McCain. His experience as a veteran, they say, will ensure that he treats them well. "We want raises," says one noncommissioned officer who declined to give his name.
He adds that he is suspicious of Obama. "I want an American for president." He says that he doubts Obama's American "heritage" because "he is of Muslim descent."
The Chinook helicopter gunners at a table a couple of feet away say that they are all pulling for Obama. "I feel it'll show a different part of the U.S. to the world," says Spc. Thomas Lewis of Richmond, Va. "It's showing we're not prejudiced towards anyone." Lewis adds that, although he respects the fact that the Rebublican nominee was a prisoner of war, it makes him wonder how McCain would handle the stress of the presidency. "Being a POW," he says, "I don't think you can ever recover from something like that."
Sgt. Sylvester Williams of Augusta, Ga., a Chinook gunner, says he is supporting Obama because he hopes that the Democrat will improve America's healthcare system—even though Williams gets free healthcare as part of his military benefits. He says he believes that all Americans deserve healthcare, not just troops. "That's who we're fighting for—all Americans."
Both Williams and Lewis say it was difficult to order absentee ballots through their state websites because of the slow Internet connections in Afghanistan. Neither received the absentee ballot he requested.
At the base mess hall, Spc. Rayven Vidal, a nurse with the Combat Support Hospital here, says that she didn't vote this year. She was disappointed that Hillary Clinton did not get the Democratic nomination, and she wasn't inspired by the other candidates. "I would just like to see a woman as president," she says. Her chief concern is the economy. "I just want to be able to afford a house when I get home."
Spc. Chuck Farrell, a nurse from Laguna Beach, Calif., says that the military on the whole is evenly split between Obama and McCain supporters, even though the public tends to assume that the military leans toward Republican candidates. "It's not the Army it was 15 years ago," he says.
Nearby, a group of four having dinner say they all support McCain. But whoever wins will inherit "a pile of poo" in Afghanistan, adds Chief Warrant Officer Walter Mays, to nods of agreement from his tablemates. A couple of tables away, Sgt. 1st Class Akil Aabid of Fort Bragg, N.C., says that he voted for Obama because, as an African-American, his candidacy "is historic, and I want to be a part of that."
Few here are planning to stay up through the night to watch the returns, though. After dinner, Aabid says, he has his job to do. He will leave the base and work through the night. Just what that work is, he says, he cannot discuss.
But by the time he returns, America will have a new president-elect.