“Cha Cha Slide” by Chicago’s DJ Casper is pouring out of speakers at the Mamma Mia’s Pizza restaurant as a crowd of about 20 is sashaying to the song’s called-out instructions on Halloween night.
All eyes are on James Smart, a 6-foot, 1-inch tall well-built man with a bushy beard who’s gyrating and busting out dance moves. It’s not his height that’s drawing attention. It’s what he’s wearing — a white nurse’s outfit with a tight-fitting top that’s showing a dark-colored bra underneath, a short skirt, white cap and stockings with 3-inch platform shoes. A phone is tucked into his bra and he’s worked a few beads into his beard.
Smart moves around tables posing for pictures and occasionally lifts his white skirt to show off tight-fitting red shorts underneath.
It’s Halloween night at the Kandahar Air Field outside of Kandahar in Afghanistan — home of Mullah Omar, spiritual leader of the Taliban, which once banned all music and entertainment in the country. That was before American and other Western militaries bombed the Taliban out of power and sent Omar scurrying into Pakistan.
Western militaries also built this miniature city — home to about 30,000 people including troops and contractors and strategic hub in southern Afghanistan — next to the Kandahar airport. The base sits just off Highway 1, which once was so dangerous because of bombs and kidnappings that driving on it toward Kandahar was considered a lottery.
American F-16 jets and Predator drones still routinely take off from the base for missions.
At the center of the base is the boardwalk, a raised platform surrounding a soccer field, a volleyball court and a skating rink. All along the boardwalk are coffee shops, stores selling high-end sports shoes, athletic apparel, Afghan handicrafts, and restaurants including TGIF and Mamma Mia’s. The boardwalk is slated to close by the end of 2014 when most U.S. troops are scheduled to depart.
The thin-crust cheese pizzas at Mamma Mia’s aren’t oily or too cheesy. And tonight all pizzas are free, thanks to Smart, the man in the nurse costume. He’s the project manager of TMHMedical, an Orlando, Florida-based company that runs a private clinic inside the base and caters to all the civilian contractors that work here. About 70 percent of the 30,000 residents of the base are estimated to be contractors.
“Tonight I put on a Halloween party,” Smart says. “I invited all the doctors and nurses and all the companies we do business with. They’re all here enjoying the food and we provided kebabs, pizzas, sodas, whatever… have a good time!”
So, about the nurse-costume?
“I wanted to get something crazy” because all the employees always see Smart as a serious guy. “I wanted to do something fun and crazy.”
The nurse outfit was ordered online but “it was hard to find something that fit a guy my size, and then I got my 3-inch heel on thanks to Amazon and eBay.”
The crowd in the restaurant appears to be mostly contractors and Smart’s employees, many in costume – there’s a guy in a Viking outfit, a Sphinx, a handful of guys with masks and a woman in a pumpkin outfit distributing candy – and a few troops in their camouflage uniforms.
A couple of military officers who have come in for a meal after work shake their heads in disbelief at the spectacle as a Conga line is forming for the next dance. “This is a war- zone,” one of them says, as if to underscore the obvious incongruity between the Halloween festivities and the still perilous conditions that exist outside the blast walls of the base.