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Spc. Kevin Lee, center, settles for a price of $47 for a fox blanket Friday, while his buddy, Pfc. James Williams looks on. The starting price for the blanket was $80, Lee said.

Spc. Kevin Lee, center, settles for a price of $47 for a fox blanket Friday, while his buddy, Pfc. James Williams looks on. The starting price for the blanket was $80, Lee said. (Rick Emert / S&S)

Spc. Kevin Lee, center, settles for a price of $47 for a fox blanket Friday, while his buddy, Pfc. James Williams looks on. The starting price for the blanket was $80, Lee said.

Spc. Kevin Lee, center, settles for a price of $47 for a fox blanket Friday, while his buddy, Pfc. James Williams looks on. The starting price for the blanket was $80, Lee said. (Rick Emert / S&S)

Capt. Charlie Brecken, from Coalition Joint Task Force 180’s signal section, checks out a variety of watches Friday at the weekly Bagram air base bazaar.

Capt. Charlie Brecken, from Coalition Joint Task Force 180’s signal section, checks out a variety of watches Friday at the weekly Bagram air base bazaar. (Rick Emert / S&S)

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan — While more than 8,500 U.S. troops continue to root out insurgents, they also get a weekly chance to bolster Afghanistan’s economy.

Since many U.S. servicemembers rarely get off the air bases in Afghanistan — and even more rarely get to shop for souvenirs — local vendors are bringing the cultural experience to them.

For almost a year now, local merchants have been setting up bazaars at Bagram on Fridays and at Kandahar Airfield on Saturdays to give troops the chance to purchase unique souvenirs to send home to their families.

Brown & Root employees conduct both criminal investigations and medical screenings on the vendors before they are allowed to participate, according to Michael Goodwin, administrative specialist from the Brown & Root badge office at Bagram.

At least 25 percent of the items the vendors sell must be handcrafted, and most of the items come from Pakistan, said Sgt. Anthony Brown, one of the bazaar’s coordinators.

About 30 vendors each week sell items including antique coins, guns and swords; jewelry; stone chess sets; discounted DVDs, which may or may not be bootlegged copies; and the ever-popular handwoven rugs.

The prices are right. In fact, some say the vendors will go too low on their prices to get some cash in hand.

“I figure they really need the money, so I’m not going to talk them down too much,” said Spc. Kevin Lee, 205th Engineer Battalion, at Bagram.

Imagine paying $45 for a genuine silver fox fur blanket or $150 for a handwoven, living-room-sized wool rug. Those are the kinds of deals Operation Enduring Freedom troops with a knack for bargaining can expect.

The vendors speak enough English to haggle with the soldiers and urge them to purchase the wares on the spot instead of looking for better deals through other sellers.

“The prices are pretty fair, but you can definitely haggle with them,” said Spc. Samuel Portnoy, Battery B, 3rd Battalion, 6th Field Artillery Regiment, at Bagram.

The servicemembers get a briefing from the military customs office when they arrive in country to warn them against buying items that can’t be carried or shipped back to their home stations, including hides of endangered animals and rifles made after 1867, Lee said.

Capt. Charlie Brecken, from the Coalition Joint Task Force 180 signal section, is checking off names on his Christmas shopping list with purchases at the weekly bazaar. He said he has bought 10 rugs and five hand-carved wooden trunks so far.

“I’d rather Christmas shop here and make it a unique year for my friends and family,” he said. Brecken was also admiring the low-priced watches.

“The prices are good, but I realize I’m dealing with knockoffs here.”

“A lot of this stuff is handmade,” Lee said. “I probably couldn’t afford any of this stuff if I was buying it back home in Louisiana.”


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