Country superstar Craig Morgan and Nashville Star winner Chris Young, accompanied by GAC’s Host Nan Kelley all traveled to Iraq and Germany as part of the most recent Stars for Stripes tour. Also participating in this tour was wounded heros SFC Joe Bowser U.S. Army Retired and SSGT. Scott Lilley U.S. Air Force, Active Duty. Craig has been on many tours to Iraq to entertain the troops and spent 10 years in the U.S. Army serving our country. Craig knows first hand the importance of boosting the morale of our service men and women. This was Chris Young’s first trip to Iraq, as well as Nan Kelley’s. Craig is known for his hits “Almost Home”, “Redneck Yacht Club” and his current hit “Bonfire”. Chris Young is known for being season 4 winner (2006) of Nashville Star and his most recent #1 hit, “Gettin’ You Home (The Black Dress song)”.
OLD TOWN CRIER – OUR BACKYARD
I went on this trip with a selfish motive and that was to give me alone some closure. I wanted to walk out this time instead of being carried out. I found out after talking to the troops as they came by for autographs that because Scott Lilly and I were there to tell our stories after being wounded pumped them up. I had hundreds of people say thank you for coming back this has really motivated me. Or some would come by and just look at us and say thank you for your service while they had tears flowing down their face. God gave me a second chance at life and I think this maybe something he has wanted me to do to help our troops that are still over there. Thank you SFS for giving me the opportunity to bring some closure on this trip. – Joe Bowser, US Army Retired
Our recent tour of Iraq with Stars for Stripes and GAC was a trip of a lifetime. Judy Seale, an unsung hero, should receive the Nobel Peace Prize for all her efforts. It was heartwarming to see the reception and the appreciation in which our troops received Scott, Joe, Nan, Craig and Chris. Visiting Scott’s injury site and the Balad hospital will help put some closure to his journey. I also came away feeling that maybe I’ve helped our servicemen in a small way. I’m proud of our entire tour group. – Frank Lilley, Father of Scott Lilley
The trip back to Baghdad and Balad was the trip of my lifetime. I got to see where I was Wounded on 15 April 2007 and got to go to the Balad Medical Center where they brought me back to life. The trip to Balad was the best part of the trip cause I got to see where I was brought back to life and all the support they give to the Wounded Warriors and what they do was so awesome. I do not think I could ask for anything better :-)… I was surprised at the Balad Medical Center by my cousin, a former Marine, who is in Iraq working as a civilian for the Marine Corp was there at the Medical Center to welcome me back. It was also a great trip going with another Wounded Warrior, (Retired) SFC Joe Bowser and Craig Morgan, Chris Young and Nan Kelley. WOW what a TDY that was for me. Thank you to every Service Member and civilians for everything you have done and continue to do. – SSGT. Scott Lilley, U.S. Air Force Active Duty
Nan Kelley Shares Her Thoughts on Trip to Middle East
Wounded Warrior Gives Back; Toledo Native Hurt in IraqCounts Blessings
PHOTOS FROM GRAND OLE OPRY (COURTESY OF CHESTER SIMPSON)
PHOTOS ON FLIGHT TO KUWAIT (Courtesy of Chester Simpson)
PHOTOS OF KUWAIT CITY (COURTESY OF CHESTER SIMPSON)
PHOTOS IN IRAQ – 1ST SHOW (Courtesy of Chester Simpson)
PHOTOS IN IRAQ – 2ND SHOW ((Courtesy of Chester Simpson)
PHOTOS IN IRAQ – 10.28.09 (Courtesy of Chester Simpson)
PHOTOS – AMERICAN EMBASSY (Courtesy of Chester Simpson)
PHOTOS IN IRAQ – BALAD (Courtesy of Chester Simpson)
PHOTOS IN IRAQ – BALAD AB (Courtesy of Chester Simpson)
PHOTOS – WOUNDED HERO JOE BOWSER (COURTESY OF CHESTER SIMPSON)
PHOTOS – GERMANY, RAMSTEIN – FISHER HOUSE (COURTESY OF CHESTER SIMPSON)
PHOTOS – SHOW IN RAMSTEIN (COURTESY OF CHESTER SIMPSON)
PHOTOS – RETURN TO NASHVILLE (COURTESY OF CHESTER SIMPSON)
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 25TH AND MONDAY, OCTOBER 26TH – OFF TO KUWAIT:
Today we depart on one of the most special tours I’ve ever coordinated. I have country music stars Craig Morgan, Chris Young (who had the number 1 single in the nation 2 weeks ago) and Nan Kelley (GAC-TV) going over to entertain our troops in Iraq and Germany. But, and here comes the “special” part – I am escorting two of our wounded heroes back to the camps where they received their injuries. SFC Joe Bowser (U.S. Army retired and SSGT Scott Lilley (Active Duty Air Force) are on the tour with us. Scott’s father – Frank – is also with us on the tour. Additionally, I have a 6 person video crew from High Five Entertainment who is filming for a one hour special to air on GAC TV on December 10th at 8:30 pm CST. Mark your calendar.
Additionally, I have Chester – my friend since the early 90’s who is a photographer. We “tore it up” on USO tours around the world in our wilder days. J Shawn is my production manager and he’s toured the world with me working for Chely Wright. David is Charlie Daniels Manager and is here to make me look good by being my “double”. Craig and Chris are sharing a guitar player – Mikey – who was on my first SFS tour to Iraq in 2003 and a sound tech – Jerry – who I have just met. John – Chris Young’s manager – is also on the trip with us. So, 19 of us, plus we pick up 3 sound techs in Kuwait to go into Iraq with us – James, Louie, and Karamulla.
We are flying on a KC135 fuel tanker that is based at Grissom AFB, Indiana. There are 8 total – Erik, Mike, Kyle, Miles, Jason, David, Ken and Jessi (female). A Public Affairs Officer from Robbins AFB, GA – Candice – is also with us.
Now, let’s go back to last Wednesday and talk about the part that REALLY should have been filmed! I found out on Tuesday evening that the “mission” still had not been approved for the KC135 to take us to Kuwait, on to Germany, and then back to the U.S. Pretty big problem since it was too late to book commercial flights! A “meeting” was taking place on Wednesday to determine our fate. I got the call on Wednesday saying the appropriate “paperwork” had not been submitted and we were not cleared to go. Valium, anyone? Enter Colonel Ed Shock the miracle worker from Armed Forces Entertainment and co-sponsor of this tour. Ed worked his magic but still it was noon Friday before we got the “go” on the mission. I had my hair colored on Wednesday and needed it done all over again by Friday evening.
Since I only got back from Japan on Monday night, I was putting in some very long hours trying to get ready for this tour. Three hours sleep each night was a blessing. I got up early Saturday morning to talk to my friend in Kuwait who was working on our visas for us and then planned to go jogging. Good plan that didn’t happen. Got another call from Grissom advising that our our PPR to land at the military side of KCIA had been “rescinded”. Seems the only runway that could accommodate a Tanker Jet was “torn up”. They were insisting we re-route to Ali Al Salem. Now KCIA is a 30 minute drive to our hotel while Ali is a 2 hour drive. That was still okay only we had “visa issues” that had to be cleared up in order to fly into Ali. Several “dozen” phone calls later, I “think” we got that worked out.
So, now I’m really “behind” in my day’s schedule and I have to pick up Joe, Scott, Frank and Chester PLUS meet the flight crew today. I had it all timed perfectly. Yeah, sure. The flight crew was delayed by an hour because of paperwork. Then when they got the engines running, a part had to be replaced (a de-icer thing-a-my-gig). Joe’s flight was one hour late – so all these folks arrived at exactly the same time. There’s only one of me, so I went to the TN National Guard base and picked up Jessi to take her with me to the airport to pick up Joe. All still relatively smooth until we went to pick up the rental van. I had reserved a full size van for 9 people and all they had was a mini-van! Thankfully the TNG had offered to let the crew use a mini-van so with both of those, they were covered. Took Jessi back to the Guard Terminal and Joe to Opryland Hotel. Only I went the wrong way to Opryland and had to circle back around. Then I made a wrong turn into the hotel! Stress makes my sense of direction even worse, if that’s possible.
The flight crew pulled up at the same time and we went inside to register…along with the 300 people in line in front of us! I had to stay because High Five was waiting to take Joe downtown to film him. So I took his bags and registered for him. He had not eaten all day so I had the film crew make sure they had a chicken sandwich waiting for him when he arrived. Good thing I stayed because even though I set up everything on a “corporate” billing, they didn’t have my credit card on file! By then, Frank and Scott and Jolene (wife and mom) had landed at the airport and were waiting for me. I was late picking them up. They had an attorney friend of mine waiting for them at Opryland to discuss assisting with a “book deal”. I was going to drop them at the Magnolia entrance because it was closer to their rooms for them. But, Jolene couldn’t find the hotel room key I had given her at the airport. We drove up to the entrance and then I turned around and went back to the Cascades entrance so she could get another key. When we pulled up and got all their luggage out, I found the key in the floorboard. We loaded everything back in the vehicle and Lindsey (my daughter) drove them around to the Magnolia entrance. Only, she didn’t know where that was. She took them to the Magnolia BALLROOM entrance instead. She got out and went inside to make sure she was in the right place and saw the signs for Magnolia Rooms. Only there is no one there to “ask” directions and the place is a mini-city. I still get lost every time I go in there!!! They hiked so far, Frank said he was sweating and had to take off his coat. J
I took Lindsey’s truck and went home to change clothes and she picked up Chester. She took the wrong Briley exit as well and had to turn around. Like Mother….I suppose. She dropped Chester off and rushed to my house to change into her clothes for the Opry. Then we both “flew” back to Opryland to meet everyone and escort them in to the backstage at the Opry.
It was a pretty special night with Montgomery Gentry, Oak Ridge Boys and Trace Adkins performing. All are huge supporters of our troops and were so gracious to spend time talking with everyone and taking photos. The flight crew and my wounded warriors said it was truly a highlight for them. So glad we were able to start the trip off with this special night.
We got home a little after 10 pm and I spent several hours finalizing everything for the trip. Got up at 5 am (3 hours sleep again) and Lindsey and I were at the TNG terminal by 7:45 am. We dropped off my bags and then I took the van from the flight crew. Lindsey dropped my SUV off in short-term parking and we rode together to Opryland where we picked up my wounded heroes and Chester.
Everyone (well, almost everyone and I won’t name names) arrived on time at the TNG terminal. We loaded all the luggage and then went inside for a “briefing”. TNG has been so awesome in helping us with the logistics of the trip. After the briefing, we boarded a bus to the aircraft. I had warned everyone how “hard” it was going to be to fly on a fuel tanker. My only experience had been the flight to Kosovo last December and the plane was pretty “primitive”. I was astonished when we walked on. It looked like a new aircraft! They had put in two comfort pallets (that’s airplane seats!) and the seats were “new”. Usually it’s old, broken seats from commercial jetliners with the “stuffing” hanging out of them. The maintenance guys really keep this one SPIFFY.
I had given the flight crew money to “cater” the flight and they did an amazing job. You would not believe the “spread” they put out for us. There’s two big wooden “bins” where they put our luggage and they spread everything out on top of those. Food for “days”! We ate shortly after take-off which was around 11:30 am CST…30 minutes later than we anticipated. It’s a 13 ½ hour flight to Kuwait, so we should land around 9 am local time Monday morning. There’s no electrical outlets on the plane, so my computer usage is going to be “limited”. J
I slept for a couple of hours. Can’t believe how comfortable this aircraft is compared to our flight to Kosovo last December! We hit some pretty strong turbulence but there’s something about flying with the military that “calms” me. I never worry. Just know that everything will be fine. And it was.
I like the long flight but it’s much too loud to talk very much. I was able to individually harass each member of the flight crew and all my “peeps”. Everyone was excited and ate regularly, talked and visited on the flight deck. They all also got an opportunity to go down into the “POD” where the arm is that refuels the aircraft. I did that in December and it was amazing. Just to be looking out from that altitude was breath-taking. The precision with which they execute the refueling is mind-boggling. Wish we were going to do one this trip but no such luck.
I sat on the flight deck as we flew over the UK. My son is down there somewhere working for 3 weeks. Bizarre.
Looking back through the aircraft and everyone is “passed out” now. We land in 3 hours.
Landed right on time and Air Force Protocol was ready and waiting for us. Our escorts were there with 2 buses and took us over to the DFAC to grab a snack and use real “restrooms”. Got all our luggage/gear downloaded from the airplane and were on our way to the Radisson in less than an hour. Arrived at the Radisson in record time and they had all our rooms ready for us. Ellen from MCN-I MWR was there waiting for us, thank God. She’s a lifesaver. Wish she wasn’t leaving Iraq in December. L
I unpacked, met with Ellen, answered hundreds of emails and had to decide between working out for one hour or sleeping for one hour. The workout won. Showered and got ready for our 6:30 pm “briefing”. That went extremely well.
Then it was time for our dinner with the local Kuwaiti VIPS – many of them dressed in the traditional robes. It made great tv but even better was how nice and entertaining they were. One of them invited us to his little “farm” when I come back. It would be called an estate in the U.S. I’m going to take the comedians out there in January. One of them asked to have his photo made with me. He told me he was single and I told him so was I. Said if I married him, he’d give me anything I wanted. I told him I wanted a Mercedes and lots of camels (camels cost about $10,000 each over here!). He turned to the guy beside him and said, “go get her the keys to my car” then asked me how many camels I want. Hey, it’s not such a bad idea. He’s very rich and think of the money I’d save in airfares living here instead of flying over every month. J
The dinner was a huge, roaring success for our camera crew. The Radisson set up beautiful tables outside. Only “negative” was, it turned extremely humid and hot. The food was excellent, as usual. We were there from 7:00 until after 10 pm.
We have to depart the hotel at 5 am tomorrow, so once again, it will be a “short” night for me. Going to try and go to bed now and sleep for a couple of hours. It appears the real problems happened pre-tour and things are going great now….knock on wood. David – Charlie’s manager – has really been awesome, jumping in and helping without being asked. He’s “hired”. LOL.
You will not hear from me for a few days due to security concerns.
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 27TH – BAGHDAD, IRAQ:
Was going to get up at 3 am but my phone (which I leave on all the time over here) went “off” at 2:30 am with a text message. It was from Joe Bowser. Scared me because I was afraid he was having an anxiety attack about going into Iraq. I called his room since I knew he was obviously awake and he just said he couldn’t sleep. Jet lag abounds that first night.
Showered and we departed for the airfield at 5 am. Upon arrival, we learned that our plane was going to be late, which is the norm. They decided to take us down to the small DFAC and allow us to have breakfast. When the plane arrived, there were only a few people on it. The flight crew was not aware of “who” was on the plane and were pretty excited to learn who their passengers were. The pilot was a female which was pretty cool.
I gave our guys the news that not everyone would be able to stay inside in the palace. One of the trailers outside was called “Black Butte” so I told them they were staying in “black butt”. J
My first “meeting” was lunch with my friend General Anderson. What an amazing man he is and so supportive of entertainment. He expanded his invitation to include the entertainers, Joe, Scott and Scott’s Dad. It was the highlight of my trip so far – to watch him interact on a personal level with each person. General Anderson presented me with a flag that had been flown over the Al Faw Palace and a certificate of authenticity. I was absolutely thrilled! Did I mention what a great guy he is? Anytime you say “General”, no matter how well I know the person on a personal level, it’s intimidating. No different for the group I took over. However, he is so “personable”, he immediately put everyone at ease. Near the end of the meeting General Odierno came in and said hello and took photos with everyone. He gave them certificates and coins as well. The film crew was cleared to attend the meeting with General O but they showed up 20 minutes late and only got the last few seconds. I was pretty disappointed in that situation.
We had a very quick tour of the Palace and CSM Wilson showed up. He’s the amazing man who took such good care of us with Mark Chesnutt’s tour – as a last minute request from General O. Loved catching up with him and he’s promised to attend our show at Stryker tonight.
Our blackhawks arrived to take us to COP Meade (Contingency Out Post). We had to go in “two waves” because we only had two and had too much gear and pax to all go together. It was a short 10 minute flight and Craig and I were “snoozing” when the chopper dropped and did a huge rollover to the left. We both knew what they were doing and all it did was wake us up. However, I think one of our “newbies” probably wet their pants. LOL
COP Meade was waiting for us and delighted to have entertainers visit them. While we were waiting for the other choppers to arrive, the sound techs started setting up for the show. I need to visit the latrine but was told there are no port-a-potties and no burn buckets. They use “bags”. In all my trips overseas to really remote camps, this was a first. There is a “toilet” but it’s in a wooden building and there is a toilet seat with just an “opening” below. They gave me this silver metallic looking ziplock bag. Inside the bag is a large plastic bag that is attached. You open it, fit the plastic bag around the toilet seat and that’s your “toilet”. When “finished”, you tie up the plastic bag and push it inside the silver bag and ziplock it closed. Then you drop it in a trash receptacle outside. Too much information?
The sound techs had a problem and had to “re-wire” a power strip that the camp had provided. The other choppers arrived and evidently they had really given those pax a “ride” (at Craig’s request). The only person who got queasy was one of our military escorts!!! We decided to sign autographs and take photos until we could begin the show. Biggest disappoint was the fact that we couldn’t show the video bios on the wounded heroes. But we played the audio and I cried like a baby during it and afterwards when Joe, Scott and Frank got up to speak.
Our choppers were there waiting on us during the show and said there was no hurry to leave other than whatever schedule we needed to keep. Then, just as the show ended, they said they had been notified that “weather” was moving in and we needed to leave immediately. It looked really dusty but they got us up and flew with night vision goggles back to BIAP. I was on headsets and could hear their chatter. We had to leave half our group there and all our equipment for the second chopper wave. The pilots were afraid they would not be able to fly back and pick them up because of the weather. I was so worried that the ones left behind would have to stay overnight there AND we had no guitars, etc. for the big performance that night at Stryker. Luck was on our side and everyone made it back just fine.
I think it might have been the largest show I’ve ever had with an entertainer at Stryker. And, maybe the most “enthusiastic”. I conned CSM Wilson into doing the intro again. He is the perfect person to get the crowd fired up. We showed the video bio intro on Joe and then brought him on stage to talk to everyone. He got a standing ovation after the video played and I sobbed the entire time. Same thing happened when we played Scott’s bio and brought him up. If I could, I’d bring back a wounded warrior on every tour I handle!
When Nan took the stage, some guy yelled out “Charlie 513”. Thinking it was the name of his Unit or something, Nan responded to him and asked him what it meant. He replied it was his “room number”. LOL. Craig and Chris has do much fun on stage, the show ran over but that’s what we’re here for. The autograph line was unbelievably long – I gave out 740 photos. The entertainers and heroes also took a photo with each person and signed guitars, hats, etc. We finished the line in a little over 2 ½ hours. It was a great evening.
My friend – Kyle – showed up late. He had “traffic” issues. I was beginning to feel really disappointed that he wasn’t going to make it. So good to see him and he brought his friend Kurt with him that I met in August with Mark Chesnutt. He stayed backstage with me all evening. Sure hope I get to see him when we come through with Aaron but sounds like Baghdad may not be on that itinerary. We can’t come through here with every tour. Have to spread the “love” around! Several of the new folks at MNC-I who handle the entertainment also came to the performance and I got to meet and chat with them. Seems like a nice, competent group.
We got back to lodging at 1 am but I had “email” to answer. Then I took my shower so I wouldn’t have to stand in line early morning. Got about 2 hours sleep.
WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 28TH – STILL IN BAGHDAD:
There was a huge thunderstorm last night and the wind was blowing something fierce. There were double doors to the outside by my cot and they sounded like they would blow open at any minute. Several people in the group said they thought the thunder was “incoming” when they first heard it. At around 5 am, a beeping sound started and I couldn’t locate it. It had to be someone’s alarm and sounded like it was in our room. Wasn’t able to go back to sleep after that.
Very worried about the weather and being able to fly to Balad. We have had great luck with getting the “early” flights we wanted thanks to the support of MNF-I. Today we are supposed to take helicopters to the International Zone (formerly Green Zone). There is a special performance scheduled for the Iraqis outside at the Embassy. Really hoping the weather clears so we can make that because this is the first time something like this has been attempted. Afterwards, we’re going to “Baghdaddy’s”, a nightclub in the IZ, for a performance for our troops, contractors, and civilians.
Our escort and bus arrived 30 minutes late to pick us up this morning so that threw everything off. We visited the EOD team where they told us about their mission and accomplishments. I found it fascinating, especially after recently watching the movie on the flight from Japan regarding this.
Next stop was “shopping” at the PX and Bazaar. This was scheduled so that GAC could film but really was important for the people who have never been to Iraq to have time to purchase some “souvenirs”. Of course, I took them by my favorite jewelry shop, too. One person (I won’t give names here) left his passport in his room. I busted him because I had told everyone that the only time they should not have their passport on them was when they were in the shower. J We had to send someone back to lodging to retrieve it. I kept watching the sky, hoping that I would see helicopters flying but no luck. As we were leaving the base exchange area, my friend Kurt from Kuwait walked up. I didn’t recognize him in uniform! He had emailed me that he had to make an “unexpected” visit to Iraq and would try to find me. Can’t believe we connected!
We made a quick stop at the DFAC and then headed over to Camp Slayer. This is the bombed out palace we visited last time – Victory Over America. I had to wait outside because my bag was in a different vehicle and they were bringing it to me. When our escort arrived with my bag, he informed me that choppers were still not flying and we would be traveling by ground in up-armored vehicles. He needed everyone back at the JVB pretty quickly for a “briefing” on this. I wanted to make sure that whoever gave the briefing was going to be assuring everyone that this was a “safe” way to travel. We have not been allowed to travel outside the “wire” via ground for many years – since roadside bombs, IED’s, etc., were put into play. A few months ago, I was notified by MNC-I that entertainment groups were again cleared to travel by ground as long as it was via MRAP or up-armored vehicle. Since we were not scheduled for any ground trips, I didn’t put any information on this in the itinerary.
By the time we arrived back at the JVB, one person’s “concern” had spread throughout the entire group and I had a feeling we were going to have to cancel the trip. David did his best to alleviate everyone’s concern and the person who gave us our briefing did so as well. This is a route that is traveling 5-6 times per day with high-ranking officials and probably the “safest” route by ground because of all the check points. I was concerned that Craig did not feel like going because he had been sick all morning. I knew if he couldn’t make the trip, we would have to cancel the shows for the Iraqis and for our troops. Fortunately, Craig is a trooper and was ready to go. The only people who would not agree to go were the film crew so we left them behind. I was not happy about this but was not going to force the issue.
We loaded in the vehicles and departed the JVB. Our total time “outside” the wire was 7 minutes and everything was fine. Scott was thrilled because he got to drive past the intersection where his accident occurred. My opinion is if HE wasn’t concerned about his safety, we also had not reason to be afraid. When we arrived at the IZ, there was a stage set up and a “party” taking place. Everyone was in suits and ties, so we definitely felt “underdressed”. That’s where I learned that we were performing for Iraqi college students and other Iraqi VIPS. All this time, I was under the impression that it was for the Iraqi “soldiers”.
There was a huge layout of food for us and beer and wine – yep…only place where our “troops” are allowed to drink alcohol! We didn’t show the video on our wounded heroes so Nan opened the show and introduced Chris and Craig. It was a little awkward at first since they weren’t sure who understood English. But, it was a very receptive audience. Craig asked for questions from the audience but no one participated so they sang a few more songs. Then one person started asking questions and it snowballed form there. Everyone wanted an autographed photo and to have their photo taken with Craig, Chris, Nan, Joe and Scott afterwards.
From there we walked over to the DFAC and had dinner with some Special Forces and Security personnel. After eating at the party, I wasn’t hungry so I just sat and harassed several of the guys joining us for dinner. After dinner, we walked over to Baghdaddy’s for the performance for our troops. Our vehicles were meeting us there so that we could get our cameras. We had not been allowed to take cameras into the party at the Embassy because it could endanger the lives of the Iraqis who work hand-in-hand with us in rebuilding their country. When I got in the “Ice Cream Truck” (that’s what they called the vehicle that I was traveling in), everything had been shifted around and the bag with my camera in it was missing. Searched everywhere and never found it. We had to start the show, so I decided to look for it afterwards.
There was a General and one of the Ambassadors present and they handled the introductions. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch the video bio or listen to our wounded heroes speak, without breaking down. It was another great performance and everyone signed autographs for more than an hour afterwards. I was still frantically searching for my camera and finally located it beneath my helmet which was under my flak vest. Never found the bag it was in, but didn’t really care about that.
We loaded up the vehicles for the short trip back to Camp Liberty but one of the SUV’s had a dead battery. After several attempts to “revive” it, we packed the other vehicles with the passengers and made the short drive back. Actually made the short drive back in record time and arrived back at lodging by 10:30 pm. Glad that the group will be able to grab a few hours more sleep. Me, I’ve got emails to answer! J
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 29TH – BAGHDAD TO BALAD: Impossible to write my road reports when I’m only getting a couple of hours sleep each night. So, I’m sure I’m leaving out some really good stuff!
Our bags had to be out at 7 am and were going to be picked up and transported to the air field for palletizing. At 7:30 am, they were STILL sitting in the lobby!!! Someone finally showed up and departed with them. Hoping there’s no problem getting them on the aircraft.
While we were waiting for our flight to Balad, we met the new Air Force Colonel at Sather. I had ran into the former one in Kuwait as we were departing for Iraq and he was departing for home. He told me to try and meet his replacement and tell him he’d better treat us as good as he did. J The new Colonel is great and will be a big help to us on our visits.
Our flight to Balad was delayed because there was lightning on the ground in Balad. While we were waiting, I saw General Anderson’s aide and learned that he was out on the flight line. Made a quick dash outside to say hello. The same vehicles and drivers that transported us to the IZ yesterday were in his motorcade. Guess he “loaned” them to us yesterday. What a wonderful man he is!
We finally boarded and I was able to get Nan and Chris up on the flight deck. It was supposed to be a 20 minute flight but we hit a lot of turbulence. We still hadn’t landed after 40 minutes and it was VERY turbulent. I knew we were either unable to land because of weather or because the base was under attack. One of the film crew gets nauseous when flying and she started throwing up. Of course, she was sitting right across from me and every time she would hurl, I would gag. Thought she’d never quit! Felt sorry for her though. We finally landed and the base had been mortared (happens constantly at this base) and that had caused the delay.
I’d been working directly with the folks on the ground at Balad and they were waiting for us with our vehicles. Everything was “first class”! They had sandwiches for us on the bus because we were running late due to our late arrival. It was evident that the real “stars” in this group were our wounded heroes…as it should be!
Our first stop was a tour of the Predators (remotely controlled aviation vehicles). It’s fascinating stuff considering that the aircraft take off and land in Iraq, but once they are in the air, they are flown by pilots at Creech AFB, NV! While we were visiting that area, my friend Joe was presented with a flag and certificate for his wife Michele. My friend Willie at Creech AFB had arranged for this to be flown on Joe’s wife’s birthday. The presentation was a very emotional event. Glad we made this happen for Joe.
Next stop was the Special Forces compound for an acoustic performance in their DFAC. They can’t attend the shows in the stadium or theatre, so we try to take entertainment out to them. It was a great event and I re-connected with a buddy of mine who was there when I had Aaron Tippin performing there! Small world indeed.
I was getting very concerned about holding the performance outside because the wind was blowing so hard and it had been raining off and on all day. We really wanted to hold it in the stadium because it can accommodate thousands while the theatre can only accommodate 700. We finally decided it had to moved indoors and tried to get word to our sound techs who were setting up.
After the performance, the guys went to the firing range to play with the guns. I had phone calls to make regarding the performance and since I’d already been there with Aaron, I left them alone for a while to “play”.
Next stop was the hospital. Both Joe and Scott were treated at the hospital at Balad. But, when they were there, it was only a “tent”. Now there are several buildings and they do an amazing service for the sick and injured – not only our troops, but the local Iraqis as well. I’d been working very hard to have Scott’s cousin –Jason—flown in from Al Asad. I met Jason when I was there on the Charlie Daniels Tour and again with Joe Nichols. Frank calls Jason his “fifth son”, so you can imagine how close he and Scott are. Thanks to the incredible support of Dave at Balad, Jason was able to find a flight and arrived just before we walked into the hospital. All the staff were lined up in two lines with Scott and Joe and the entertainers walking inside between them. They were clapping and cheering for Joe and Scott and Scott walked right past Jason. Jason yelled at him and the look on Scott’s and Franks’ faces were priceless. That was the best part of the day!
We were supposed to go to retrace the steps of Joe’s injury at Balad but it got too dark. Have re-scheduled that for tomorrow morning. Made a quick trip to lodging to get ready for the evening performance. Our hosts had all our bags already in our rooms…amazing!
Several of us went to the DFAC for dinner and a quick interview with the person who handles the DFAC. As we were driving over in our bus, a tire blew and it sounded like a mortar attack! Couple of our group hit the floor! J. When we arrived at the DFAC, I learned that we had NOT moved the performance inside but that they sound techs were comfortable with holding it outside. Had to move pretty quickly to pick up the ones we left at lodging and get to the show on time because the Commanding General was going to be there. I haven’t met him yet but he’s been very supportive of our visit.
Arrived at the backstage area on time and there is still a huge line of people entering the stadium. I met General Franklin and he is a super nice guy. I had been warned that he had a presentation for me. He called me up on stage and thanked me and presented me with the biggest coin I’ve ever seen. Couldn’t have given me anything nicer!
The crowd was HUGE so I’m glad we were able to hold it outside. The General hugged Joe, Scott, and Scott’s dad after their appearances on stage. That’s my Air Force!
There was a long, long autograph line. We had pre-autographed about 250 photos but ran out of those in less than an hour. AAFES finally got their act together and was selling photos at the beginning of the autograph line. They sold HUNDREDS and my guys autographed each one. We were there for more than 2 hours and probably signed a little over 500 photos plus the cds, etc.
Got back to lodging very late again and we must have bags outside the doors by 7 am tomorrow morning. I’m staying in “my” room in Balad and Nan is on the other side. We share a bathroom. My bedspread has “Miss You” written all around the edges.
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 30TH – BALAD, IRAQ TO ALI AL SALEM, KUWAIT TO RAMSTEIN, GERMANY:
I have a lot to “coordinate” for today’s events. Have been trying to reach our awesome flight crew to tell them what time we’re landing. Hoping that Ali Al Salem Air Force Protocol will make this happen. We need to be able to arrive and go straight to the tanker to fly to Germany. Also trying to coordinate so that Joe’s son comes to the flight line to see his Dad. He shipped out to serve in Iraq the week before we departed. He has to spend a few weeks in Kuwait in “training” and was still there.
Bags were out at 7 am and I went with the film crew to re-trace Joe’s steps from when he was injured here. Very emotional time for him. Afterwards we all loaded up the bus and departed for the air terminal. I barely got my computer turned on before they announced that our flight was ready to board to Kuwait. Stressful but very good news.
The flight departed on time and one member of the flight crew was a huge Chris Young fan. I gave them gifts and he insisted that I come up on the flight deck. I told him he should bring up one of the stars or wounded warriors but he insisted they wanted me up there. He looked so familiar and said the same thing about me. Turns out he was on my flight crew when I was there last September with the Honky Tonk Tailgate Party and Siren! We chatted the entire flight. We had to fly through some clouds and I was wondering if the person in the film crew was getting sick again. She had sat right across from me again before I came up on the deck. When we got ready to land, we learned that there was a dust storm on the ground. Not good. Since we had already started our approach they allowed us to land. There was only 400 meters visibility and 800 meters is the legal limit. I swear I never saw the ground until we hit it. Oh, also a new young pilot-in-training on board but he did a great job. Just sort of “bounced” when we hit the runway but considering the conditions, I can understand why! When we landed, Joe’s son was there waiting for him and it was quite a surprise! So glad this happened – thank you Colonel Kyle!!! Our buses arrived and took us over the DFAC so we could have lunch before we left for Germany. I had word that the tanker would arrive about 30 minutes after we landed but was very worried that the dust storm was going to prohibit their landing. I do NOT want to get stuck in Kuwait tonight. While we were eating, we were notified that the tanker was on the ground and would be ready for us to board very soon. Whew. Finally getting a “break” where that’s concerned maybe.
Scott had a friend on base and wanted to go to another building to find her. I told him he had to give me the number of the building and not to be gone more than 5 minutes. Told him if he found her, to bring her back to the DFAC with him because I wasn’t sure when we would be leaving. He got stopped on the way out by a Colonel who has sent him to Iraq when he was deployed and forgot to give me the building number. Of course, they called us to board the plane and he was nowhere to be found. We sent someone searching for him but never located him. I was going to leave one person behind to wait for him but we got word that he was standing outside by the buses. I busted him pretty good and told him not to even think about playing the “short term memory loss” card with me. J
Joe said a very tearful good-bye to his son. I can’t even imagine going through something like that but am very happy that we were able to arrange for them to see each other. It was great to see our flight crew again. Did I mention how awesome they are? Felt so bad that they had to stay in tents in Qatar these past 4 days. Really wanted to put them up at the Radisson but just didn’t work out to park the aircraft at Ali for 4 days.
We departed right on time and they told me it was a 7 hour flight. I had originally been told it was a 6 hour flight but didn’t question them. I slept the entire way! My 2 ½ hours of sleep a night for the past 2 weeks finally caught up with me. But, it was not a 7 hour flight. It was less than 6 hours. So I had to call our escorts as soon as we landed and get them out to the plane. We had to go through passport control and then there were volunteers who brought the luggage from the plan to us. The new hotel on base is fabulous and located right next to the airport. George – our AFE contact and my buddy – was waiting for us. He’s terrific to work with and things are always first class and professionally run. He’s been passing kidney stones for weeks now and I’ve been teasing him about his “babies”. He looked great, though. He had all the room keys and rooming list for us when we landed.
I had a voice mail from our contact at Grissom AFB saying the permission we had previously been granted to take off at 9 am local time had now been rescinded and we couldn’t leave until 1 pm. Since half my group has connecting flights back to the U.S., they would all miss those connections. Started working that and finally learned that once again it was due to “incorrect paperwork” . Seems we were not coded as “DV’s” and that’s pretty much all it took. Whew on that one, too!
Michael Tietze who has been my friend since the early 90’s and driven me all over Europe many times was there with his bus. Once we got the departure problem taken care of, several of us went upstairs to a great German restaurant for dinner. It was so nice to re-connect with George an Michael and their staffs. I had wiener schnitzel, imagine that? They give you huge portions, so I gave half of mine to Shawn for his dinner. People from our group kept drifting in and eating there as well.
It’s almost 2 am and I’m just finishing up emails and this report. Have to get up at 5:30 am, so need to sign off and get a little sleep. If you want to see some awesome photos from the trip, go to:
click on Recent tours. There’s photos from each day OR just go to the Stars for Stripes home page on Facebook!
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 31ST – HAPPY HALLOWEEN FROM RAMSTEIN AB, GERMANY:
Decided I needed to work out this morning even though I was running on a couple of hours sleep. The hotel has a 24 hour gym but it only has cardio, no weights. Used the elliptical trainer for 30 minutes and the bike for 30 minutes and definitely felt better. Certainly better than the majority of the people on the tour. Guess they had a great time sampling the German beer (which is WAY stronger than anything they are accustomed to in the U.S.) and we had a few “walking wounded”. J
First stop today is the Fisher House. Our group was able to meet three of the families staying there while their loved ones are at Landstuhl next door. Fisher House provides an amazing service as can be attested to by Frank Lilley who stayed there while Scott was hospitalized. It is the “home away from home” for families of seriously ill or injured patients recovering from treatment at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.
We left the Fisher House after chatting with the staff and 3 of the families and went to the Hospital. The doctor who cut off Joe’s leg (and threatened to cut off his other one if he didn’t stop by to see him!) and a nurse and doctor who were involved in Scott’s treatment met them at the doorway and had lunch with everyone. After lunch everyone went upstairs and visited various patients on the different wards. Keep in mind that the patients are not limited to just our troops injured in battle. It’s an amazing hospital. It is the only American tertiary hospital in Europe and serves more than 245,000 U.S. Military personnel and their families under the European Command. It is the evacuation and treatment center for all injured U.S service members and contractors as well as members of the 44 coalition forces serving Iraq, Afghanistan, Central Command, European Command and Pacific Command.
We spent over two hours visiting the patients and then returned to Ramstein AB to prepare for the show that evening. Tonight’s show is so much different because families are attending and alcohol is served – total opposite of the troops in Iraq and Kuwait. Since it’s Halloween, there are lots of kids (and adults) in various costumes. John Howe and his staff brought in the sound system for us. I’ve worked with him for more years than I can count and know I never have to worry about everything being professionally handled. He did not disappoint me. His staff even had Halloween masks and were going to surprise us at sound check – only the guys decided they didn’t need a sound check.
It was a very poignant, final show. I think everyone is feeling the “let-down”, (certainly not disappointment!) of coming off the “high” from this tour. As I said, it is unlike anything I’ve ever produced before.
The autograph line was shorter than in Iraq since we were in a small club instead of an outdoor venue. Finished it up about an hour and then had dinner in the area that had been set up as our dressing room. I sat with the flight crew and Michael. Michael is one of the funniest men I know and I think the flight crew enjoyed his stories. I certainly do!
I had just told everyone to gather their things and that we had a 6:30 am lobby call when the fire alarm went off. Everyone had to evacuate the building. The tv crew was in the middle of filming so we took one bus back with everyone else and left them there to finish up once the “all clear” was given.
I stopped by the front desk to try and close out my bills. Gave the desk clerk the rooming list and told her I’d come back later. I waited about an hour and called the front desk. No answer. I finally laid the phone on the bed for 10 minutes and just let it ring. No answer. When I went downstairs, the entire staff that I had been working with was gone and one guy was talking on the phone. I waited and waited and waited while he finished his call only to be told that they could not close out the bill until after midnight. With a 6:30 am lobby call, I did not want to go back down there at midnight.
Got in bed by 12:30 am and set alarm for 4:30 am. Frank called my room to tell me that the front desk had told him that the “automatic” wake-up call on our phones in inoperable. Only no one is aware of that….so I have to make calls in the morning.
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 1ST – LEAVING GERMANY TO NASHVILLE:
Happy One Year Birthday to Zac and Zoe! Hard to believe this time last year I was in Baghdad with Bo Bice and my daughter went into labor two months early!
Got up at 4:30 am and was in the lobby by 6 am. Everyone was trickling down or down there early. We walked over to the terminal and began the check-in process. We did not know it would be the same as if we were taking a commercial flight. One page of the PIN information on my group was missing in the information my office prepared for me so I had to go back to the hotel, get my room key, go upstairs and log on to the internet, download to a jump drive, go downstairs and get the key to the business center, and print out the missing info.
Everyone had to “check” their bags and then go upstairs for a security scan. We had all packed for our “private” plane and had knives, wine, liquids, etc. They were taking the items from us. It’s hard for me as a civilian to understand why since we are classified as DV’s, have our own dedicated aircraft, do not have any pallets and the flight crew doesn’t want to see us until one hour prior to takeoff, why we have to arrive 3-4 hours early? We seem to spend half our visit sitting at airport terminals and “waiting”. But, this is always the case and doubtful that it will change any time in the near future.
We boarded at 9 am and were ready for a 10 am takeoff. Only problem was the flight crew said there were very strong headwinds and it was going to take us 10 hours instead of 8. That meant Chester would miss his flight back to D.C. and if we’re delayed any more than that, they Scott, Frank and Joe could miss their flights…not to mention me missing by grandbabies birthday party.
The flight crew had purchased hot “Cinnabons” and coffee and that was a real treat. I worked the first 4 hours and then slept for about 3 hours – off and on. When we got close to landing, the flight crew asked me to come up on the flight deck. Evidently, the tower was telling them we did not have permission to land at the FEDEX terminal. I knew this was incorrect because I had driven out there the week we departed. As they were arguing back and forth, our Pilot secured permission for us to land at the National Guard Terminal where we had originally requested permission to land. The Guard had a huge conference this weekend and didn’t have ramp space for us when we were planning to arrive earlier. The Guard cleared us and as soon as they did, the tower confirmed that we were to land at the Fedex Terminal!
Once we landed, a very ticked off Customs Agent boarded the plane. He was supposed to be notified 2 days before our arrival and didn’t get the call until 2 hours before we landed when he was in the middle of his lunch with his wife. He was not happy with us but got us processed and off the plane pretty quickly.
We took one very quick “group” photo and then walked to the Fedex terminal to wait for our luggage. Got Joe, Scott, Frank and Candice a ride to the terminal in the Fedex van. Everyone split up pretty quickly once the luggage arrived.
It was without a doubt the most “special” tour I’ve ever been involved with. I’d take one of our wounded heroes on every tour if I could.
Be sure and mark your calendar for December 10th at 9:30 pm EST and watch the “Stars for Stripes” one hour special on GAC-TV.