Stars for Stripes once again partnered with Armed Forces Entertainment to provide holiday entertainment to our troops deployed in the Area of Responsibility.
STARS FOR STRIPES SUMMER SALUTE TOUR – June 30-July 14, 2004
DAY ONE AND TWO:
We departed for Kuwait, Iraq, Djibouti and Qatar to perform for our troops over the 4th of July holiday period today. “We” being two female country music singers (Chalee Tennison and Danni Leigh) plus 3 musicians, a sound tech, my partner at Stars for Stripes and myself – 8 people total. Small manageable group so we can go into the really remote sites and hopefully boost the morale of the troops who need it the most.
Carl – my partner – and Brian – our sound tech flew in from Phoenix and Austin respectively yesterday. With weather delays, they arrived very late at night rather than mid-afternoon as anticipated. We are taking our own sound system (a small PA) since Iraq does not have this available yet. Last week I had overnighted all the Austin passengers their airline tickets, passports, ID cards, etc. This morning I learned that Brian had flown in yesterday on an “e-ticket” and never picked up his international ticket, passport, or ID card from Danni. So, we arrived at the airport for check-in and they would only allow him to check in to Memphis. There was still weather in Austin, so I was worried that we would not connect with the Austin passengers in Memphis as we had planned. If we had mis-connected, I would have had to leave Brian in Memphis since he did not have his travel documents. Everything worked out and he boarded the flight with us to Amsterdam.
When we checked in all the sound equipment, the agent tagging the cases put them on the straps. When they went through the security scanner, the inspectors didn’t realize that the bag tags were falling off when they opened the cases. They found several on the floor AFTER the cases had gone through. We had to send someone downstairs to try and match the pieces with the tags. Just hope everything arrives in Kuwait with us!
I had purchased 4 walkie-talkies so that we could stay in touch in the Amsterdam airport and on the bases once we landed. I gave two to Brian and told him to use one and give one to someone in Danni’s group. He packed both radios in the equipment cases and checked them! For the record, this is Brian’s first trip out of the country. Definitely a learning experience for him.
Very short flight to Amsterdam (only 9 hours) compared to my normal trips to Japan. But, now we have a 5 hour layover in Amsterdam before we fly for 6 hours into Kuwait. I had a “chair” massage and am on my second cup of cappuccino! I know I’ll be able to get on the internet at the Radisson in Kuwait but after that, the road kill reports will be on hold until we return.
Able to get on line in Amsterdam. Wonderful thing. More tomorrow.
STILL DAY TWO:
On the flight from Nashville to Memphis, Chalee was sitting in front of me and Carl was sitting in back of me. Chalee leaned back and said, “I just want to ask you about one more thing (yeah, right J). Are there really camel spiders over there. Someone emailed me a photo of one”. Carl heard her and leaned up and said, “Yes. There are. They are nasty. They spit at you.” She started asking him questions about them chasing you and he said they run about 5 miles an hour. I was just listening to the whole thing thinking it sure wasn’t what I’d heard but I kept my mouth shut. I had seen the photos of them and they are large and ugly. But, the spitting and chasing you part seemed a little out there. When we were on the flight to Amsterdam, the subject came up again (think she had been worrying about one crawling in her sleeping bag). That’s when we realized Carl only heard the word “camel” and all his responses related to that animal!
When we started to board the flight to Amsterdam, there were lots of soldiers coming back from a 2 week leave in the U.S. and going back to Iraq and Kuwait. We signed autographs for them and told them where we would be performing. Also met a civilian working as a government contractor who invited us to their Camp. Said they have a real “bar” with alcohol. Some of our guys might be trying to hitch a ride there before the end of this “alcohol free” tour.
We had the usual “hassle” of trying to get through passport control. Were sent back upstairs to be issued “visas”. Evidently the U.S. cannot issue a temporary visa for Kuwait any longer. It must be done upon arrival at the airport. All of our luggage and sound gear made it and the ride to the hotel was less than 30 minutes. Wonderful thing!!! It’s 2 am and I’m still answering emails….
ROAD KILL DAY THREE
Not much sleep at all last night. Went to bed at around 4 am but couldn’t sleep. Finally got up and went to the gym. This hotel has great workout facilities. You have to walk outside past the pool to get to the gym. The heat is absolutely breath-taking!
I feel a little guilty that the group is getting so spoiled by the nice, air-conditioned hotel. They were expecting really rough conditions. But, I’ve decided it’s a building process. We have really long, brutal flights and layovers from the U.S. then get the perk of a nice hotel right on the beach with all the amenities for a couple of days. Then we head into Iraq for 5 days in the worst possible living conditions. Just when they think they can’t eat another MRE, we return to Kuwait for one more night of luxury. Then it’s off to even worse conditions for 2 nights in Djibouti. Finally end up in Qatar where it’s not a luxury hotel but nice conexes (individual trailers on base). I think it’s the perfect itinerary. I am REALLY going to miss my email once we leave here!
I worked very closely via email with Captain Chase Martin in Baghdad to coordinate the Iraq portion of the tour. He was wonderful but wasn’t able to escort us because he has the Baltimore Raven Cheerleaders in country (poor baby. Tough job!). We didn’t think we would even see each other. But, I was walking through the lobby after my workout and passed someone in camo with “Martin” on his shirt. I realized after I walked past him that it MIGHT be him. Then I spotted what HAD to be the cheerleaders in the lobby. I chased him down to the restaurant where he was going to look for me. It’s a wonderful thing that everyone wears their names on their clothing!
First show tonight at Navstar.
We departed for Navstar which is a “truck stop”! The huge trucks come in and out of there bringing heavy equipment and troops – most of whom are on their way home! Most of the people at the show were “transient”. We were traveling in a nice, air-conditioned mini-bus with our three great escorts. Thankfully, my first question once we boarded the bus is do you have a LOT of water on board for everyone. They assured me that there was but when we opened the cooler – it was empty! Then about an hour away from the site, the air conditioning quit! Remember, it’s about 107 degrees outside. Then, we learned that our escorts had just picked up the mini-bus when they met us at the hotel and it had not been prepped. They had to turn the air conditioner off because we were almost out of gas. I could just see us hitchhiking through the desert with the guitars! But we made it to Navstar on fumes. Once we arrived, we learned that our production had not arrived. Sound familiar, my friends? So we went to the dining facility to have an early dinner while we waited. All our shows in Kuwait are outside on flatbed trucks, so load in and sound check was pretty miserable. But by 7 pm when the show started, it had cooled down considerably. Funny how 90 degrees can seem so cool. One of our monitors was cracked in the flights over and one of the D.I.’s didn’t work. That’s when I learned that the sound company renting us the gear did not give us extras as specified in our agreement. Hopefully, everything else will work for the rest of the trip.
The show was absolutely awesome. Hundreds of soldiers attended and came up and told us how they NEVER get any entertainment up at Navstar. Said they hear about the entertainers going to Doha and Arifjan all the time but they are never included. Danni and Chalee made a point of getting some of them up to sing and play and even dance with them. Instead of a 90 minute show, we gave them over two hours. At one point, Danni jumped up and landed hard on the stage in her high-heel cowboy boots. A cloud of dust enveloped her and then covered the musicians. My partner looked at me and said, “Hey, that’s our smoke machine”!
They signed autographs after the show for almost two hours and then I treated everyone to a Subway sandwich which was located at the camp and open 24 hours. No, they did not have the low-carb wraps available and yes, we did ask. J
Arrived back at the hotel at 1 am. Have a 10:30 lobby call tomorrow. We visit one side of Arifjan for lunch, then do a meet and greet at a club on the other side that afternoon. Travel to SPOD (the Seaport) to entertain the Naval Base tomorrow evening.
Only took one show and Chalee, Danni and the musicians are “hooked”. Nothing can compare to the self-gratification of knowing you’re making a positive influence on someone’s life who is out there fighting for all of us to keep America free. Chalee got pretty choked up at one point because she has children and started thinking about all these young men and women who are away from home. Even the big Generals let us hug them and love on them without getting embarrassed.
ROAD REPORT – DAY FOUR – WE THINK!
Big note to self – DO NOT DRINK ICED COFFEE AT MIDNIGHT. Still staring at the clock at 4 am. Of course when the alarm went off at 6 am, I was ready to sleep.
Had this brilliant idea that I could run outside because there was a nice breeze. I grabbed the Gatorade and hit the street at about 6:30 am. Another big mistake. I only made it 3 miles instead of my normal 5. The heat was BRUTAL.
It’s amazing how quickly “time” becomes so confusing. I couldn’t tell you what day of the week it is unless I looked at my itinerary for the trip. It’s hard to believe that tomorrow will be the 4th of July and we’ll only have 10 more days in country.
Today we went to two zones at Camp Arifjan. It’s huge and handles “logistics” – in-processing/out-processing, putting armor on the vehicles, etc. etc. Went into a lunch room and sang for about 2,000 soldiers – no PA system. The artists and musicians just “strolled” Mariachi style from table to table. Then they signed autographs for 3 hours – over 200 soldiers. Next we went across the Camp to Zone 2 and performed (with a PA system) at the Community Center. Only about 100 soldiers in there but it was nice to have a speaker system. Signed autographs and then headed to SPOD (the seaport). We had to go through 3 check points and at the first one, we stopped, signed autographs, and had our photos made with the soldiers. Evidently they radioed ahead and we had to do this at each checkpoint. I’m convinced that we went through 2 more checkpoints than necessary just so the guys could get the autographs – which is fine. That’s why we’re here.
The Tennessee National Guard was at SPOD and they have been extended 4 times. The last time they were actually packed up and on their way out when the call came detaining them. They were so glad to see us and I was so happy to hear someone talk with an accent like mine! This is another area that hears about the entertainers going to Camp Doha and Arifjan and they never get anything. So, we took care of that by giving them a heck of a show and signing autographs for them for hours.
Got back to the hotel and one of the artists had a slight panic attack. Evidently some soldier told her she was crazy for going into Iraq, that it’s not safe, and she should just refuse to go! It had to be someone stationed here in Kuwait since that’s the only Camps we visited and he probably had no firsthand knowledge of the situation in Iraq. I’ve talked to people in Baghdad 3 times today and I certainly feel safe going in. Right before her call, I was sitting here thinking what an incredible, blessed life I live. To be able to spend Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day and now the 4th of July with the finest men and women America has to offer AND to be able to lift their spirits a little and tell them how much the people back at home love them, is something that I will cherish and be forever grateful for.
I think I calmed her fears. We’re off to Balad, Iraq tomorrow morning EARLY – 8 am lobby call.
Happy 4th of July!
ROAD KILL DAY FIVE
Only a few hours before we depart the luxurious hotel and head into Iraq. We have to be at the flight line two hours prior to departure so that all our luggage and equipment can be palletized for the flight on the C-130. For everyone in the group except me and Carl, this will be their first flight on a military aircraft. “Seats” are the slings that hang along the sides of the airplane and the only “windows” are the little round holes dispersed sporadically along the sides. There are 4 propellers on this aircraft and I know from past experience that we can fly with 2 engines if necessary. The only restroom facilities on the two hour flight will probably be what they call a “honey bucket”…..a large metal trash can lined with a garbage bag. They encourage us to drink gallons of water so everyone will probably become acquainted with this type of primitive toilet. We won’t know until we start to land if we will have to make a combat landing which could be one of three things – drop from the sky like a rock, dodge and swerve for about 5 minutes, or fly 600 feet off the ground for 15 minutes. I plan to be sitting on the flight deck with the pilots at that time because I don’t like any of three options from the belly of the plane!
Yesterday I took about 5 minutes to look over a local newspaper. Most of the coverage was on Saddam and his trial. I am bringing it back to the U.S. with me. There are stories and quotes that we will never see in America. The people of Kuwait hate Saddam and love America for freeing them. The quotes of support were not from the older generation who experienced the horror of Saddam’s reign of terror as I expected. They were from young (19-35 years old) men and women living in Kuwait.
Last night I talked with so many soldiers who told me that they have lost quite a few men in their Unit. They also talked about the “personal” things that President Bush has done for the families of the soldiers…things that you will never hear about in the media. I have a renewed love and respect not only for President Bush as the President of our country but also as a loving, caring human being. To have the pressure of being the President of our country during a time of war, to be in the midst of a re-election campaign, yet to still have time to personally visit with the families of fallen soldiers simply because he cares is pretty special.
Last night, the artists closed the show with “God Bless America”. Every soldier stood and placed their hand over their heart and sang along. I know there wasn’t a dry eye among our group.
From past experience, I know that I won’t be able to send email from my laptop. So, no Road Kill Reports until we have one more night at the Radisson on July 9th. Have a wonderful 4th of July and “God Bless America”! Jude
Today is actually July 9th. Haven’t been able to send any Road Kill reports because I couldn’t hook up my computer in the remote sites in Iraq. As I type this, I am sitting in one of Saddam’s palaces in Baghdad. It’s hard to comprehend! AND THERE IS AN INTERNET CONNECTION IN MY ROOM!
REST OF DAY FIVE – 4TH OF JULY:
We arrived at the terminal at about 9 am only to find that our flight had been delayed (imagine that!). So the artists sang a few songs for the flight line crew and then they shared their 4th of July burgers and bratz with us. We loaded up the C-130 and a crew from Milwaukee, WI flew us to Balad. I stayed on the flight deck talking to them for most of the trip and, of course, gave them one of our tour coins and a bandana. They gave me an American flag that had flown with them all over Iraq! Definitely not a fair trade for them.
We arrived at Camp Anaconda in Balad and found that housing conditions in this area have definitely improved since last December. We are in DV trailers! Really, really nice housing with all the comforts of a hotel room. There are two bedrooms with a shared bath so Chalee and I are “bunking” together.
We started to take a short tour of the base but ended up in one room for quite some time just learning about what takes place here. Every branch of service is represented – Army, Air Force, Marine, and Navy. There is a camaraderie that is amazing….a lot like I see at the Wolf Pack in Korea. Reminds me of how after 9/11, everyone in America pulled together. We had some serious ass to kick and some serious healing to do and we did it as one. That’s pretty much what you see over here.
We learned that this base is “hit” more than any of the others. It is a huge base which accounts for some of the attacks. They have lost several men, some of them as recently as the last couple of weeks when their Base Exchange was attacked. We also learned that we do not step outside without our flak vests and helmets ON, not in our hands, but wearing these. It’s over 100 degrees and the equipment is so heavy. I don’t know how the soldiers do it. They explained that a siren goes off when there is an attack and showed us the buildings where we run for safety. Then we have to stay there until the “All Clear” sounds. They told us not “if” but “when” it goes off because it goes off every night because they get attacked somewhere on the camp every night! We also learned that they rarely get any entertainment because most of the performers are afraid to visit their Camp because of safety concerns.
We were talking to the Chief when the Colonel returned from where he and his men had been inspecting a bridge. The Chief asked him how it was going and the Colonel responded, “Okay now. But you know what happened, right?”. He then told him that they had been attacked when they went to inspect the bridge. Evidently there was a “line” if IED’s set to go off in a chain reaction. The only thing that saved their lives was the fact that the first one failed to detonate! We could have arrived at this Camp on the 4th of July to find that they had just lost the Colonel and several of his men. Thank God that did not happen.
The show was held in a beautiful 740 seat Theatre with a full balcony. The stage was awesome and they even had some of their own production. A talent contest was taking place when we arrived but it was more like “The Gong Show”. The performers were actually getting booed off the stage! Sort of made our performers a bit nervous about their appearance. J
I went out front to sit with one of our escorts during the performance. Against all orders, we left our flak vest and helmet backstage. I was drinking gallons of water and really had to go outside to visit the port-a-potty but wanted to wait until the “audience participation” segment of the show was over. Right in the middle of the song, the sirens went off. I was so stunned to see all the soldiers jumping up and putting on their vests and helmets, that I couldn’t move. The escort grabbed my arm and literally RAN down the aisle with me to the backstage area. Since we were already in one of the “safe” buildings, we didn’t have to go anywhere. The band and artists put their gear on and continued with the show. I, on the other hand, was in serious trouble because I really, really needed to visit that port-a-potty. Finally this big hulking bear of a man told me he was going to escort me outside even though we were still Code Red. As any woman can testify, when you hold it that long, you’re going to be there for a very long time. I felt so sorry for him standing outside the port-a-potty in Code Red waiting for me. I can only imagine what was going through his mind. I know what was going through mine and it was basically that when it’s my time to go, I sure hope it wasn’t going to be in that port-a-potty!
We finally got the all clear and finished the show. A soldier came in during the autograph session and said that the KRB facility on the other side of the base had taken mortar fire. A couple of local workers were injured but thankfully no one was killed.
During the show, the artist who had the second thoughts last night, told the audience about her apprehension the night before and then teared up and said, “Now I get it. Now I know why I’m here and I would not want to be anywhere else”. Has your heart ever felt so full that you don’t know whether to laugh or cry? That’s how I feel the entire time I’m in Iraq talking to these incredible men and women.
Got to get to bed so I can get my standard 4 hours of sleep. Oops…scratch that….we know the sirens will go off at least once. Flak vest, helmet, shoes, passport, flashlight and water all right beside the bed!
DAY SIX – JULY 5TH:
Went to the gym at 7 am. Really nice facility but very crowded. We have two “guards” stationed outside our DVQ’s and I stopped to talk to them. While we were chatting there was a huge explosion that shook the ground. The soldier asked if I knew what it was. Considering the fact that I had climbed onto his back, I think he knew I had an idea. He said it was “incoming” but on the other side of the Camp. I’d hate to think what it would have sounded and felt like if it had been closer.
We all did an interview with the base newspaper and then went to the hospital to visit the wounded. Several of the locals who were hurt in last night’s explosion were there. Spent quite a while talking to the patients who had various injuries. Then we went to have lunch with the troops at the DFAC. They set us up in a private room but bring in lots of soldiers so we can talk to them. Evidently what we’re eating is better than what’s being served in the main dining hall because the people they bring in are pretty appreciative of getting the opportunity to eat in that particular room.
We got to check email and then went to look at the F-16’s. I wanted to meet the F-16 pilots because I have so many friends from Kunsan, Korea who fly the planes. Met one Colonel who seems to know all the Wolf Pack pilots.
Everyone else went back to the room to rest and I went to meet the lady who is responsible for distributing the school supplies through Operation Iraqi Children. She was on leave to the U.S. but I met the Colonel who is working with her. He said the project is going great and they are doing a LOT of good. They have received an overwhelming response to the request for supplies and the soldiers are delivering these to the local schools on a regular basis.
Got back in the conex in time to rest for about 30 minutes before going to the show. Had just gotten my clothes off when the sirens went off for real. Things were spread out all over the room so I was trying to gather my flak vest, helmet, water, put on my shoes AND wake us Chalee. None of the guys heard it, so I had to bang on their doors, too. We sat in a “safe” building with no air conditioning for about 40 minutes until the “all clear” sounded. My comment was that if the insurgents were smart, they would wait until the “all clear” siren sounded and then launch their missiles. That’s when everyone is outside. Our Chief said they have already figured that out. The one today landed by the flight line so no one was injured.
A couple of the soldiers that I sat with at dinner were “babies” 19 and 22 years old. One had just joined the reserves and was immediately deployed to Iraq. I asked him if he was sorry he joined and he said absolutely not. They are at Camp Anaconda to attend a class. They are stationed at a tiny base way up North on the Iraqi border and they actually “live” in the village with the local Iraqis. They have a whole different perspective on the Iraqis because they are so close to them. They told us that the little children come up to them and say, “My daddy is George Bush”! And when they are going out on a mission, the locals will discreetly follow them to make sure no one harms them. Now that’s a good news story!
Show was great and we didn’t have a siren go off between 9 and 9:30 as anticipated. We stayed and talked for hours since we depart tomorrow. The rest of the Camps are going to have a lot to live up to in order to match the hospitality we were shown at Camp Anaconda.
Bags have to be out at 7:15 am and then we take a one hour blackhawk ride to Camp Danger. We will be flying 40 feet off the ground, jumping power lines, and the doors to the chopper will be open because of the heat. Don’t think I’ll be eating anything before we fly!
ROAD KILL – DAY SEVEN – July 6th
The soldiers at Camp Anaconda thanked us again and again for coming. Evidently, they were told that Toby Keith was coming to their Camp when he was in country on a USO tour right after Memorial Day. They have a stadium that seats approximately 20,000 people and many of the soldiers we met said that they sat out in the blistering sun for over 2 hours waiting for him. There was a miscommunication somewhere and either because of safety concerns or transportation issues, he never came to the Camp. The troops said we were the first celebrity entertainment they have had in a very long time and were so appreciative that we would come to their remote location, especially with the current danger of constant attack.
Up SOOOO early to helicopter to Tikrit, Camp Danger. Nice name, huh? I gave all the helicopter pilots coins and bandanas so they hopefully would not drop us out of the sky too often. It turned out to be a very smooth ride or else I’m REALLY getting accustomed to the flights. We did fly about 40 feet off the ground but they didn’t do the roller coaster thing. Doors were open and they had the guns loaded and ready. I got some amazing photos from the air.
We landed and could not believe our eyes. Camp Danger was where Uday and Kusay lived. I can’t even begin to describe it. I have no idea how many buildings there are but they are ALL palaces. There is one that has a huge swimming pool outside but a little pass-through that goes inside and into another huge indoor pool. Everything is so “gawdy” and cheap – except for the marble floors, walls, staircases. There were a lot of “mini-chandeliers” outside our room with what looked like glass beads hanging from them. They turned out to be plastic beads. (I can show you when I get home J )
We are on the 3rd floor of one of the palaces. The guys have cots set up in one of the rooms and we are in the room where 2 Star and above Generals are housed. It has two huge bedrooms, living room, kitchen, dining room and a bathroom that is larger than the bottom floor of my house. The sunken tub has steps going down into it.
We took a tour of the camp and I met the person responsible for “Operation I CAN”. This is similar to Gary Sinise’s “Operation Iraqi Children” project where they are sending school supplies to the soldiers to give to the kids. “I CAN” does basically the same thing but also takes the kids toys like Frisbees and bubbles, etc. They told us if they had known we were interested, they would have arranged to let us deliver the goodies to the kids. Sure wish we could have done this.
At lunch, I sat with a lot of soldiers from Alabama. Three of them sing and call themselves the “Triple Threat”. I told them we would get them up on the stage if they came to the show.
Everyone got to play in a humvee and we took photos with them standing on top with the gun. We were going to see the Special Forces guys and let them shoot off a few rounds, but Special Forces was out on a mission.
The good news about this Camp is that we don’t have to wear our helmets and flak vests all the time. They are attacked almost as much as Anaconda, but have just come to expect it.
Our show was in what they are using for their MWR building – another Palace. The Red Cross is housed in there along with the internet café, a movie theatre, a massage parlor, barber shop, mini-mall, indoor pool, etc., etc. We all discussed the fact that we would never have dreamed that we would be performing a show in a room where Saddam’s sons had lived. It is so freaky.
The show was awesome. Probably about 200 soldiers and they had a blast. Danni and Chalee always get soldiers up on stage to sing along and that’s the highlight of the performance for the troops. We did get my Alabama boys up and guess what they sang? “Sweet Home Alabama” of course! They signed autographs for a couple of hours after the show and then we had “dinner”. I did an interview with the local newspaper for the Camp and chatted with a local contractor about life outside the camp. He spends a lot of time with the locals and said that only a very small percentage of the locals are causing the problems. Overall, they love us and appreciate what we are doing for their country. He said that Saddam did not want the country to have a communication system so it was impossible for the locals to make telephone calls to each other. One man was working an hour and a half away from where he lived. If he tried to call his family, it took him a minimum of 3 hours to get a line out. He said it was faster to just drive home than to try and call them.
I checked my email and had a message from a soldier I’ve been communicating with in Iraq. He and his platoon are stationed at the Baghdad Airport and are due to go home next week. His email said that they got hit on the 4th of July and the rocket landed less than 100 meters from him. He was okay but two of his buddies got hit with shrapnel….one in the legs and one in the spine. Hopefully the one hit in the spine won’t be paralyzed. Sure brings it close to home when this happens to someone you know and love. Everyone say an extra little prayer that they depart safely next week.
Got back from the show and went to take my shower in the HUGE bathroom. Just as I started getting undressed, the electricity went out (happens a lot here). I have never been in a room so totally BLACK….not a ray of light. It totally freaked me out that I was in Saddam’s sons’ palace in total darkness! I felt my way to the door and managed to get it open. Someone found a lighter and we were able to locate our little flashlights. Usually the power comes back on in a few minutes, but as I sit here typing this, it has been out for more than an hour. Danni and Chalee are making finger puppets on the ceiling! It’s hotter than blue blazes. The high today was 127 degrees and we’re getting punchy – “call down to the front desk and see if we can get us another palace please. This one isn’t acceptable!” I just can’t tell you how strange it is to walk on floors, sit in chairs, touch handles, that we know Saddam touched as well. He is “memorialized” everywhere – has his name etched into the carvings on the walls. Evidently there was a huge statue of him outside one of the palaces at one time. Now there is a statue of an American soldier in it’s place! But, remember how I told you everything was “cheap and gawdy”? Well, Chalee’s bed fell apart! That really topped off the evening…..
Power FINALLY came back on. I got in the shower and, of course, it went off again. But, this time I was ready. Had my flashlight right beside me. Before I could get it turned on, the power came back on. Even though I didn’t need to, I shaved my legs because there was so much SPACE. And, I know we’re in tents tomorrow night, so we’ll be using latrines with little shower stalls.
Tomorrow at 6 am, we fly to Camp Sumerall, so no sleep again tonight. Our show tomorrow is outside and must be held before the sun goes down (no lights!). That means it’s going to be about 120 degrees while they are on stage. Fun!
Road Kill – Day 8 – July 7th
A full 2 hours of sleep. Exercise is a thing of the past. Few pushups, situps, stretches and that’s about it. I feel tired most of the day because I can’t exercise first thing every morning. Maybe when we get back to Kuwait I can get in a good run.
Of course the choppers were not there when we were told so we went to the DFAC for breakfast. Had the same chopper pilots that we had yesterday. I told them to go ahead and “give us a ride” so the others could experience it. They flew us over the palaces so we could get a good look then dropped us out of the sky a few times. But, it wasstill very tame. Tomorrow I have to make sure they really get the roller coaster ride.
I thought that since I’ve seen the Summer Palace, the Presidential Palace and now Saddam’s sons’ palace that I had seen most of them. But, one of the soldiers said that Saddam had 79 palaces throughout Iraq. The greed is just overwhelming.
We landed and were taken to an air conditioned building inside a hanger. That’s where our guys will sleep on cots. The show will take place on a stage built right inside the hanger door and the soldiers will all be outside. They drove the girls over to another building where we have one air conditioned room and some bunk beds. Showers and port-a-potties are outside. Each of us had a teddy bear on our bed – compliments of our Colonel!
We were given a “brief” by the Colonel. This is the first time we have had anything like this during our visit and it was awesome. He had a slide presentation that told all about the base and what they do and then he showed a video that they had put together. The video had the soldiers in it and showed them out in the towns with the kids and locals and also showed the 3 soldiers who were killed from this unit just a few weeks ago. The soldiers from this camp work closely with the locals and they are also a part of Operation “I Can” and deliver toys and school supplies to the kids. They are also training an Iraqi Police Unit. The Unit was in the hangar and started waving and smiling at us. They are really doing some great work here. They did say that a lot of the progress they had made with the older Iraqis suffered a setback when Saddam appeared on tv last week. After seeing him, they are scared that he will somehow escape and come back into power.
This Camp just got a new dining facility 2 days ago. When we went in to eat, a large civilian told us were not allowed to come in with our upper arms exposed! Danni and I had on sleeveless tops. They did the same thing to Chalee yesterday but waived the rules once they found out we were there to entertain. This guy would not budge. I had a SFS t-shirt and gave this to Danni and I took Brian’s shirt off him because he had on a t-shirt underneath. We sat with the guys to eat and then went around to the different tables to introduce ourselves and chat with the others. I met the Special Forces Green Beret Unit from Ft. Campbell! Awesome guys.
Went to the Internet Café and it is NOT air conditioned. It had to be about 150 degrees inside the tent. The internet moved so slow and I’m surprised the heat doesn’t destroy the computers.
Back to the “room” to rest before the show. They set the show up in a hangar but instead of letting the audience come inside, they put them outside. With the little speaker system we have, all the sound went back into the hangar and no one could hear out front. We finally got it working pretty good and the show was their best ever. The “Councilman” from the city by this camp was there (city sounds like Beijing but it’s not. Have to get the correct spelling). It was pretty neat to have a local Iraqi dignitary in the audience. Got photos made with him and his bodyguards. It’s always a great show when the troops haven’t had ANY entertainment at all. Danni and Chalee brought up lots of different guys to sing and dance with them. The grand finale was with the two base commanders and some of the other higher ranking soldiers with them all singing “Proud Mary”.
Went to midnight dinner and our “bouncer” was waiting there for us. This time we were ready for him with our shirts! We had to take showers but when we turned on the lights to the shower room, there were roaches all over the floor. Danni HATES bugs. They cleared out when the light was turned on, but trust me, we took a shower in record time. Now it’s almost 3 am and we must have bags out by 8 pm. Goodnight all.
ROAD KILL – DAY 9 – JULY 8TH
Choppering to Camp Victory today. Helicopters arrived on time but our buddies who flew us the last two days were not our pilots. New crew but very nice. Carl said that they were going to give the girls a “ride”. We took off for the 1 hour flight but then we landed 10 minutes later…Fuel stop! We were flying with the doors open this time and it was so windy, you had to hang on to everything. My hair turned upside down. Don’t know why we go to the trouble to fix our hair or shower because we sweat so much. The pilots did drop us out of the sky a couple of times and the gunners fired off a couple of rounds but all in all, it was very tame! Every chopper ride we have taken, we are only about 40 feet off the ground, so we can see the people on the ground very well. Everyone – adults and children – wave to us and we wave back to them.
We have great escorts (again) in Baghdad. We arrived and were immediately taken to our quarters. It’s ANOTHER of Saddam’s palaces. The girls and I have one room and the boys are in another. It is so magnificent and of course, gawdy as hell! We went to the DFAC to eat with the soldiers and I met up with Billy Maloney – the soldier that I met last year who has been emailing and calling me every day. He and his company were extended past their original departure time and he has been trying to lift the morale of his fellow soldiers. He’s a real sweetheart. He and a couple of his buddies ate lunch with us then they had to go back to BIAP but are coming back for the concert.
Went shopping at a little Bazaar on base but the only thing I purchased was a card with some Saddam stamps, money and medals on them. The local Iraqis LOVE us girls and give us great deals. Went into the main Exchange and Chalee was talking to someone. She asked me if I remember him. It was the really LAME escort we had last December who dropped the ball when we were at BIAP. Because of him, we were stranded at the terminal from 8 pm until 1 am and then had to stay overnight. Oh yeah, I remember him! I reported him after our little trip and he is no longer escorting tours. Can’t believe he’s the first person we ran into.
I took Chalee over to the Summer Palace that we visited this past December when I was here. The others wanted to rest, so the 2 of us went with our escorts. There was a group of Japanese soldiers in the main entrance and I went up and spoke my 12 phrases of Japanese with them. Then I gave them my business card in Japanese and they really got excited. They have heard of Country Gold and Charlie Nagatani! We had our photos made with them. Then I was upstairs and a man walked up to me and asked if I was Judy Seale. He is a Chaplin that wrote an incredible email about the prison abuse and situation in Iraq. It was one of those “chain” emails that found it’s way around the world. I responded to him a couple of weeks ago and told him I would be in Baghdad. I had asked him to come to the show so I could meet him. Good thing he ran into me in the Palace as he had to work during our show. Such a sweetheart.
My dear friend who is a 2 Star General is here in the Green Zone and promised to come to Camp Victory for our show. Although it’s only about 15 miles, it takes about 45 minutes to get here. And, it’s a very dangerous part of Baghdad. He was in an armored humvee but it was an older one that they had just received. It broke down in the very worst part of the city. He was able to get into the vehicle following them but it was not armored. He did make it to the show though.
The show was held outside if you can believe it. It was at least 120 degrees when the show began. In spite of the heat, we still had several hundred soldiers attend. The helicopter pilot who SAVED us from the LAME escort (mentioned above) is still here and he came to our show. It was so great to see him again. He’s in the same Unit as Billy and is finally going home next week. He lives about an hour from me in Tennesse..
Chalee and Danni got the soldiers involved again by having them come up on stage and sing. The Commanders were in the audience and loved the fact that the soldiers were having so much fun. The little female soldier who works at the PVC Quarters where we are staying got up and sang and she has an amazing voice. Again, they signed autographs for more than an hour. I was able to talk to the General (Steve) during a lot of the show which was great. I love hearing about what is really happening in Iraq – not what you see in the media.
I was in the lobby of the palace today and met the Colonel who is over at Abu Grabi prison. He said he has 1500 soldiers over there and they never get any entertainment. He has begged AFE and USO to send them someone. I told him if we had known, we would have come over this afternoon. Our escort started trying to get it cleared for us to go over tomorrow because we found out that we won’t fly to Kuwait until 5 pm. One of the artists was a little nervous about going over, but we weren’t able to get clearance on such short notice anyway. My friend, the General, also made some calls but doesn’t look like it will happen.
This palace has it’s own dining facility AND a couple of washers and dryers! Add that to my internet connection in my room and I’m in heaven.
After the show, we all went to the dining hall to eat since we do not eat dinner before the shows. Obviously, we get a lot of stares because it’s three females in civilian clothes and Chalee and Danni are very “eye-catching”. I was watching the soldiers expressions when we walked out and saw the same look as always when they first see the girls. Then the 2 Star walks by and steals ALL our thunder! Upstaged by a General.
Came back to billeting and went outside on the patio which is on Saddam’s man-made lake to sit and talk. Steve, Chalee, Danni, Carl and I all sat around for quite a while. Steve made 2 Star this year and had a couple of Cuban cigars that he had not smoked. He and Chalee shared those and a couple of alcohol-free beers. As we were sitting there, we noticed that BATS were flying all around us. They would swoop down and buzz our heads. Scared me and Danni to death. Chalee and Steve are just sitting there puffing and chatting and Danni and I had our shoes off swatting at bats, ducking, and screaming. Then a couple of huge explosions went off somewhere close by and it freaked everyone out except Steve. He just reached over and touched my arm and told me to calm down that it was a long way off. The soldiers here actually get accustomed to the blasts. I don’t know if I ever would. I did get to talk to Steve a lot about the conditions in Iraq and how the locals really feel about us and what they want from us. Steve works closely with their government and I love hearing him talk about what he does. He arrived here last December only one week before we were here on tour and will be here for 14 months. I asked about the furniture in the palaces, what would happen with all the elaborate palaces after we vacate them, how the Iraqis are being paid, etc., etc., etc. I find it all so fascinating.
Called it a night about 1 am but the “girls” are all in one room, so we came back to chat. We were trying to find something we could take as a “souvenir” from the Palace. At one point Chalee was on the top bunk trying to get some of the ornaments off the curtain rod. I had to answer email, so I was up until 3:00 am. Going to meet Steve for breakfast at 7:30 am before he has to go to his first meeting. I want to share the email I received from the Colonel at the base where we performed yesterday (Camp Summerall).
name: LTC Kyle M. McClelland
rankoccupation: LTC/Task Force 1-7 Commander
Judes, I just wanted to say “thank you” again for the “Stars for Stripes” visit to Forward Operating Base Summerall in Bayji, Iraq. Your visit was truly a pleasure for us all and the selfless sacrifices that you and the team make to show your appreciation for deployed troops is inspirational. The musical talents and genuine sincerity of Chalee, Danni, Michael, Mike, Adam, Brian, Carl and you made our day!!
ROAD KILL – DAY 10 – JULY 9TH:
3 hours of sleep again. Got up and met Steve for coffee before he left. A huge blast went off that shook the windows of the palace. That one HAD to be close. Worked out in my room again since it’s too hot to run and I don’t know how far away the gym is. Saw the Colonel again who wanted us to go to the prison and told him we had not been able to secure an escort. Then I got a phone call that our trip had been approved. But, it was too late for us to go at that point!
We left billeting at 1 pm and went to sign some autographs for 1st Cav. Boys got to play on a tank for a few minutes and then we headed to the terminal. Our flight was due to arrive on time, so we settled down for a 2 hour wait. My friend from 1st AD came over and gave everyone some certificates and patches. He also included flags for Danni, Chalee, and me. The flags were flown over Baghdad by the 1st Cav at various times and we received certificates giving us the exact dates and details. VERY touching. Last night, Russ (my friend) ripped his patch off his sleeve and gave it to me. It was sewn on and he had worn it the entire 15 months he’s been fighting the war in Iraq. How in the world would I ever be able to “match” a gift of that magnitude.
We flew on a C130 again but our flight crew was from Michigan. All nice guys and we had about a dozen soldiers from Australia on the flight with us. They were heading HOME. For once, I let someone else sit on the flight deck for take-off. Big mistake! We finally got that “drop you out of the sky, dodge and weave” flight everyone had wanted in the helicopter. They had to do it because a soldier was shot in a C130 several weeks ago as it was taking off from Baghdad.
Landed right on time in Kuwait and our escorts were waiting for us. I treated everyone to a fabulous buffet meal at the hotel. I’m going to iron for about 2 hours and then get some sleep. At least I’ll be able to work out tomorrow because the hotel has a great gym AND we don’t depart until 1 pm for Djibouti!
I can’t believe we only have 2 more shows to perform! The time in Iraq flew by too quickly and now the depression of leaving begins. While I’m there, nothing else matters. It is so humbling to have soldiers thank us for performing when they are the ones making the ultimate sacrifices to keep America free. What we do seems so inadequate compared to their service. Visiting with them is one of my greatest joys in life. Getting back into the swing of “real business” in Nashville is not going to be easy or very much fun!
ROAD KILL – DAY 11 – JULY 10TH
I type the date and it makes me cry. (I’m sure it’s hormonal!) It’s just so hard to believe that our 14 days are going to be over so soon. We didn’t cover nearly enough camps within Iraq and I know I won’t be back until September.
I did get 6 hours of sleep and a 2 hour workout in the gym this morning. Had to do my 5 miles and use all the machines to work every body part. The little workouts in the room every morning just don’t do it for me.
The last “palace” had a washer and dryer, so we were able to do laundry. I had the hotel bring me an iron and ironing board to my room (my favorite thing to do – NOT!). The iron weighed about 20 pounds and even on the highest setting, I could still place my hand on it and not get burned. Of course, “steam” was not an option. I’ve heard the wrinkled look is in.
I wish I could put into words what we see and learn while we’re here. Yesterday I took a photo of a thermometer that was hanging outside a building we were going in to sign autographs. It was 1 pm and the thermometer was in the shade. It only went up to 120 degrees. The needle was past the 120 degree mark and as far back around as it could go. The soldiers wear t-shirts, long-sleeve shirts and pants and then add their helmets and flak vests, weapons, water, etc., etc. The flak vests we were issued are for protection again shrapnel only. They do not have the bullet-proof plates that the soldiers have. Ours are SO heavy until you pick up one of the soldiers. One soldier let me try his on but he warned me before he removed his hands. I braced myself but I still felt my knees start to buckle under the weight. Then, let’s add a nice “breeze” into the factor. It feels like taking a hair dryer, holding it as close to you face as possible, turning it on high heat and holding it there. And, they do this every day – some of them for 14-18 months at a time. Then there’s the sand to contend with, the fact that they do not have one moment of privacy because they live together in tents, shower in long buildings filled with multiple stalls and use port-a-lets for their toilets. The dining halls are nice and there are two things that we noticed – there’s LOTS of food and everything is bland and tastes the same. You can’t tell chicken from turkey. Everyone covers their food with Tabasco just so it has some taste. The one question that I have been asked the most is, “what is the name of the perfume you are wearing? It’s been so long since we smelled perfume!” The way I’ve been sweating, I can’t believe I smell like anything other than perspiration! Every morning when I shower, I find a new “bruise”. No idea where I’m getting them.
Steve commented that every day is “Ground Hog Day” (like the movie). It’s so true. But, not one soldier complained about their plight. Yes, they miss their loved ones back home and yes, they are ready to go back to the USA. But, they are all so proud of what they are doing and believe they are making a difference in the lives of the Iraqis. They also believe they are making a better world for their children, families, and the people. Remember, a huge percentage of the soldiers are reservists – they are your next door neighbors living in a $200,000 home with a great job back in the U.S., yet they are willing to come over here to serve their country in these conditions.
Saddam was like Hitler. Germany was not enough for Hitler. Iraq would not have been enough for Saddam. We saw the dirt huts that the locals live in during our helicopter rides. And the squalor that they live in right outside the palace gates. Think about it – this is a man who needed 79 palaces and must have his photo, statues, initials carved in everything and he terrorized and killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Yes, the Iraqis want us here and they appreciate what we have done. Yes, they want us to train them how to live as a “free” nation because they have NEVER had this opportunity and want to do it right. Yes, they want us to leave (as we do!) once they are able to stand on their own. Anyone – Republican or Democrat or Independent or whatever! – who thinks this was only about weapons of mass destruction, needs to come over here and spend a couple of weeks with the soldiers and the locals. Listening to the soldiers talk about the caches of weapons they have found and the bombers they found buried in the sand in the desert, convinces me that we will eventually find the WMD. But, that is such a minor detail in Saddam’s overall reign of terror.
And those of you sitting there reading this report, it has to be like reading a book or watching a movie. You can’t really relate to what’s happening here. I know that I would not be able to had I not experienced it first hand. My conversations and personal observation is that the majority of the soldiers even in the remotest camps now have most of the “amenities” they need which include meals in a dining facility, hot and cold running water, heated and air-conditioned tents, an MWR building to watch movies, play games, etc., a great gym to work out in, a base exchange with a good supply of items, and some even have a Subway or Burger King. Hopefully, the portalets will be replaced with latrines very soon. There was no lack of toilet paper or hand sanitizer this trip. I know that many of you want to send “Care” packages, but the places I visited said they are no longer necessary. They all do still need to know that you care about them and pray for them daily. Some were interested in receiving items that they could deliver to the locals – especially the children. It’s HARD to see a child going without basic necessities that our children have in the U.S. And, across the board, they all want more “celebrity” entertainment. They need that little “break” where they can interact with citizens, see someone in clothing other than BDU’s, and have a chance to talk to us, tell us about their life here, show us photos of their loved ones, and get a hug from us. If Stars for Stripes had the funding, I would bring a celebrity over every week just to show our appreciation. Why don’t you take time to send an email to your address book and ask them to go on the www.starsforstripes.com site and make a $10 donation. If everyone reading this report did this, we would raise enough to bring another group over. You’re right – a $10 donation from you isn’t a big deal but if YOU will take the time to ask your friends to send the same amount, it makes a huge difference. If you’re getting this Road Kill Report, I know you have $10 you can donate and I KNOW you have several hundred “friends and associates” who can do the same! Remember, NO ONE gets paid to do these tours. All the funds go to cover the travel expenses of the tours. I’m no good at begging for money for myself, but this is for our troops deployed overseas. Okay, enough evangelizing.
Yesterday, we were in the DV lounge at BIAP waiting for our C130 to arrive. They had 4 weapons on their wall – one was an RPG launcher and I could believe that such a small “gun” could something that could cause such a deadly blast. But, there was one knife on the wall. Get this – Geraldo brought it in with him and they had to confiscate it. Can you imagine. I can just see him running around like the crazed man he is swinging the knife!
Going to go ahead and send this “half of a road report” because I probably won’t be able to hook up my computer in Djibouti or Qatar. Next road report will probably be sent to you from the USA!
REST OF DAY 11 – JULY 10TH
No problems getting OUT of Kuwait. Our C-130 crew is out of Ohio but flying an airplane from Nevada. Really great guys and they are going to be our “personal escorts” while we are in Djibouti and then fly us to Qatar on July 12th. Good thing since I haven’t been able to get our contact in Djibouti to answer one single email from me! Take off was very calm and I’m sitting on the flight deck for landing because I want to see Djibouti from the air!
Been writing my “thank you” emails to pass the time. It’s supposed to be a 6 hour flight but they got permission to fly over Yemen so it should only be a 4 hour flight. BUT, we have to drink lots of water and there is no female restroom! Should be an interesting flight. We may be cutting the tops off the water bottles before we land!
I went up on the flight deck for landing but couldn’t really see anything except with the night vision goggles. Our flight crew are just “dolls” and they are staying in Djibouti with us and flying us to Qatar on Monday.
Landed at 9 pm and were met by our MWR escort. We are staying in tents – girls with female soldiers and guys with male soldiers. The tents are very nice – have little curtained off areas with individual lights and bunks. Met the other girls staying in our tent and they are all sweethearts. One is an anesthesiologist for the Navy from Jacksonville, FL. She left a husband, 3 year old and 1 year old back home! There is one latrine with just toilets – that FLUSH and then a shower trailer. Both are spotlessly clean and our tent is only a short walk to each. This place is much nicer than some of the conditions I have stayed at in Bosnia and Iraq.
We all went down to the Cantina after getting my “lecture” on not over-indulging on the alcohol since they haven’t had a drink in 10 days. There is a 3 drink limit here but doesn’t appear to be any way to enforce it. Show will be there tomorrow night at 8 pm – outside and hotter than #*$)@! When we walked in, I touched one of the soldiers sitting at a table with his buddies on the shoulder and said hello. As I passed him, I heard him say, “Did you see that? She TOUCHED ME!”. So, we went back and gave all of them a hug.
Everyone is extremely nice at this Camp. It is Camp Lemonaire and it is a Marine Camp but there are people here from all branches of the service. Both of our drivers are employed by KBR – Dragon and Slachon – are from Macedonia. Freaked them out when I told them I’ve been to Macedonia twice. The girl working in billeting is from Pecs, Hungary where I’ve been many times as well. She said she has never met anyone over here who has even heard of Pecs, much less visited there. It’s a beautiful little city. A lot of people on the base are employed by KBR.
Maybe it’s because of the alcohol (no alcohol allowed in Kuwait or Iraq!), but the guys are a bit more aggressive here. Not rude or out-of-line or disrepectful, just bolder. At the other Camps, they have been almost “shy” until we approach them. Every time I would walk over to a table at the dining hall to sit with them, the guys would all look like deer caught in the headlights. Here they call us over! I set Chalee up with a game of dominos and a guy at the other table who had obviously had more than his three beer limit, patted his lap and told her to come on over. She declined with the excuse that she was playing dominos. He called her a “communist”! Not sure where that came from…
We had to wait until 11:30 pm for the DFAC to open back up. My group and the flight guys all walked down to eat and the food looked pretty “rough”. I noticed a long line on the opposite side of the room and went over to check it out. They were making omelets! You can guess what I had for dinner. Met another KBR employee from Macedonia while I was standing in line. Talked to him about why he was working here and what kind of salary he was paid. When I was in Macedonia a few years ago, a local met us at the airport and whisked us through Customs. He came back when we departed and got us through painlessly again. He spoke EIGHT languages fluently. I tipped him $100 and he started crying. Said that was more money than he makes in a month in Macedonia! Found me a table of cute soldiers to harass during the meal.
In the middle of the night, I got a cramp in my foot and had to leap out of bed and run around the tent for several minutes. Thankfully, no one else woke up. Then Danni dropped her metal flashlight on the plywood floor and I thought it was a gunshot! I was thinking we were supposed to be out of the area where we were being attacked. So glad we don’t have to wear flak vests and helmets here.
DAY 12 – JULY 11TH
Up at 6 am to work out. Really great gym right across from our tent. Every time I walk outside, my sunglasses fog over. You would not believe the heat and humidity. This place makes Iraq seem COOL. It will be 140 degrees today with 100% humidity.
My group and our little flight boys loaded up in a bus to go into town to “shop”. We passes these horrible little “huts” on the way in where the locals live. I think it’s worse than what I saw in Haiti. We had to go to the “bag lady” first to exchange our U.S. Dollars for Djibouti Francs. Then we shopped as a “group” with Melvin (our MWR escort) as our bargaining agent. He told us we absolutely could not give any of the little kids that followed us anything. If you give them money, they take it back to their parents so that the parents can buy this drug called “Kart” or something like that. There’s little umbrellas set up where people sell it. It’s a green leaf and it’s a stimulant. Keeps you alert for 8 hours. Sounded pretty good to me until I heard the side effects! My hair and clothes were soaked with sweat within 5 minutes of leaving the vehicle. Made for pretty miserable shopping. The little kids followed us everywhere, grabbing us and begging for money. Lots of ladies carrying babies also were begging. One cute little girl kept shaking my hand and I looked down to discover that she had my diamond ring halfway off my finger before I could get may hand away from her! Then she snatched my bottle of water without me knowing it.
We bought sandstone plates and bowls, serapes, carved elephants, monkeys, and masks – all from Kenya instead of Djibouti. Finished shopping pretty quickly because of the heat and headed down to the beach just to sightsee. Had to get back to base before the DFAC closed at 1:30 pm because no one had eaten breakfast and we were scared of the restaurants in town. Everything is extremely dirty and there is trash and junk all alongside the roads. We were supposed to go visit an orphanage today but learned that it is closed on Sundays.
After lunch I went down to check email because Jerry (the other MWR rep) had told me last night that I couldn’t access AOL from the base computers. Wrong! I had over 40 emails to answer and this is a weekend. Then went shopping at the base exchange for t-shirts and other goodies that say “Operation Enduring Freedom”. That’s what the operation for Afghanistan and the other “Stans” and Djibouti is titled. Found the MWR tent near our tent and they have great flavored coffee. Trying to get my road kill report typed up now since I have a couple of hours before show time. Not sure it will even be worth it to take a shower before the show since I’ll be sweaty again as soon as we go outside!
The troops stationed here just can’t believe we are here. The last “celebrity” entertainment they had was Robin Williams for a handshake visit last December. They have had some little “local” bands from the Department of Defense but nothing of this magnitude. And, it seems like most of the troops prefer country music. Should be a great show.
In talking with the troops stationed here, it seems that most of them don’t have very busy days. They are here for “force protection” and they also refer to everyday as groundhog day. I sat with one group of reservists from Nevada who do actually go out every day on “humanitarian efforts”. It was good to learn from them that they feel like we are accomplishing a lot of good things in this area. They travel to several countries besides Djibouti and help the locals. I love talking with the troops and hearing about why we’re here and what we are accomplishing. It’s fascinating because it’s definitely not anything we’ll ever see in the media.
We had a huge crowd for the show at the Cantina. Everything started on time and no problems with “power” this time. Several guys on the base had told me to have the girls call up on particular marine because he was supposedly an excellent vocalist. They called him up and then couldn’t get him off the stage. Instead of singing one song, he sang 3 songs. The last song was one that he had re-written the words to and he used very vulgar language. That didn’t go over well with any of our group. For the finale, they called several guys up on stage including one of our flight crew. After the show, the flight crew came up to me and said that when they heard they had to fly a group to Djibouti, they wondered why they were having such bad luck. Then they said that this trip with us was the absolute highlight of their 2 year reservist activation period. Exactly what we want to hear from all the troops we “touch” on this visit.
It was difficult signing autographs because the soldiers who had cheated on their 3 beer limit kept coming back again and again for more photos and autographs. We were on a time limit because the dining hall was only open for 1 hour and no one had eaten since lunch time. We had also promised to go to all the outposts and visit with the soldiers who were on duty and didn’t get to attend the show. I finally had to “bounce” several guys who were “repeaters” so that everyone in line could get an autograph.
We had a very quick meal – I’ve now eaten nothing but omelets and fruit for 2 days… Then the girls went to sign the autographs at the guard posts. It was almost 2 am before we finished and got back to the tent. Not going to have time to work out tomorrow because we have a 9 am bag call.
DAY 13 – JULY 12TH
Would have been able to sleep until 7 am but the wind kicked up and it sounded like the tent was going to blow over. At first I thought it was a thunderstorm but when I looked out, it was just the wind and dust blowing everywhere. Someone told us that Djibouti is CONSISTENTLY the hottest place on earth. In January, it cools down to 90 degrees! I was going to run the 5 mile trail with a female soldier and am glad now that I didn’t have time. I found out there are packs of wild dogs and hyenas out on the trail!
Wasn’t sure we would be able to take off in such strong wind but the flight crew assured us that it would be fine. I didn’t take any chances and sat up on the flight deck for takeoff. It really was smooth but you couldn’t see anything on the ground because of the dust.
Headed to Qatar today which is where Central Command is located. I was there briefly last year with Chely Wright and the huge USO/Vanity Fair tour. We were originally scheduled to depart Djibouti at 4 pm in the afternoon but our flight crew was able to get us an earlier departure. We had seen and done everything possible on that base and I wanted everyone to have a little time to tour in Qatar. We don’t have a show tonight since we never schedule shows on travel days. Tomorrow night – our last night of the tour – we will perform, shower and head straight to the airport for the flight back to the U.S. Very sad!
Bathroom is still “broken” on this plane and it’s a 4 hour flight. Of course, all the girls need to “go” simply because there are no facilities. It was a miserable flight for us. I couldn’t drink any water at all.
Arrived in Qatar and our escort wasn’t there to meet us. The flight center had told him we wouldn’t arrive before 4 pm. Took about an hour to locate him and the bus and truck. Qatar is a really nice base because this is the headquarters for CENTCOM in the AOR. The base is actually divided into two sections – Ops Town and the Coalition Compound. But, a tent in Ops Town caught on fire a few days ago and it spread to all the other tents. No one was hurt but they lost all their belongings. Supposedly, it was an electrical fire. The people at this base are predominately troops who are on R&R for a few days from one of the hardship areas (Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.) or it is troops coming into the country or going out of the country. They come to Qatar for a couple of days and then go on to Iraq or wherever for their permanent camp. They also stop through here en route to going back home to the states. It is the largest and best equipped base we have stayed at this tour. They are building a huge swimming pool and in addition to a really nice dining facility, there are two coffee shops, a Subway Sandwich Shop, Pizza Hut and Burger King. The troops here really have it nice if only for a few days.
We will be performing in this huge outdoor, covered area called the Plaza. Since we have to perform at 6 pm so that we can depart for the airport by 11 pm, it’s going to be HOT. Today it was 115 degrees here. The humidity is halfway between Iraq and Djibouti. 0% humidity in Iraq and 100% humidity in Djibouti.
It was sad to say goodbye to our flight crew this afternoon. Lifelong friendships are forged very quickly due to our circumstances on these tours. I’m sure I will stay in touch with a lot of the guys via email for the rest of my life. They want me to request them to fly Chely around when she’s here in September.
We tried to get our escort to get permission to take us into town tonight but the Commander wouldn’t approve it. I went over to his office to check my email only to learn that I can’t check email from here. The nicest and most well-equipped base I’ve seen and I can’t check email. AOL, Yahoo, Microsoft – everything is blocked. The only email that works is for official military addresses. I will be in a straight jacket by the time we depart tomorrow evening. But, my cell phone does work for $4.99 per minute!
After eating at the dining facility (I sat with a group of guys who are deploying to Mosul tomorrow), Chalee and I walked around the base and went in just about every building there is – the exchange, a gift shop, a café, the gym, coffee shop, night club, etc., etc. Alcohol is allowed on base but there is a 3 beer limit. This base monitors it and everyone is assigned a “card” to purchase the alcohol.
We are all housed in these long trailers and everyone has their own room. The latrines are located several hundred feet from the trailers. About 5 minutes after I got back in my room and was trying to “repack”, there was a loud knock on my door. Half a dozen guys were standing at my door asking if I called is a fire alarm. They said that someone called in and said that the fire alarm was going off in the room next door. The room next door is Danni’s room and they had opened her door and were standing inside her room. She was not there at the time and I’m sure had no idea this was taking place.
DAY 14 – JULY 13TH:
First day that I’ve gotten up and NOT seen the sun! It was still overcast at 6 am so I thought it might be cool enough to run outside. Made it for 30 minutes in the heat and then hit the treadmill in the gym for 30 minutes. The showers here are so much nicer than the other bases. They have a little dressing area behind a curtain and then a shower stall with a glass DOOR on the actual shower. Such luxury. J
Were supposed to take a “base tour” but since the base is so small, we had already seen everything last night. Went to DFAC for lunch and I sat with a group of Air Force guys from North Carolina. One guy was from Alaska originally. Before he was deployed to Qatar, he was in school and he was studying Saddam. He’s definitely knowledgeable about Saddam and his reign of terror and said we should not have waited as long as we did to take him out of power.
When you walk outside, the glare is so bad you have to squint! Everything is white or shades of light brown. They have put gravel down over the sand and it’s white. There are sidewalks and they are white. All the buildings are white or off white. The only “color” that I’ve seen is the main road that goes through the area. I have several different tan lines on my arms and legs now.
It cooled off a little bit before the show and the sound was great because of the “cover” . There weren’t a lot of soldiers there at first but when the music started, the entire place filled up. I wasn’t sure how many would attend since it is such a transient crowd. Had to keep the show to 90 minutes so we could sign autographs afterwards for 90 minutes. As it was, we had to RUSH to grab a shower and make it to the airport. It was really sad for the tour to be ending. Going to be hard to go back to everyday “routine” in Nashville.
The airport was a nightmare. We had 15 pieces of checked luggage plus our sound equipment. The skycaps grabbed it and started throwing it on little carts and running off with it. They were throwing the large speakers on top of personal bags, so I’m sure everything we own is broken. Somehow during all the confusion, I lost my cell phone! I went back outside and checked with the information counter but nothing. Hopefully no one has figured out how to use it because is costs $4.99 per minute over there.
Made it to the gate just in time to board the flight on Qatar Airlines to Frankfurt – a 7-hour flight. It was a really nice airline – code shares with Lufthansa/United. The seats were really strange and uncomfortable but that didn’t seem to bother any of us since we slept all the way. Four of us had a very short layover in Frankfurt and the other 4 had about a 4-hour layover. I went into the United Lounge and got a phone call off to Nashville and leave a message for cancel my cell phone service. While I was making the call, there was an announcement for me to come to the desk. They upgraded me to First Class. When I got to the gate, they had upgraded the other 2 business class passengers to First and the coach passenger to business! Don’t know if it was because I told them we had been over performing for our troops or if it was just the fact that the flight was so full. It was a really nice “perk” for the end of the tour though. The seats in first class reclined fully….just like lying in a bed. If I could travel like that all the time, the international trips would be a breeze!
We were on a tiny little 50-passenger jet from Chicago to Nashville. I really didn’t think the sound equipment would make it on the flight because there were 10 huge pieces, each weighing about 70 pounds. I assumed they would hold these over and put them on a larger plane. But, when we landed, all the equipment and luggage arrived with us!
It was a great tour. Already depressing to be back to “normal” everyday routine.