The first “official” Stars for Stripes tour on December 21st-January 3rd in Iraq and Kuwait was a resounding success both for our troops and the celebrity entertainers. Warner Brothers recording artist Jolie Edwards and Broken Bow recording artist Craig Morgan performed acoustically in remote sites throughout Iraq and Kuwait where the soldiers definitely needed a boost in morale. The holidays are an especially difficult time for the troops who are deployed in foreign countries and unable to be with their families and friends during the holiday season. Craig and Jolie, both of whom have small children of their own, deserve special thanks for giving up their holidays with their families to bring some much needed Christmas cheer and entertainment to our troops.
Today we depart to Kuwait and Iraq. “We” being Jolie Edwards and two musicians (Storm and Jimmy), Craig Morgan and his manager (Faith), one musician (Mike), and a sound guy (Brian. I depart out of Nashville with Craig’s group and we meet Jolie’s group in Memphis.
Arrived at the airport with my 5 huge duffle bags full of photos and gifts for the troops. No problem checking in except that it took over an hour to process the excess charge waivers. Then when we headed to security, everyone but me had been “tagged” for extra security checks. The Northwest Agent should have put in the record that they were all flying on Government issued orders. They had to hold the airplane for us because the searches took so long.
Because the travel agency was given the wrong departure day, we had to take the only flights that were still available to get us all on the same plane. We had a 9-hour layover in Memphis! Craig’s manager took his two guys and manager to a hotel to rest and I took Jolie and her two musicians to visit St. Jude Children’s Hospital and then we went to Graceland. It was Jolie’s first visit to Graceland and she is a huge Elvis fan! And, of course the visit to St. Jude is so heart-warming.
We arrived back at the airport and went to the Northwest counter to get the “security check” alert taken off everyone’s boarding passes. Craig and his group met us at the gate. Craig had gone “shopping” because he forgot his video camera. He is supposed to be filming the entire trip for a special on the Outdoor Channel when we return.
Got on the plane and for once, business class was less than half full. We gave the pilots and crew gifts and schmoozed them into letting us bring our 4 guys in coach up to business. We sat at the gate for over an hour past our departure time. First because someone did not make the flight and his bag had to be removed. Then because a seal would not close and they had to replace it.
Landed in Amsterdam and our flight was not on the departure board. We learned that the departure time had been changed weeks ago and we were leaving an hour later than anticipated. Boarded the KLM plane for the 5 hour flight to Kuwait. Business Class was almost empty and we were downstairs. They let our group go upstairs and once again moved our guys up to business. There were lots of soldiers on the plane going back to Kuwait after their 15 day leaves. While we were flying, we learned that the security alert has been moved to Red. Before we landed, the flight attendants told us that we had promised to sing for them if they bumped our musicians up to business. So Jimmy got out his little guitar that looks like a mandolin and Jolie sang a Christmas carol for them. It was so awesome.
Landed in Kuwait and as we started to go through passport control, the pulled everyone aside except me. Seems I got a “number” on my work visa when I was here last year but everyone else had to have theirs processed. This took almost an hour! By the time we got to baggage claim, everyone had left and our bags were just sitting on the floor. Gathered everything up and went outside to meet our escorts. We have some great people taking care of us here – Marlene with Arcent and Frankie with the Army. Arrived at the Radisson and it is a beautiful hotel – located right on the beach and in the center of all the shopping.
Tomorrow we depart the hotel at 1 pm to go to a very remote sight that never gets any entertainment. We’ll do autographs and photos and take the guitars along just in case there’s an opportunity to perform.
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 23RD:
Our first stop today was SPOD. This is the seaport where EVERYTHING comes in and goes out. A very busy place. We went to the DFAC (that’s the dining hall for you civilians) and expected to sign autographs and take photos with a couple of thousand soldiers. But, as luck would have it, a ship came in right before we arrived and of course, everyone had to go down to the dock to unload. There were still several guys who were able to come in and since we had plenty of time on our hands, we broke out the guitars and the artists gave them a great little acoustic show.
From SPOD, we went to Camp Arifjan. This is the where the “transportation” division is deployed. It’s a HUGE camp and growing by the minute. Eventually this will be the largest base in Kuwait and will be a permanent facility. When we arrived at the camp and stopped at the guard checkpoint, one of the “local guards” got on the bus. He was smiling from ear to ear and said, “Saddam Hussein finished, finished” as he drew his hand across his throat. It was great. We made him do it several times so everyone could get it on video.
We ate dinner with the troops at the DFAC and met the commanding officers, a 3 star, Lt. General, Brigadier General and several other VIPs. The show was outside under a great canopy of camo netting. We had a packed house and both artists did a fantastic show. At the end of the set, they brought 12 guys up on stage to sing, “The 12 Days of Christmas”. We made them wear reindeer antlers, santa caps, etc. They loved it.
We have a 9 am lobby call and will do 2 handshake visits tomorrow to remote sites and a big show tomorrow night at APOD (airport side). Supposedly, we still depart for Iraq on Christmas Day but no one can tell me how or when or where we’ll be staying once we arrive. Also, sound equipment has still not been confirmed for Iraq. Never a dull moment.
Merry Christmas Eve!
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 24TH
Such a very full, wonderful Christmas Eve that I don’t even know where to begin.
We departed the hotel at 9 am for the bus ride to Navistar. This is a base about 2 hours from Kuwait City and they are also “transportation”. We were scheduled to sign autographs and take photos outside at the basketball court. But, it turned really COLD (yes, even in the desert!) and windy. So, we opted to set up in the dining facility and sing some songs for them and then sign autographs. It was so awesome. The troops at this base just don’t get entertainment and they were so excited. There were some troops there from Denmark as well. The artists took a group photo with them in front of their humvees.
We then drove about an hour to Camp Victory where we set up and sang for the troops in their MWR tent. Again, this is a camp that doesn’t see a lot of entertainers. It’s right on the border of Iraq. I can’t begin to explain how it makes us feel to have them come up and tell us that our visit “made their Christmas” for them. We just wish we could do so much more. On the bus ride up, we HAD to make a pit stop along the way. It was a “Kuwaiti” toilet – just a hole in the ground. I would have thought I was back in Japan except this one was definitely not clean like the Japanese toilets. Pretty scary!
Last stop was another hour ride to APOD. That’s the military airport. The show was outside and it was really, really cold. Jolie went on first and before she sang a complete verse, she saw her cousin (who is in the Coast Guard) in the audience. She completely lost it. It was such an amazing surprise for her since he’s based out of Bahrain.
After the show, I surprised our group by having “Santa” visit and deliver Christmas gifts to everyone. I took them all in a separate room and told them we had to have a special security briefing before our flight to Baghdad. Then, Frankie – who was assigned to “take care” of us in Kuwait – came in dressed in a Santa hat complete with beard (okay, I brought it with me from Nashville just for this purpose!) and surprised everyone. The base opened the dining facility for us so that we could eat before we had to go back to the hotel. Then, on the bus ride back to the hotel, another one of our escorts gave all of us gifts – beautiful little stuffed bears and camels. Everyone has been so wonderful to us and it’s sad to be leaving them tomorrow. Hopefully we’ll see them on our return on the 1st.
Supposedly, we will get to sing a little in the dining facility at Baghdad International Airport tomorrow and then travel to another camp for a show that evening. We will be in Iraq going from camp to camp – several a day – until the 1st. No more beautiful hotel rooms OR internet. It’s tents or “marble” housing until we return to Kuwait.
The bus rides were very interesting today. All I can say is there is NO WAY I’m going to fall asleep on one of them. BAD things happen to people who sleep on the bus.
I know I have left out so many important details that I wanted to share. It was such a “full” day that I just can’t remember everything. Merry Christmas everyone!
THURSDAY, CHRISTMAS DAY, DECEMBER 25TH
It’s amazing to me that I keep seeing people on this tour that I met years ago in Bosnia, Germany, Honduras, Korea – all around the world. Yesterday there was a soldier at one of the shows who came up to me and said he knew me. I recognized him immediately but couldn’t remember why. After chatting for a few minutes, we realized we met in Bosnia in the late 90’s and he actually got up on stage and “performed” with one of our artists. I have lots of photos of him wearing a “sombrero” and singing “La Bomba”! Then at the last base, I met two MWR directors that I had worked with throughout the years in Bosnia. I’m not that great with names but the faces usually look familiar. Most of the time the soldiers will say, “Oh no, I just have one of those faces”. Then we start talking and realize we met years ago at one of the shows. It’s such a great feeling to know that they ALWAYS remember the artists who give so selfishly of their time and talents to come entertain and say thank you to them. Sure makes it all worthwhile.
At our first big show, I had brought specialty flags from the U.S. and was going to get soldiers to sign them in the autograph line as they were getting autographs from the artists. I was only going to get a dozen or so signatures at each base but the soldiers were so excited to be signing for us. We filled 2 flags the first night!
We had to get up and leave for the airport at 8:30 am for a supposedly 11 am departure to Baghdad. Of course, our plane wasn’t there and we had to wait at the terminal for hours. So, we performed for the people in the terminal.
Finally got on the plane at least 2 hours later than anticipated which meant the choppers had been waiting for us in Baghdad for an hour. Our flight crew was from Ft. Worth and I went up and talked with them during the flight. I wanted to know what kind of landing we were going to make – drop like a rock out of the sky, spiral down, or drop to 600 feet and fly that way for 15 minutes. They assured me it was going to just be a normal landing because we were not under any “threat”. So, instead of staying up there and chatting with them, I went back to my seat. Big mistake. They dropped us out of the sky several times and at one point I thought we were going to be flying upside down. When I asked what happened afterward, they said they had received word that there was a possible threat.
When we landed in Baghdad, my friend who is a Brigadier General (and destined to be a 4 star) met us but our “welcoming committee” that was going to be treated to a show had already left to go back to their jobs. But, it was so great to see him. He was the “Wolf” at Kunsan AFB, Korea in 1999 when I first met him and we’ve managed to stay in touch although sporadically throughout the years. I’ve seen him once in Arizona, once in DC and now in Baghdad of all places!
We had to fly on Black Hawks to Champion Main near Ar Ramadi with the 82nd Airborne Headquarters. Jolie and I somehow ended up in a Black Hawk with just the 2 of us and the pilots and crew. We looked at each other and said, “they’re babies!”. There were two gunners – one on each side. I have to say that this was the most frightened I’ve ever been on a military tour. The threat of being shot down was very real. Then, the pilots decided to finish us off with their tricks. I’ve been dropped out of the sky numerous times in Korea but this was the worst I’ve ever experienced. Jolie and I held hands the entire flight and at one time “levitated”….our butts were off the seat for what seemed like minutes. We were on headsets and any time one of the pilots said something like, “bird” or “power lines”, we knew they were going to drop us or turn us very close to upside down. And, the entire flight which lasted about 30 minutes, we flew only FORTY FEET OFF THE GROUND. If we had not spent most of the flight with our eyes closed, the scenery would have been spectacular. There were locals on the ground, in the middle of the desert, and they would WAVE at us. Of course, I never knew if they were going to wave or shoot at us. Because of the guns, the chopper was completely “open” and it was absolutely freezing. They fired off several practice rounds en route. If we had not been terrified and scared to let go of each other, I would have loved to take some photos. Fortunately, Jolie and I did not get sick. However, Craig’s sound engineer did! He was sitting beside Faith and when she looked over at him, his cheeks were all puffed out. He had already thrown up and was holding it in his mouth trying to get someone’s attention. Luckily, they found some paper towels for him but it was pretty gross. So glad he wasn’t on our helicopter.
We landed and learned that we would be staying in one of Saddam’s bombed out palaces. Now how cool is that? Saddam visited the area years ago and liked the place. It is situated on a lake and he just went to the owner and told him that the property now belonged to him. He kept the owner on to “take care” of the property. Every day, the staff had to cook 300 meals, 3 times a day just in case Saddam came to visit. And every day they threw 900 meals in the Euphrates River. Then, one day Saddam showed up but his “guests” arrived before him. There are these HUGE iron gates around the palace and the guests had to wait outside for 4 hours because the caretaker was out fishing on the lake. They finally got inside and ate the 300 meals that had been prepared. Then the next day, Saddam went up on the balcony overlooking the lake. The caretaker who previously owned the property was again out in his boat fishing. Saddam shot and killed him.
Two weeks ago a car bomb blew up right outside where we are sleeping. They still have cones up and the area roped off. There is a white cross that has been placed near the site in memory of the soldier who was killed. The area is much more “SECURE” now that this has happened. Evidently, the terrorists got through security by putting the bomb inside the gas tank and it wasn’t detected. A soldier walked over to help them find directions and they detonated the bomb and he was killed instantly.
We went to 3 different units to visit them at this camp. One was the MP’s and I met a young man who is a singer. He sang a little bit of a song and was amazing. He was about 6 feet 6 inches tall and very muscular. And was a “Tenor”! We invited him to come by the show and sing with us.
The camp laid on an amazing spread for Christmas dinner. It is still so surreal to be having Christmas dinner in Iraq. I’ve had Thanksgiving dinner in Turkey and Macedonia and Christmas dinner in Bosnia and the turkey was always the “pressed” meat that tasted like sawdust. This was REAL turkey. They brought around non-alcoholic bottles of champagne and the troops had real plates to eat on. They were so incredibly happy that we shared Christmas dinner with them. And they had a local dressed up as Santa Claus passing out Jolly Ranchers. He didn’t need any “padding. When Jolie and Craig got up and sang, I spent most of the time crying because it was so emotionally charged. Then they got the young MP up and he sang acappella – a Christian song – and blew everyone away.
They signed autographs for everyone who wanted one and then we went to a special reception in another part of the palace. I cannot begin to tell you how wonderful these young men are. There are very few women at this camp. Most of the soldiers seem to be from North Carolina and some have only been here since September. We talked with them until very late and then went to tackle the latrines. We’re being given preferential treatment by being able to use the General’s private bathroom. At least the toilets actually flush as opposed to the port-a-johns and we don’t have to wait our “turn”. The showers near where we were going to sleep can only be used by females between 8-9 am tomorrow. We decided to move to a hooch that they had reserved for Jolie. It had one double bed and we had them bring in a cot for us. Jolie, Faith and I were CRAMMED inside and there are suitcases everywhere. We moved into this area because the bathrooms are so much closer.
We have had great escorts both in Kuwait and in 82nd ABN. Frankie, Leslie and Marlene in Kuwait took excellent care of us and now Stew in 82nd is totally awesome. Sure makes for a nicer tour for us.
Where we are for these next two days is one of the most dangerous areas of Iraq. It’s in the Sunni Triangle. We are going to visit one camp tomorrow – Hurricane and then go to Junction City for a performance. After the show at Junction City, we will take choppers to St. Mere to overnight. Then on Saturday, we will visit Voltorno and Mercury and then back to St. Mere for performance. After the show in St. Mere, we take choppers to Baghdad where we will supposedly spend the night.
You cannot begin to imagine how it feels to have a soldier walk up to us and tell us this is the best Christmas they’ve ever had because we cared enough to come and visit them. I pray so hard that every one of them will come home safely. We tell them not to listen to any of the negative news from back home because the people we know love them and wanted us to bring them a hug and that they think of them and pray for them daily, too.
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 26TH:
We loaded up all the massive amounts of luggage and jumped in the back of open humvees to travel across the Euphrates River to Camp Hurricane for a handshake visit. We have to wear flak vests and helmets because we are going out into the town. It was really pretty “tense” as you never know who the bad guys are. Every time we saw a truck being searched before entering the base, we wondered if it could possibly have a bomb in it. I can’t imagine how these soldiers feel on a daily basis. The sad thing is right outside what was once Saddam’s incredibly beautiful palace, some of the poorest people I’ve ever seen are living. Some don’t even have houses…just “sheds”. It’s really cold here and the children don’t have shoes. When we drive by, the kids point to their mouths, asking for food. It just breaks your heart. The soldiers are doing everything they can to help the kids. They did a “Toys for Tots” drive for lots of them at Christmas and they always give them any food that they have.
When we arrived Camp Hurricane, all the soldiers were leaving. They were all special forces and it was a “sight to see”. They dressed like “locals” from the waist up except that they had keflar underneath their civilian clothes. Had on the headdresses as well. Then they would pack into old beat up cars and trucks and drive into the area where the suspects were supposedly living. The special ops guys would blend in and then the real fire power would come in and finish the job. Since everyone was leaving, we signed a few photos and then went on to Junction City where we would be performing later in the afternoon. We toured the “camp” which was again bombed out palaces. This morning we even picked up some pieces of marble from the first palace….souvenirs for my friends back home.
Most of our group tends to sit together at meals but I insist on sitting with the soldiers. I want to meet them and talk to them as much as possible. They are all eager to talk about home and show photos of their families. I think the food here was the best we’ve had on the trip. We made a trip to the base exchange and purchased caps, tee-shirts, and a camel that sings in Arabic.
The DFAC was PACKED with soldiers for the show and it was a great show. Everyone is so nice and so sincere in their appreciation that we would come to see them at this time of the year. The commanding general presented Jolie and Craig with a beautiful plaque after the performance. They both signed autographs for well over an hour. The CG told me that they dropped two bombs today on a house where a known terrorist was living that had been attempting to kill him! The consensus is our battle plans have changed and we are now going to be the aggressors. We’re tired of our guys getting picked off.
Jolie and I had to go to the port-a-potties before we departed and it had been raining pretty hard. We walked out past the barricades and started the ½ mile trek to the toilets. About halfway there we started sliding in the mud. I had on desert boots and Jo had on white sketchers. Our shoes were getting stuck in the mud and when we tried to pull our feet out, we would start sliding. We were holding on to each other and laughing like lunatics. We finally made it to the toilets but we were covered with mud all the way up to our knees. When we started back to the DFAC, we realized that there was a sidewalk on the other side of the barricade that we could have taken all the way to the toilets without ever getting near the mud. I’m sure everyone who saw us sliding around out there got a good laugh, too.
We were supposed to take helicopters to St. Mere tonight but there was lightening on the ground and we couldn’t fly. So, we had to return to the lodging where we were last night. We loaded all the luggage (33 pieces plus we now have two members of the 76th Army band with us who are providing our speaker system and they have several large, very heavy cases) into a truck. We all split up and got into soft top humvees and rode to the entrance of the base. Then we had to get into the hard top humvees with a soldier manning a gun out of the top. Our drivers told us not to worry but to do exactly as they told us. It’s very dangerous to travel at night in this particular area. They told us that they are the CG’s personal security so we were in good hand. Of course, the windshield of the humvee was shattered from gunfire and I was worried that the attackers knew that this was the CG’s personal humvee and decide to go us thinking he was in there.
We unloaded all the luggage at the former palace and then reloaded the “girls” luggage to take to the trailer. Got everything inside and our escort says, “Hold up. We just got a call that your choppers are on the ground over at Junction City.” So we loaded everything BACK on the truck and sat down to wait for our humvees to come back. We waited an hour and were then told that those weren’t our choppers after all. SO, we unloaded everything off the truck again.
Got over to our trailer and we started getting our toiletries together for the hike to the latrine when the power went out. I had to go to the office to get it turned back on and when we went out to the latrine, the door shocked Jolie when she touched it. I couldn’t get my little flashlight to come on but someone had put out flares and Jolie was following those. I was fiddling with the flashlight trying to get it to work when Jolie just disappeared from sight and I heard this, “Juuudddeee” coming from somewhere. I got the flashlight on and she had stepped off a retaining wall down into a dirt pit. Got her out and then we started laughing so hard, we were afraid we were going to wake the General up.
We had to take our shower that night because our call time was 7:30 am the next morning. Since we used the General’s private (ha!) shower, we couldn’t work our schedule around when no one would be in there. Once we got in the showers, we realized that they had put in a different electrical converter for us. I was going back over to the trailer to get it and Jolie asked me to get something out of her backpack for her. When I arrived at the trailer, Faith was cussing about being shocked by the door. We rigged up a way to open it without touching the doorknob.
Finally went to bed and at about 3:30 am, I woke up freezing and realized there was a lot of activity going on in the sky – helicopters and planes flying. This is definitely not “normal” for that hour of the morning and we found out later that there was an “incident”. I went to the bathroom and when I returned, I found Faith lying in the floor on top of her blankets. I thought the cot had collapsed and couldn’t believe it hadn’t woken Jolie up. But, Faith said she took the cot down and put it outside because every time the heat kicked on, the electric current ran through the metal in the cot and shocked her. She thought he might be paralyzed on her right side. Of course, that set us into a fit of laughter which did wake Jolie up!
SATURDAY, DECEMBER 27TH:
We got up at 6 am for our 7:30 departure which didn’t happen until 9:30. We took this huge humvee where we rode in the back with “covers” all around. We opened up the back because we wanted to see the countryside but we had two guys with M-4’s sitting in the back. The seats were the hardest thing I have ever sat on and my rear end is still sore. The road we took is one of the most dangerous in Iraq. They call it “Highway of Death”. We passed a “graveyard” full of blown up tanks and vehicles that have been there since the previous Gulf War. But, we arrived safely at St. Mere and dropped off all the show equipment. We then departed in separate humvees to Camp Voltorno. This was a former “training camp” for Saddam’s soldiers. It was located on a beautiful lake but the lake was almost dry because it was manmade and once Saddam was gone, the locals stole everything including the pumps for the lake! Craig and Jolie performed a couple of songs in the lunchroom and signed autographs for everyone. These soldiers rarely get entertainment because of where they are located and they were thrilled that we came to see them.
We then drove to Camp Mercury for another acoustic show and handshake visit. A soldier came up to me and said that he remembered me from Afghanistan last year! He even showed me his hat where I had signed it. I remember that I wanted to check my email at Kandahar in Afgahnistan and there was a long line. He and several of his buddies let me go in front of them. There were a lot of soldiers from Afghanistan stationed at Camp Mercury and most of them remembered me. That’s what makes this all worthwhile. When these soldiers remember me – and I’m nobody memorable – and thank me for bringing them entertainment, I know I’m making an impact on someone’s life.
We drove back to St. Mere for the show which took place in a “theatre” that you could definitely tell was very beautiful before it was bombed. It was SUCH a fantastic show. A soldier, who sang with Craig at one of the acoustic shows earlier in the afternoon, came up on stage to sing “Almost Home” with him again. He had an incredible voice and the other soldiers gave him a standing ovation. Very nice young man who is going to try and make it in the music business when he gets out of the Army in a few months.
We ate dinner and then flew on a Chinook to Baghdad. When we landed, our escort for the previous two days had to leave us. It’s amazing how quickly we can become such good friends in such a short period of time. I’m sure the situation we are placed in has a lot to do with the “bonding”. But I intend to stay in touch with all of them. Another escort was supposed to meet us for our stay in Baghdad, but no one was there. We waited two hours – with me making frantic phone calls to everyone I had phone numbers on in Baghdad! Someone finally came to pick us up and we learned that we will be staying in Baghdad for two shows. We are housed in tents right at Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) and one of our shows will be in the same hangar where Chely put the show together with Kid Rock, John Stamos, etc., this past June when we were over here with the USO tour. The airport has definitely changed a lot since June. There is an MWR tent and gymnasium located right across from our tent. The escort we have here is “difficult” to say the least. Everything with him is an “immediate” NO. Not, let me see what I can do, but just straight out “no”.
I’m not a “camper” and this is definitely roughing it. You would not believe how horrible the port-a-potties are. There are some that we just cannot even use because the locals have been utilizing them and they are just too gross for words.
Speaking of the locals, all the kitchen help loves me and Jo at every show. They all want their photos taken with us and insist on putting their arms around us. They do not use deodorant and I’m sure I’m going to pass out one day when they snuggle up to me. One guys was perspiring so heavily that he left a wet spot on my shoulder where he had put his arm! And, poor Jo is so short that their armpits hit her right at nose level.
So, it’s about 3 am and time for me to go to bed.
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 28TH:
Everyone is having a hard time remembering what day of the week it is. It’s so easy to lose all track of time with this hectic schedule.
We learned that the base has a Burger King, so after we showered, we walked down to eat and grab some things at the PX. It definitely did not taste like the Burger King meals in the U.S. But it was a nice break from DFAC food. Went into the BX which was surprisingly pretty well-stocked.
We spent several hours “reorganizing” our luggage. The mud is everywhere and it gets all over our clothes and shoes. It’s impossible to wear anything twice and there is no where to do laundry. At least everyone is covered with mud so we fit right in. Went down to check email and had a phone call from my friend who is the General in Baghdad. He was leaving today for the area – where we will be on Monday night, Tuesday and Wednesday. Seems we just keep missing each other. However, he put me in touch with someone in his office who could arrange a tour for us. They wanted to take us to the Green Zone to see the Al Rashid Hotel, Saddam’s Palace, and the crossed sabers. But, the escort that we have in Baghdad is useless. We learned today that no one knows there will be a show tomorrow night because he hasn’t put out any posters. One of Jolie’s musicians was out trying to print flyers to hang up! I asked him to arrange a tour to Baghdad for us today and he didn’t have time to “work the issue”. So, I went to him and told him that my friend had arranged everything. He said started coming up with every excuse in the world why we couldn’t do it. I finally got him on the phone with the General’s office and if nothing happens, we’re departing at 10 am tomorrow.
When I got back to the tent, I learned that our tech crew had not been picked up at 1 pm as advised. They finally left at around 2:30 pm. The escort came in and told me that the reason he wanted the artists to go over early was to visit the hospital. Now, he never mentioned that last night and we would have been happy to oblige. I told him we would leave early enough today to visit them before the show. We showed up at the show site 2 hours early only to be told that there’s no patients in the hospital! He never even checked and if there had been patients in there, we would have needed special clearance to visit them which he had not arranged. We had dinner with the Commander and the CSM and they were really cool to talk to. The base where we are performing was a skud missile training camp and they also found 50 RPG’s at this camp when they took control. Weapons of massive destruction were rumored to have been stored here. We also learned a couple of days ago and the military found two fighter jets burined in the sand in the desert and numerous RPG’s stored in the children’s schools. They told us that Uday kept lions at the palace and when we took over, they didn’t know what to feed the lions so they fed them the dead donkeys that were killed in the bombings. They called the zookeepers out to look at the lions because the lions did not seem to be afraid of humans. The zookeepers were “locals” and were scared to death of them. Said that Uday fed the lions women after he had “used” the women. There is a list of over 3,000 females that he fed to the lions. So, now the U.S. soldiers are having to keep the lions fed and don’t know what they are going to do with him. Hopefully we’ll get a photo of them tomorrow.
The show was in a “theater” again and we had a packed house. Not bad, since no one even knew we were coming two days ago. Everyone leaves the show knowing they have been “entertained” by artists who truly care about them. Everyone who wants one, gets an autographed photo and a photo taken with the artist. No matter how late we have to stay, we take care of everyone.
Of course, we were starving after the show so we went to “midnight dinner” at the DFAC.
MONDAY, DECEMBER 29TH
Guess 6 am is the “peak time” for the soldiers to shower. There was NO hot water. A cold shower this past June would have been marvelous but not in December when it’s freezing outside.
We met at the Soldier’s Support Office at 10 am for our trip to Camp Victory to see Saddam’s Presidential Palace. The people picking us up were detained at the gate and didn’t arrive until 11:30 am. Beginning to see a pattern here?
The palace was definitely worth the wait. It’s only a 10 minute drive from Baghdad International Airport. It is surrounded by a huge lake and all I can say is – it’s palatial! The entrance hall has a HUGE chandelier in it and everything is, of course, made out of marble. We crashed a meeting that had been called by General Sanchez and sang them a little country music. They loved it! Then we took off on our own to “explore”. The bathroom had been turned into a men’s latrine and was definitely still functional. We picked up some more marble to bring home but later found out that we probably won’t be able to bring it back through Customs. Not allowed to mail it home either. I’m going to try and get it to Frankfurt and have a friend who is stationed there mail it to me! There were 4 or 5 large “heads” of Saddam on top of the palace but those had just been removed a few days ago.
We had a show at Baghdad International Airport today in the same hangar where Chely Wright, Kid Rock, and the other artists performed this past June. In June, there were 6,000 soldiers and it was about 140 degrees inside the hangar. Today, it was cold and there was only about 20 people there. The person responsible for the show did not let anyone know that there was a performance taking place. He put up some flyers last night and sent out an email! Also the fact that the show took place at 4 pm when everyone was still at work didn’t help with the attendance. Ironic that our smallest show would take place at the base with the largest population. But, it was all good. The artists signed autographs for everyone after the show and then we went to the DFAC to eat. Tonight was Steak and Crab night. Jolie and I tried to eat a little of it but I’m “gun-shy” about eating seafood on a military base in a war zone because I got food poisoning from scallops a few years ago on a base in Macedonia. I still can’t eat scallops! So, we went to Burger King again and had a healthy (yeah right!) chicken sandwich.
We are flying to Tikrit tonight on Chinook Helicopters. Hopefully someone will be there to meet us.
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 30TH:
Last night we arrived at the airport at 8:30 pm for a 9:30 pm flight. At 1:30 am, we were still waiting. The same person who was responsible for advertising the show totally botched our departure. He told us that Chinooks were coming in from Tikrit to pick us up. I called everywhere I knew to call and we could not locate anyone who knew anything about our pickup. Finally at 1 am, a couple of blackhawk pilots walked in. They were the same blackhawks pilots who were in the hangar next to us at our show that afternoon and they were our transportation. They had also been given the “run around” about where we were located. From 8:30 pm until 1 am, they had been in the blackhawks being shuttled around to various locations at the Baghdad airport. They spent about two minutes with our escort and realized that he was incompetent and took over. The pilots only had 2 blackhawks and it would have taken three – 2 with the seats out for our luggage/gear and 1 for passengers – to transport us. Also, they advised that fog was rolling in, so making 2 trips was not an option. I sent everyone with all their luggage and gear back to the tents we had been staying in at Baghdad International Airport. I stayed with the helicopter pilots to try and figure out the plan for our departure. Their boss got on the phone and we learned that we were not even going to be flying to Tikrit. We were flying to FOB Gabe which is located in Ba’ quba just Southeast of Tikrit. The pilots were extremely nervous about flying during the day. All their missions were being flown at night because of the dangerous situation in the area where we were going. The Captain said that he would not send us if they thought there was any question at all about our safety.
I flew back to the hangar with the blackhawks. First time I’ve been the only passenger in a blackhawk with no one with me. We flew just a few feet off the ground because it was only about a one mile trip. Met the Captain and he advised that he would have 3 blackhawks for us to depart to FOB Gabe at 10 am the next morning. He wanted me in his office by 9 am the next morning. By the time I got to our tent and took a shower, I got in bed at 5:30 am. Slept until 7:30 am and then went down to talk to the supervisor for the guy who had made our life so miserable for the past few days. Of course, he wasn’t in, so I got his email address and will definitely be contacting him.
The blackhawks flew us up to FOB Gabe with no problems. The scenery was spectacular. There was a satellite dish and it had “I LOVE THE USA” painted on it in bright RED paint. Before the USA took over, no one had satellite dishes. You could see that it was once a beautiful area before the bombings. We learned that the camp we would be visiting was formerly Saddam’s training camp for CHILDREN! Also, the camp was attacked on Christmas night and two of their soldiers were killed. We also learned that a terrorist was captured near Baghdad right before Christmas. He had blueprints of the dining facility at Baghdad Airport and planned to attack it on Christmas Day!
The people at FOB Gabe are thrilled to have entertainment. NO ONE has been here at all since the war began. Gabe is located near the town of Ba’ quba which is still considered a dangerous area and we will not be allowed to go into the town. I also learned that we will be flying to Camp Speicher tonight at 11 pm for a show there tomorrow. The ONLY reason we are going to Speicher is because of a lady who sent me an email through the Stars for Stripes website. She told me that her husband was stationed there and that they had been passed over constantly – never getting any entertainment. I emailed several MWR coordinators in Iraq and Kuwait– and got my hand slapped by AFE for going “direct” – and asked them to please let us go there. Tomorrow I will be looking for her husband to give him a big hug and kiss from her and to tell him that she is the reason we are able to visit them. How cool is that?
We had dinner with the troops and I sat with two guys from San Francisco. They were reservists and one of them had an antiques shop before he was deployed. The other one had lost his business because he was deployed. I love talking to the soldiers and finding out about their lives back in the U.S. It really helps them to be able to talk about their loved ones.
We were given trailers with bunks to “rest” in after dinner because we were not scheduled to fly out until 11 pm. The heater in our trailer kept going off and we would have to get up an punch a switch that kicked the fuse back on. At 10 pm, we were advised that we would not be flying out because the weather was too bad. Our hosts were very concerned about driving us from Gabe to Spiecher the next day because it is a 3 hour drive and goes through what they call, “Ambush Alley”.
We finally located all our luggage and headed for the showers. Nothing but male showers, so we had a “guard” waiting outside until we finished. And, let me tell you, we finished really quickly. Not a drop of hot water. Faith and I are getting “hard” but Jolie just couldn’t do it. She ended up just washing her hair. We had to get a briefing on where the bunker was located in case there was an attack in the middle of the night. Our trailer was right in the middle of some great guys who we knew would take good care of us if there was a problem in the middle of the night.
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 31ST, 2O03:
Up at 7:30 am for a 9:00 am departure. This camp does not have a “kitchen” and their meals have to be brought in from another camp. They rarely receive breakfast and did not have anything today. When we departed, the road we traveled was right between two rivers and the fog was very thick. We could only drive about 20 miles per hour until we were about one hour away from our destination. What was supposed to be a 3 hour drive turned into 4 hours in humvees. But our drivers had some great cookies for us to snack on along the way. We also passed what we thought was a traffic accident. We learned that it was an Iraqi policeman. His body was lying beside the road and only his head was covered with a cloth. There was blood running out beside the cloth. We were told that he had been shot in the head.
We drove through the city of Tikrit and it was such a “slum”. Then as we drove down the street to the base entrance, we passed dozens of little children. They were all smiling and waving at our humvees. They had no idea that there were civilians in the humvees because we all had our flak vests and helmets on. And, speaking of…let me tell you, those things are HEAVY. We have to wear them every time we go off base, in the helicopters, on the planes, and in the humvees. Today was the longest time we had them on – 5 hours. I had a head and neck ache when we arrived. God bless our soldiers. Ours aren’t half as heavy as what they have to wear.
Once we arrived at Spiecher, we immediately sent someone to find Cris McKenzie – the husband of the lady who emailed me. He was out on a mission but walked in right before the show began. I gave him a big hug and kiss from his wife and lots of “swag” from us. He’s so young…full set of braces! We’re performing in a gym and you talk about an appreciative audience. Everyone is just blown away that we were allowed to come this far North. This is the first entertainment they have had and we gave them a show worth waiting for!
We met a man who is currently working as an independent contractor. He is from Iraq and had to flee the city. He was educated in London and was a practicing attorney in Baghdad. He defended a client and was not aware that he was fighting a company owned by Uday. He got word that Uday was coming to “discuss” the matter with him. He fled to Syria and then lived in Jordan for 2 years. He has just been able to return and he definitely has some stories to tell. It is fascinating to talk to the soldiers and locals and learn the real story – not what you see on CNN.
We try so hard not to complain about the horrible food, the cold showers, the lack of heat, the mud, the nasty portalets and lack of toilet tissue. We’re only here for two weeks but our soldiers have to endure this for months and sometimes years.
We went to the MWR room to wait for our flight on Chinooks to Kirkuk. Of course, after sitting there for 3 hours, we were informed that the weather was bad in Kirkuk and we would not be flying. They found lodging for us in a bombed out building. We were on the 3rd floor and the escort did not arrange for anyone to help with our bags. Jolie and I both have really heavy suitcases and had to get them off the truck and up the stairs. Thankfully her musicians helped us with this. The showers are used by women on “odd hours” and men on “even hours”. But, we learned that the power was out in the showers and that there was only cold water. So, Jolie and I went over to a house where the General’s driver, some firemen and security guys live. They had a shower, bathtub and a toilet that FLUSHED. It was heaven. Except, they didn’t have any cold water – only scalding hot water! While Jolie showered, I talked to the guys and conned one of the security guys into giving me his pants. I had been wearing the desert camo shirt jacket that I got from Sergeant Hughes in Kuwait last December. Got lots of conversation with that shirt because he was a ranger with a combat jump and a free fall. One guy in Baghdad even saluted me! After we showered, Jolie said, “those guys are living LARGE” and then we started laughing…”Large” meaning they are crammed into a bombed out house buy they have a shower and toilet inside. Amazing how our “needs” have changed. All we need to make us happy is a little warm water and a flushing toilet!
THURSDAY, JANUARY 1ST, 2004:
We got up for our convoy to Kirkuk. Again we had to travel down “Ambush Alley” but our escort did not arrange for armored humvees. Two of our musicians had to sit in the back of a truck with soft sides. Jolie and I were in an armored humvee and the others were in the cabs of trucks. Our vehicle had the only gunner and he had no idea how to operate the gun. Our driver was having to tell him how to load it. I was not happy with this situation but we really needed to get to Kirkuk so we could take a C-130 plane to Kuwait. Jolie started talking to the driver of our vehicle and this is the first soldier we have talked to who is “bitter” about the war and doesn’t understand what he is fighting for. He was only 21 years old and said he joined the Army when he was 16 (which is suspect). He made some really dumb comments and I was ready to get out of the vehicle. Jolie had to intervene to keep me from getting into a full-fledged argument with him. I have no idea why he joined the Army if he hates it so much. He should definitely get out and go home. It’s men like him who are careless and endanger the lives of their fellow soldiers. It was so depressing for us to listen to his view on the war. We had just spent the previous evening listening to the General at Camp Spiecher tell us about the 600 schools that we have already reopened in Iraq and that 90% of the hospitals are back up and running. We’re doing so much good for these people and they are definitely thankful. I wish CNN and Fox would report some of the “good” news once in a while. Most of the soldiers in Gabe and Speicher have been there since last March. When they first got there, living conditions were really bad. But, things are much better now and getting better every day. They are proud of what they have accomplished and they don’t complain about their living conditions, just try to make things better.
When we arrived at Kirkuk, our “life support” contact there (that’s what they call the person who is responsible for taking care of us at each facility), was amazed that we had traveled by convoy. He said he would NEVER travel that road. He was not happy that they had put us in unarmored vehicles and sent us down such a dangerous road. But, we were fine and happy to be in Kirkuk.
We got our gear palletized and headed over to the DFAC. The food was really, really bad and we had seen a Pizza Hut and Burger King on the way on. Jolie and I walked over and got a pizza and it was “heavenly”!
Then our Army escort informed us that it was not guaranteed that we would be allowed to get on the C-130. He said that they had an injured soldier to transport and there might not be enough room. If we didn’t get on, there would not be another plane out until the following night. We were supposed to do shows in Kuwait that next day and then fly back to the U.S., so I did not want to get stuck in Kirkuk.
Some pilots showed up and I started talking to them. Learned that most of them had served at Kunsan AFB in Korea – home of the Wolf Pack and my favorite base in the world. Once they learned of our situation, they started working the issue. It seems that the Air Force is always quicker to step up and help us. The C-130 showed up and it was an Australian flight crew. We got on with no problem. The injured soldier had slid down an incline and had his leg in a splint. The flight crew was great to us. We signed photos and went up and visited them on the flight deck. They had this plexiglass “bubble” on top of the airplane and you could step up into it and see outside. It was awesome. I can’t describe how it felt to feel like you were standing on top of the airplane.
Landed in Kuwait and our escorts from the beginning of the tour met us. We hugged and kissed everyone like we were “family”. Felt like we had come home. Got checked into the Radisson and everyone went to the restaurant to get “real” food. They had a buffet that was to die for and I’m sure I gained 10 pounds in that one meal. We were SO looking forward to a long, hot bath or shower. Jolie got to her room and her heat wasn’t working and she didn’t have any hot water! Got that taken care of for her then had to repack everything. Our escorts said that we were going to get to “sleep in” tomorrow. They said we don’t leave until 9 am! For us, that means getting up at 6 am to exercise and get ready to go. They really thought they were giving us a break by starting so “late”. ?
I will tell you that we learned where Saddam is supposedly being held and that at one point we were within one mile of him. It was a really spooky feeling. We really wanted to go see the spider hole in Tikrit but didn’t have time while we were there.
I know that if you are reading this report, you are wondering why anyone would want to subject themselves to these conditions. With all the hardships, I can honestly say that these tours are life-changing. We get to see first hand how our soldiers are living. The celebrities that come over and stay in hotels and fly out to the sites for a few hours, are really missing out. The soldiers talked to us about this and told us how much they appreciated us not only coming to the remote sites to perform but to stay in their quarters and live their life for a day. The shows are the most gratifying performances an entertainer can every experience.
Time to grab a couple of hours sleep.
FRIDAY, JANUARY 2ND:
We checked out of the hotel and drove for 2 hours to Camp Udari. The last 30-45 minutes was on a dirt road with very large holes in it. The bus was bouncing all over the place and we were happy to arrive. Again, no one knew we were coming. They found some MWR person to introduce Jolie and Craig and he couldn’t even pronounce Craig’s name. He ended the introduction with, “Let’s get this over with!” Jolie sang one song but quickly realized that it just wasn’t working. Craig didn’t even try to sing. They signed a few autographs and then we spent the next half hour listening to the people at the base apologize for not knowing we were going to be there! I had met a couple of firemen who did want to come to the show but had to work. We stopped by their firehouse and signed autographs, took photos and swapped tee-shirts with them.
We drove for another hour (back over the same rough terrain) to Camp Virginia where once again they had only found out we were coming a couple of hours prior to our arrival. But, their MWR representative sent soldiers out to spread the word and we had a great crowd. The only problem was, we were in a tent and the generators were so loud, it was hard to hear the singing. But the troops loved it and the artists signed lots of autographs.
Drove another hour to Camp Doha for the “big show”. It was held in a base nightclub and again, no one knew we were coming until the day before we arrived! But, the place was packed and it was a great show. Long line after the show for autographs and photos with the artists. There is a great PX there and we did some power shopping. Also, a great food court there and we were able to have Subway sandwiches for dinner. Quite a treat! I met a soldier that had emailed me about Chely’s performance this past June and I had told him to try and find me at this show. Nice to put a face to an “email”!
Took a quick shower after the show and then headed for the airport.
SATURDAY, JANUARY 3RD:
The Kuwait Airport is a nightmare. Hard to find the check-in counters but everything went along fine until we went through passport control. My passport had not been stamped when I came in on December 22nd. Immigration thought that I had been “in country” since June when I was in Kuwait with Chely Wright. It took over an hour to sort that out.
At 2:30 am, we got on the Lufthansia flight for the 6 hour flight to Frankfurt. Everyone was so tired and passed out immediately. But it was so cold on the plane that even with blankets, we were all shivering. We tried to get the flight attendants to turn the air conditioning down but their response was that the thermostat said it was 24 degrees in there. My fingers and nose were frozen by the time we landed.
Got off the plane and it was a bus gate. When we arrived in the terminal, one of Jolie’s musicians realized that he had left his guitar on the airplane. It took him 3 hours to locate it. So, instead of going into Frankfurt to look around, we spent the time in the airport terminal. A soldier that I met in Korea several years ago and have stayed in touch with, met me at the airport. We had a cup of coffee and a nice visit. I have been in and out of security a total of 12 times now just in the Frankfurt airport. And, each time, they wand me and pat me down.
Landed in Chicago and all our luggage made. Our flight and numerous other United Airlines flights were delayed out of Chicago. To make matters worse, it started snowing and we knew we were going to be flying on one of the little “puddle jumper jets”. They kept moving our departure time ahead and we thought we would be stuck in Chicago overnight. But, we finally departed and it was quite a bumpy ride. When we arrived in Nashville, we had 6 bags missing – one of them mine. Half the passengers on the flight were missing bags as well. When we checked our bags in Kuwait, Lufthansa had put ALL the bags under Craig’s name. So we had to figure out which numbers matched the missing pieces and then stand in line to fill out the paperwork. By the time we finished that, the next flight came in from Chicago and my bag was on it! Got home at midnight instead of 7:30 pm. Typical for international travel though.
It was a fantastic, life-changing trip. So many things I learned and forgot to put in the road reports. I took a little pocket tape recorder, but never even used it. It’s a big let-down when we return because you feel like you aren’t contributing anymore. I know everyone returned with a renewed enthusiasm to “do more” to support our troops and to spread the word about how we are definitely making a difference in the lives of the Iraqi citizens.