Karri Turner, Jim McMahon, Kevin Butler and Dave Price
all traveled to Iraq to “Ring in the New Year” and show their support of our U.S. Military. The group departed on December 27, traveled to 3 remote camps each day and returned on January 2nd.
“This tour to Iraq had to be one of the best I’ve ever taken. We were able to visit troops in out laying places that never get entertainment due to the danger factor. It’s weird to be thanked by service men and women for coming over to see them when they’ve been deployed 2 and 3 times. These folks are unbelievably brave and make me proud to be an American. We should all be so lucky to have the chance to thank them, whether it’s overseas, or when they get home. I will never be the same after doing these tours…..never.” – Karri Turner
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 27-THURSDAY, DECEMBER 28TH:
Today we left for the “Ringin’ in the New Year” tour of Iraq. “We” is defined as myself, Karri Turner (JAG), Dave Price (CBS The Early Show), and Jim McMahon and Kevin (former NFL Chicago Bears). This is the first tour I have taken overseas that is not a “musical” performance. It was so “easy” as far as the advance preparation, I was afraid I had forgotten to do something.
I flew out of Nashville into Chicago and met up with Jim. First time I had ever met him. Karri is flying out of LA, Kevin is flying out of Atlanta, and Dave Price and his cameraman are flying out of New York City. With any luck, we will all connect in Frankfurt tomorrow.
Flight from Nashville was uneventful (except for it being on one of those SMALL planes that I hate) and I had several hours of layover time in Chicago. Spent that time in the airline lounge answering emails. Jim arrived and we boarded the plane for Frankfurt. I was sitting across the aisle from him but had an empty seat beside me so he moved over to sit with me. What a super nice guy! I have gotten lots of emails from the troops in Iraq about how excited they are that this tour is coming their way. These flights are on Lufthansa. The aircraft is new and very nice. The flight attendants are all German and not extremely friendly – which is surprising. They would not give us any of the small bottles of water and didn’t even give us one of the airline amenity kits with the toothbrush, etc. It is depressing to pay the cost of business class tickets and be treated as if we are “imposing” on the flight attendants when we ask for more water.
Jim and I landed in Frankfurt at 7 am and it was still pitch dark on the ground. Kevin landed a few minutes before us and we sat in the airline lounge for our 7 hour layover. I finally broke the news to Jim and Kevin that there is NO alcohol allowed in Kuwait or Iraq. So, they tried really hard to drink all the beer in the Frankfurt airport during our layover! J
Karri landed at 10 am and Dave and Robert (cameraman) got in at noon. Dave had broken his glasses and was looking for somewhere to have the repaired. That didn’t happen. Will have to check in Kuwait before heading into Iraq tomorrow.
Our flight to Kuwait is another 5 hours. I went up to check on my two football players and they were passed out, sound asleep. Guess all that beer knocked them out! J
We landed in Kuwait right on time and I met our new escort for Iraq. Really, really great guy named Rich (you’ll be hearing his name more often in this journal, I’m sure). Hotel knows me well and had everything waiting for us. Ryan – our escort in Kuwait – took Dave to a mall to try and get his glasses repaired while I got everyone checked in. It’s midnight now and I have to get up at 5 am, so I’m signing off.
Probably will NOT be able to send emails from the camps we will be visiting in Iraq. As you know, I ask to go to the remote sites and they have honored my request on this trip. That is, IF the weather holds. We may be grounded because of fog. The choppers don’t fly in bad weather and we were expecting to chopper between 3 and 4 camps per day. Taking a C-130 into Al Asad tomorrow and immediately choppering out to 3 more camps before spending the night at Ar Ramdi, we hope.
Happy New Year.
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 29TH:
I was here 2 days after they captured Saddam and now it looks like I’ll be here when he is put to death! Should be an interesting 3 days.
It finally happened. There is wireless internet access on the international flights. And, they were offering it for “free” as a trial. That was the ONLY time I could get away from email and work. Now I’ll be able to work ALL the time. Great.
Leaving for Iraq in just a few minutes. More as soon as I have internet access again.
Went down to have breakfast with the boys and found out that our plane was leaving for Iraq an hour later than we anticipated – pretty normal! Since everyone was already up and ready to go, I told them to set up a “meet and greet” for us at the air terminal and we went on out. Had the sweetest C-130 crew for our flight. They let us take turns going up on the flight deck which was a real treat for the ones in the group who had never done that.
Our first stop of the tour was at Al Asad – a very large air base. Even though we were very late, we still had a big crowd of people waiting for autographs. They had made a huge cake with a hand throwing a football on it. Karri’s doctor, who is a reservist got called up, was serving at that base. Dave Price was able to do a “live remote” feed back to CBS in New York which should be pretty cool. The base provided a lunch for us backstage because we had not eaten since early that morning and it was already late afternoon.
We departed Al Asad for a very remote FOB called Korean Village. We flew on an aircraft that I have never traveled on before. It was a Marine helicopter and I think it was a UH-53 or something like that. They said, “if it’s not leaking, it’s not flying”. Then they asked if we all had something to “cover up” with because oil was going to fly out of the ceiling and cover us. Of course, no one had anything. The flight crew was again super nice and set up the guns so that all the celebs got a chance to fire them over the desert. It was absolutely the COLDEST fight I have never taken – no heat at all and the windows and back were open for the entire 1 hour and 40 minute flight. When we landed, I got in my bag and pulled out my underarmour and my flight suit and warm socks. Also kept on my pants, sweater, jacket, and flak vest. I looked like the Pilsbury dough boy and could barely move.
This base just really had NOTHING. We walked into a wooden building and they signed autographs for about an hour. The troops were SO happy to see us. They said they never get any entertainment at Korean Village. We had to fly on the same helicopter again to Haditha Dam – again a very remote little FOB and one I have never visited. The flight was freezing again but I was a little bit warmer with all my layers. THEN, I found out we were landing ON THE DAM IN THE DARK. The helicopter pilots said they liked the challenge. I must say, it was absolutely beautiful and I would love to see it in the daylight. The “offices” are inside the dam with 10 floors above water and 10 floors under the water. We had to go down to the 7th floor. There were signs all along the walls saying watch out for snakes. Great. Just what I wanted to know. J They had some food set up for us and we ate a little bit and then signed the autographs. Again, these guys (and we didn’t see ONE female) were delighted that we would come all the way out to this remote area to see them. I was supposed to find a young marine who is the son of a lady that I met in a bank on 9/11. However, he was up in Barawana so I left him a t-shirt, coin and some other goodies. Really sad that I couldn’t give him a hug for his mom.
Last flight of the day – our 4th camp today – was on blackhawks. Again, we took off ON THE DAM. The blackhawks were warmer and one of the flight crew also gave me his jacket to cover up with. Landed at Ar Ramdi (another remote camp but larger than Korean Village and Haditha Dam) and rushed to a satellite phone to do a live interview with the Pentagon Channel. We will be staying in trailers tonight and all the guys are in one room and Karri and I are in the other. The latrines are “co-ed” but there are male and female showers. Karri and I decided to take out shower at night while there was still hot water. We got lost though trying to find them. I went back to the room but forgot which room we were in and tried to unlock someone elses door. When I came back out, Jim was roaming around in his underwear and a coat trying to find the showers and latrines, too! We finally found them and got our showers out of the way.
We learned that the Coalition forces are supposedly handing Saddam over to the local Iraqis at midnight tonight. The troops think that the Iraqis will hang him tonight. We may wake up tomorrow to find that this has taken place while we are in Iraq.
Karri and I came back to our room to find that the heater is no longer working. It is probably in the teens here tonight, so this should be interesting. Have to get up in a few hours, so going to close and try to remember more events tomorrow. Karri, Jim, Kevin, Dave and Robert are a super group of folks who truly love and respect our men and women in the U.S. military. It is such a pleasure to be traveling with them.
SATURDAY, DECEMBER 30TH:
Karri woke up at 2:30 am and said she was freezing. We had no idea what to do, so I told her to go into the guys’ room and wake up our escort. Fortunately, his was the first “foot” she saw and was able to get him awake. He managed to get into the room next door to ours and flip the circuit breaker which fixed our problem. We set the heat on 90 degrees for the rest of the night!
Guys got up and had breakfast and I started scouting around to see if Saddam had been hanged. And, of course, he had. Very surreal to be here in Iraq when this happened.
Our first stop of the day was with a wonderful Colonel who gave us a fantastic briefing. We are in the Ar Ramdi is in the Anbar Provence — which used to be one of the most dangerous areas. He told us how they came in and met with the locals and learned how to work with him. The population of the area is around half a million and when they first came in, there was less than 500 police to patrol the entire area. The Colonel told how they learned that they had to get off the one main Camp and set up small camps throughout the area in order to be effective. He said that every area is different and what works in this Provence might not work in Baghdad or another Provence. Where he is, the problems are tribal. But, the tribes are beginning to turn on Al Queda. In order to be a member of Al Queda, you must kill someone from a rival tribe and then you must kill someone in your own tribe. Then obviously, you have no where to turn but to Al Queda. But, the people are seeing Al Queda kill their families and realize they want a better life. Enlistment from the locals for a position with the local police was more than 1,500 this month and 800 is the maximum number they can accept. The showed us a map of the cities that were “hostile” when he first came I and the ones that were friendly. At first, more than 90% of the tribes were hostile and now more than 90% are friendly He said that the local “Shake” built one house to look like the White House and is now building another one to look like the Pentagon. I asked him if the locals WANT us to be here in Iraq and he said that they do. He said that they tell him that they want Iraq to be like Germany and Korea after those wars, not like Vietnam. They want our military here to help them learn how to live in a free and democratic society. I wish I could remember all the great things he told us. I think Karri taped the entire speech and if so, I’m getting a copy to send to people who question me about our presence in the area and why we aren’t bringing our troops home.
We did several “meet and greets” at various places on Ar Ramadi and then had lunch with the troops. One young soldier had just been shot by a sniper the day before! Thank God his chest plate deflected the bullet and he is fine except for a little shrapnel in his arm.
We flew on blackhawks from Ar Ramadi to Camp Taji . I was at Taji in 2004 with Chely Wright. The crew gave us a “ride”. They flew map of the earth and pulled several “G’s”. Karri was having a ball but Jim looked like he was going to throw up! The 1st Calvary was there and I saw my first Stryker tank there at that time. Signed autographs for a couple of hours and then flew to Camp Shield/Volunteer. One young soldier got everyone’s autographs and he left the table clutching his photo and he said, “This is the best day of my life. Now I know why I deployed to Iraq!”. He was talking to himself and had no idea that anyone overheard him. It sure made MY day!
The camp where we are flying to next is the Camp that is NOT on any maps because it is where the Iraqi Police are trained. Someone wrote to Charlie Daniels on his website and Charlie’s manager contact me about visiting this Camp. They NEVER get celebrity visits at this Camp. Right before we were leaving to come over here, my escort said that we were not going to be able to visit them. I was not happy and told him to put it back on the itinerary unless there was a risk to our safety. I am SO glad we got to go there.
We signed autographs outside at Uday’s Movie Theatre before he was killed. There were Olympic Symbols all over the place from the year that Uday tried to get the Olympic bid. Okay, this is pretty graphic but needs to be told especially since Saddam was hanged today. Uday had a small torture chamber right outside where we were today. He would take the women who “displeased” him there. The rooms were less than 4 feet high and only a couple of feet wide – to small to stand or sit. He would bring the female’s family in and there was a tree with barbed wire on it outside the torture chamber. He would tie the woman to the tree and used a winch to tighten her against the tree. He left her there all day and made her family watch. She didn’t die from this but then the next day, he would lay her over a stump and tie her hands and feet. Then, all day long, he would have the guard dogs rape her. Then, at the end of the day, he killed the woman while the family watched and then he killed the family, too.
This base has a lot of civilian contractors as well as military and they aren’t afraid to tell us the horrors of what went on during Saddam’s reign of terror! I met some wonderful men from South Africa and spent a lot of time talking to them. I told everyone about the guy who found me and how he was responsible for us being able to visit there. I think I signed as many autographs and took photos with as many people as the celebs did tonight. J
We again flew on Blackhawks from Camp Volunteer/Shield to Camp Victory in Baghdad. I’ve been here many times and love staying in one of Saddam’s old palaces on the lake. My best buddy — Chris Goedeke – is here. He’s a Marine and an F-18 pilot and I met him when he was General Franks Personal Aide during the Iraq war. A truly great guy. He came over before our autograph session so we could chat. We did the autograph session tonight in the gymnasium and again there was a big crowd. And now, I am in Baghdad on the day that the Iraqi’s hung Saddam and I am sleeping in one of Saddam’s palaces in one of Saddam’s beds. How cool is that? One thing to be noted is that other than being glad that Saddam was brought to justice, his execution had little impact on our troops. He was taken out of power in 2003 and was basically a “non-issue” to their mission here after that. Their mission now is to help the Iraqis rebuild their infrastructure and learn to live in a free and democratic society. Everyone I talked to — and you know me, I talk to a LOT of them — believe that they can accomplish this mission.
Tomorrow we fly up to Balad Air Base and I’ll see a friend of mine who is a General that I met in Korea years ago and a soldier that “save” my bag from being blown up when it fell off a truck when I was there in 2004!
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 31ST, 2006:
Karri and I woke up to NO water in our palatial bedroom! L Evidently they water to the entire building had been shut off to do something. Sure glad I took my shower last night.
We drove over to the Al Faw Palace so that everyone could take the tour. Karri, Dave and I had seen it before but it was so much fun to see it through the eyes of Jim, Kevin, and Robert who had never seen it. And, of course, the three of us who had already seen it still took the same photos again. We were able to get in to see General Odienro who I have known for several years. I met him when I had Chely Wright visiting the wounded at Walter Reed and Bethesda. He and his wife were there because there son was injured in Iraq and had lost his arm! He is a very tall, strong man and I am sure that no one wants to make him angry. But, to me, he is just a “big ole teddy bear” because he loves his men and women in the armed services so much. We also met the CSM for General Casey at the palace and then visited with the Calvary and all their top officers. They even fly “trigger” – a horse (plastic or something like it) over here. Took lots of photos with that! My friend – Chris – helped Dave secure some interviews that he needed for his stories once we get back to the U.S.
We had dinner with the troops at Camp Liberty – which is adjacent to Camp Victory where we spent the night. Had a little time to shop at a very small bizarre and then the PX. Signed autographs in the MWR building for the troops at Camp Liberty and then got on blackhawks to fly for about 15 minutes to Camp Loyalty. Camp Loyalty is located very close to the IZ (International Zone) and Sadr City – where a lot of the violence is occurring. Our escorts there didn’t lost any time getting us into the concrete buildings. We had to wear our flak vests and helmets the entire time we were outside because they have taken so many hits from mortars and rockets and have lost a lot of their men. I can’t even begin to tell you how many people came up to us and thanked us for coming to Camp Loyalty because other celebs don’t come there. They also said they were amazed that we would be allowed to come there because of their history of attacks. But, not once, did we feel like we were not being given excellent security. We signed autographs in a “theatre” and it would be a perfect place for Chely to perform an acoustic show when we return in March. This place has quite a history too, with another torture chamber that Saddam made regular use of when he was in power.
We flew from Loyalty to Balad Air Base. It is a huge base and has lots of nice amenities for the troops deployed there. I have been there several times and they take mortar hits regularly but the hits occur right outside the line and rarely injure anyone, My dear friend – General Robin Rand – is there for a year. I met him in 2003 in Korea when he was the “Wolf” at Kunsan and I had Chely Wright on tour there. I’ve promised to try and bring her to Balad when we come back as well. Jason Meadows is also on his second deployment to Balad. He saved my “life” in 2004 when my bag fell off the truck when the luggage was being delivered to our trailers. The driver didn’t see it fall off, so the bomb squad picked it up and would have blown it up if Jason had not intervened! We are staying in the same trailers again this time. They are called “wet trailers” because there is a bedroom on each end and a shared bathroom between them.
We had time to drop our bags and then drive to one of their 4 dining facilities for a very quick dinner and then autograph session. I didn’t get to eat very much because the troops were already lined up waiting for the autograph session to begin. I did get to see General Rand and several of his staff members and introduce them to my group. General Rand is another one of those amazing people that you get this sense of “greatness” just from a simple handshake. He cares so much about the men and women he serves with. Everyone I met and mentioned his name too while we were here had the same comment, “General Rand is a wonderful person”. It makes me feel so much better to know that our militarys being led by such wonderful, CARING people like General Rand, General Odierno, General Frutiger, General Bell, General Sargeant, General North, General Hagee, General Pace and all the countless other fine men and women I am so fortunate to meet on these tours.
Everyone signed autographs there for several hours and then we went to visit the Illinois National Guard because they have lost several members recently. Signed autographs there until about 10 minutes until midnight. Since there is no alcohol, we toasted each other with sparking grape juice….quite a “shock” for the members of this group. When the clock reach midnight and the start of January 1st, we were in a bus driving back to our lodging. We all took a photo of the clock in the bus. How exciting is that? But we all agreed that there is no where else we would rather be on New Year’s Eve or at any time for that matter.
I have to say that this has been a fabulous tour. I don’t think any of us has ever laughed so hard for so many days. Dave Price is unbelievably funny and plays off Robert – his producer. Karri is quick and witty and even Jim and Kevin kept us laughing. We could not have asked for a better group of people who got along so well – all with one common goal in mind – to cheer up the men and women we were able to visit and to let them know how much we appreciate and love them. I would say our mission was 100% successful. It was definitely heartwarming to see the young boys and girls (19-23 years old) standing in long lines with footballs under their arms waiting for autographs.
Since we added Dave at the last minute, a lot of the Camps did not realize he was on the tour. Dave turned it into an unbelievably humorous situation everywhere we went. Thank goodness for his fabulous sense of humor.
We are supposed to depart to Kuwait tomorrow morning and if all goes as planned, we will be back there by 1 or 2 pm tomorrow afternoon. I’ve asked them to set up an autograph session for us at one of the Kuwait Camps since they didn’t get a visit when we came in. Then, we’ll have a nice “wrap up” dinner, shower and head to the airport for a 2:20 am flight back to the U.S. – J
MONDAY, JANUARY 1ST, 2007!
I can see how the troops think that every day is Ground Hog Day. It’s hard for me to remember what day of the week it is and I only know the date because it is New Year’s Day!!!
Didn’t get much sleep because this is a 24-hour “air field” and there are huge C-17’s and F-16’s and lots of other aircraft taking off all hours of the night. It think I must have heard General Rand’s takeoff at about 5:45 am this morning! I also think the sirens went off right before I got in bed at 3 am this morning but was too tired to put on my “battle rattle” and go outside to check. By the time the sirens sound, the mortar or rocket has already struck and it’s really too late anyway.
Everyone gathered around for last minute photos and then we headed to the airfield. We have had such a great time – lots of “pranks” and good-natured practical jokes and teasing that have formed a lasting friendship between our little group. Dave, Karri and I know the “depression” we will go through for several days when we arrive back in America. You just want everyone to leave you alone for a little while so you can relive the wonderful memories and “process” everything that you experienced on the tour. Robert, Jim and Kevin will come to terms with it but I’ll give them a call to check on them next week. Mine will be easier to deal with this time because I can look forward to coming back in a matter of weeks. Life is so good. J
As we were getting on the C130, Karri realized that she had left her video camera somewhere. We had out escorts look everywhere but couldn’t find it. I’m hoping she has it somewhere with her luggage. Her neighbor had loaned it to her to video her trip and she was very reluctant to bring it with her. Hoping we’ll be lucky and locate it.
Robert has pretty much driven everyone nutty with his constant obsession about having some caps embroidered with Arabic names before we left. So, last night when we were signing autographs, he was all pumped up because someone was going to take him to get this done this morning before we departed. He had the caps all laid out on top of his duffle with names written out and ready to go at the Autograph Session. It was just too tempting –we hid them from him. Then I had our escort come up to me and tell me that the wheels up time had changed and we needed to be at the airfield at 6 am. You should have seen Robert’s face. He was so distressed that he wouldn’t get his caps embroidered because nothing would be open that early. He still hadn’t realized that they were missing. Then he asked about the laundry he had sent out that was supposed to be delivered the next morning before we left. The escort played right along and told him he would mail it to him and that mail had gotten so much quicker that he should have it within 4 to 6 weeks. Then Dave started playing along and whining about the fact that he had given them all his clothes for laundering, too. A few minutes later Robert said, “well just forget it because all my caps are gone anyway”! We did let him off the hook before midnight. Way too easy a target for this group.
When we land in Kuwait, hopefully our escort there will have arranged a little meet and greet for us at Camp Arifjan or somewhere. Super nice flight crew on this trip. They are Air Force active duty out of Little Rock, Arkansas. For some of them, it is their 4th deployment over here.
Our escorts met our plane and it was a surprisingly short 1 hour and 20 minute flight. When the luggage came off the plane, the flight crew found Karri’s video camera with it, thank goodness. We went straight to Camp Arifjan and they signed autographs for almost 2 hours. It was pretty easy to get the word out and a much larger crowd than I anticipated. Had time for everyone to do a little shopping at the base exchange and then drove to the hotel to check in for several hours of rest before our departure to the airport. We had a really nice “wrap party” dinner at the hotel with Dave and Robert “entertaining” us.
We didn’t encounter any problem checking in at the airport this time. The celebs really wanted to keep the spent cartridges from the 50 Cal that they were allowed to fire out of the UH 53 Chopper. But, after hearing some horror stories about other celebs and even some of the troops trying to get these out of the country, they decided not to risk the chance of being detained.
TUESDAY, JANUARY 2, 2007:
Our flight left on time but we had a chance to sit around in the Lounge at Kuwait and reminisce about the great trip and special moments we shared. The comment was made that some of us sounded like “old married couples” and it’s true. Lasting friendships form quickly on these tours and bonds are established that last a lifetime. I know that I will definitely entertain the possibility of taking more “handshake” tours into the remote areas that really need this. Being able to reach 12 camps in 3 ½ days is such a plus and while the troops love the musical shows, the most important thing for them is being able to shake hands and get an autograph from someone from in the U.S. who has come all that way to thank them.
We all passed out immediately when we got on the flight…didn’t even know if they served food or not. I woke up a couple of hours later and my bottle of water that I brought on board had fallen into my seat and leaked all over my top and the seat. I had to go into the lavatory and take off my top and wear my fleece jacket. I got an extra blanket from the flight attendant to put over the wet seat. Hung my top on the back of the seat in front of me to dry. I’m just glad I decided to pack my big coat and take the fleece on the flight.
We landed in Frankfurt and we were all leaving from different gates at different times to fly back to our hometowns in the U.S. Said some fond farewells and headed out. I was flying back with Jim and was able to get us both a free “segment upgrade” from business to first class. I’ll be in of the little “puddle-jumpers” from Chicago to Nashville, so it will be nice to enjoy a little first class comfort on this part of the trip.
We have a really sweet flight crew on this flight – United Airlines. So much better than what we encountered with Lufthansa from Chicago to Frankfurt!
Had about a 2 hour layover in Chicago. Said a grateful goodbye to Jim for such a wonderful tour and then tried to answer some more emails until flight time. I downloaded my photos and was looking through them. There is a great photo of just our group at the last base in Iraq and then I noticed that Dave Price is holding a black ski mask like the ones worn by Saddam’s executioners. He is such a funny, funny man! Flight to Nashville was on a small plane but no turbulence, so it was okay. Landed on time and got all my luggage. Now it’s time to try and come down off the “high” from having such a fantastic trip.