Photos from the Tour

American Idol top 5 finalist, Jessica Sierra, and a “hot” new band from the Boston area, OSB, traveled to Iraq for the July 4th Independence Day holiday to entertain our soldiers and give a much needed morale boost.

Courtesy of Jim Cantale

Day One – June 29, 2006:
The flight from LAX to Boston Logan is fairly routine except for the clouds that blanket the Eastern US scrolling by below us.  I say a short prayer that the weather does not delay the departure of our group from Boston to London Heathrow in the morning.
In Boston, I check in to the Airport Hilton and immediately log in to the $9.95 high speed internet connection in the room to catch up on a few emails.  In just a few hours I will trek back to the airport to meet JS and company.
I get to the airport early and monitor the incoming flight that has been delayed by an hour killing the time wandering the baggage area, securing a luggage cart, and purchasing a bottle of water for my parched throat.
Finally the onscreen display shows flight 5626 from Nashville has landed, baggage to be claimed at carousel #4.
As I people watch the claim area and new arrivals, I spot a young man on the opposite side of the carousel making a cell call and miraculously my pocket begins to vibrate.  I raise my hand and laugh as Jessica, her manager, and soundman, and me discover one another.
The Baggage collected and stacked on the cart, Performer in tow, we head for the courtesy bus stop across the street to meet the Hilton Shuttle.
Later that evening, at a brief dinner in the Hotel Pub, I find Jessica and company to be nice bunch of young folks and I begin to look forward to the adventure ahead and the faces of the US Service men and women they will entertain.
One group down,  one to go. A 6:30 Lobby call is set for the morning. Tomorrow we hook up with the OSB band at the American Airlines terminal prior to our departure to Kuwait via London.

Day two – June 30, 2006:
Right on time and ahead of schedule (6:30 am) I receive a cell phone call from Jim Brindisi of OSB as Jessica and co and myself board the shuttle bus to the airport.
We arrive ahead of schedule and somehow miss the OSB Boys, but check JS & Co in from the Business Class line and spot the band as we finish.  I get a counter person to check them in as a group and they are checked in with no additional bag costs, we head for the gate and two 6 hr flights to London and then Kuwait.

Day 3 – July 1, 2006:
Both flights go off without a hitch and we arrive in Kuwait 10 mins early.  Small snafu at customs when OSB tech is unable to find his passport.  I send him and the TM back to the gate and it is finally located on the aircraft.
In baggage we discover that the brown duffle and one of Ed’s bags are missing.  Ed is kind enough to file the report while I get everyone on the bus and off to the hotel for check in.
I wait for Ed and we transport back together.
Back out the hotel we learn that the bag will arrive on our same flight tomorrow, first thing in the am.  The hotel, God love ‘em, are all over it and will facilitate the transfer.  It turns out that I have stayed here before and the Desk Manager and Bellman remember me and give me a warm and Royal Welcome.
Jessica and I have breakfast together, then Jessica, Ball of Fire, instigates the movement for some band and crew to hit the pool.    I pull Ed and Jim into a meeting to discuss the Arifjan Day ahead with our escorts and all ends well.  The bulk of us settle in to rooms and naps.
After a few hours Nap time I round up the tech guys and we bump in to Jim B in the lobby and go through all the possible tech scenarios based on my past experiences.  We sit for several hrs in the lobby casually talking tech and getting acquainted.  I give the crew pointers on how to make things happen with KBR.   The two OSB crew are young but eager and excited. With my input they should be able to push the right buttons onsite to make things happen.  I have a high confidence level there.  More on that after our first show.
Later JS & Co opt for sleep and the OSB Boys and me go to dinner and read through the itinerary, once again reiterating the rules regarding shoes, shorts, day flow etc.  More on that too with one under our belt.   Very High level of excitement from everyone so far.
PS: Everyone ecstatic over their rooms.
End of Day

There is and air of excitement emanating from the performers as I load the last of the OSB band and Jessica Sierra entourage on to the MWR bus that will take them to Arifjan, the base in Kuwait that they will perform at tonight to kick off the following weeks  Iraq tour.  I look around at the faces of the performers, managers, and crew that I will guide through the tour of US installations in the Iraqi desert during the coming week and at this point I feel a genuine warmth and affection for them all.
In my heart though I know that touring, especially in rugged conditions such as these, can be a roller coaster ride covering the full range of emotions. Having done similar routings in the past,I can’t help but wonder how they will hold up in the coming days, since our itinerary is gruelling at best even for the old salts like myself and the local Kuwaiti sound crew. For now I give them all the benefit of the doubt and pledge to myself that I will do my best to be a positive influence and keep them all on track and in focus this on the task at hand which is to bring a little bit of joy and home to the men and women of the US armed forces in the field.  This iis the mission we have have all accepted and I am here to keep it all on track and make it happen.
At Arifjan we make a quick stop for a fast bite to eat before meeting the general and learn that the general is otherwise engaged and the Colonel will now greet and brief us. In a large meeting room, the entire troupe listens intensely to the brief as the Colonel goes through the do’s and don’ts of the desert and interactions with the military: Drink lots of water, don’t hesitate to ask for help from the medics, picture taking etiquette, local customs, and on and on.  In the end he passes out certificates of thanks and he and his Sergeant Major’s coins as a token of appreciation to those who have made the trip.  Noticing that no one is wearing a hat, and myself having been quarantined by medics on my last visit for not drinking enough water and almost passing out, I request the Sergeant Major issue “boonie” (US military issue floppy) hats to the troupe.  In a matter of minutes  each member is issued a regulation “boonie” hat which they cherish among their first souvenirs of the coming adventure.
Sound Check is completed routinely and we move on to showtime and an excellent performance by both groups. The evening ends a bit awkwardly and I make a mental note to speak to the entertainers  about finding an ending that works well without causing “dead air” or lengthy “stage waits”.
However, the length of the autograph line proves the show was extremely well received regardless of my constructive professional criticisms and there is excitement and high energy on the bus ride back to the hotel.
Jim Cantale

FOB Sykes
I was able to get Jessica a ride in the “jump” seat of the C-130, with Chief Pace’s help of course.  The Flight crew loved it. They don’t get much in the way of entertainment.   We arrived at the FOB, were received grandly and escorted directly to the Show site.  Jessica and the band were given a tour of the Apache flight line and many of the ground crew guys got some unexpected contact with her and were quite surprised.
The crew had a bit of difficulty which was soon overcome.  The show was extremely well received.  Jessica was a big hit with the guys and posed for pictures long after the autograph line died down.  Mostly with young guys her age who were thrilled to see her and couldn’t get enough.  The band, at my suggestion, began relating more to the audience and soon got them going as well.  Many lingerers after the show.  Mission accomplished.

Arrived in Baghdad and were met by a young Captain and his crew who were very organised and had us on our way and in Billeting in no time. Billeting, as it turns out, was one of Saddam’s palaces turned DVQ.  The Band stayed in the main building and we the crew, (me, Chief Pace, and our Security Escort, Marine Gunny Mark) all bunked out in the guest house which was quite comfortable.  We can now say “We have relieved ourselves in Sadaams personal bathroom”.  And,taken showers there too.
Show in Baghdad was in a little town Park area outside the DFAC that had a nice little stage and some bleachers in a sort of Grove of trees.  Crowd was small, about 300.  Jessica was taken ill and walked off after 3 songs.  I called in the medics to try and give her a b-12 shot and an I-V.  Neither was recommended and she was released back in time for autographs which went extremely well….tons of Pix.

Balad – Camp Anaconda
I hardly recognized this place as it has changed much since I was here last.  More permanent structures give it a “permanent” feel.
Performers get a tour of new technology that allows a protective coating to be sprayed on tanker trucks enabling them to withstand a direct hit with a 50 cal round and seal themselves up with one hour….impressive.  Also see new stryker vehicles with automated turrets and ride over to the show in them….good shots of that.
The show here is in the theatre and gives all the performers a boost to be playing indoors again and not in the heat.  This is by far our best show to about 450 appreciative people.
Jessica does her full set and in the end everyone is Jazzed.  Autograph line runs out in to the lobby and a good time is had by all.  Good crowd and autograph line shots.
2:19 am and I just find out that we may have to roust everyone early to be on a 6am flight. I will continue to check emails until I get the word.  If so, I will stay up and just knock on doors at the appropriate time.
More from the next stop.
Things smoothed out here again last night as they always do and the Balad show was great.  There is a new DOD rep at Balad and she says she met Judy in Germany.  Forgot her name in all the madness.
The Balad MWR staff and crew are EXCELLENT and took good care of everyone.

Al Asad
The flight into Al Asad is the most interesting of the tour.  A lot of Rockin and Rollin and moving and turning and all the other stuff including heavy air breaks on the landing.  Good young crew that are thrilled to get the pictures I always give the flight crews.  MWR is right on time and takes everyone directly to lodging and then to the DFAC for lunch.  I must say the food on this trip has been plentiful and tasty Moms home cooking type of fare.
After the DFAC we head out to a Marine Helicopter base for a walk through with the various crews.
I take some shots of the guys with Jessica and OSB and we head off to sound check where I email them directly to the kids and download all my shots to date to a flash drive.  We blow off a visit to an officer program graduation in the interest of time and making the sound check on time.  Once again, back to the DFAC for dinner, a ride back to billeting and some rest for the performers.  I even catch 20 minutes of nap myself!
At present I am sitting in the MWR office outside the show room where 500 or so people have drifted in and out, a very respectable turn out.  For future reference, I noticed that MWR had people at the DFAC exit tonight passing out leaflets advertising the show.
Jessica has finished and a fired up OSB has taken the stage and is in the middle of a good sounding set.
Although I’m looking forward to the return to Kuwait and the final leg of the trip, I’m a little bit sad to be leaving all the great folks we’ve met this trip at every stop. This is a common occurrence with me and it happens every time I finish one of these.  I somehow feel like I’m abandoning my post.  I must have been a soldier in my last life.
One thing I think deserves special attention is our Escort Chris Pace and Mark our Marine investigator / Escort.  I can’t say enough about them and the hard work and attention they have paid to getting us efficiently and safely from place to place.  Chris is absolutely the best and Mark, being a former white house Marine in the Reagan administration is a consummate pro.  I love these guys and would work with them again anytime, anyplace.
Back in Kuwait tomorrow we will have the day off and I will treat everyone to the great Buffet Dinner at the hotel courtesy of Stars for Stripes.

Al Asad PS
Returned to billeting last night where Chris Pace and I share a room with 2 beds with sheets and no blankets. I use my small duffle for a pillow and a rugged spare shirt for a blanket and sleep the best sleep, though short, of the tour.
A trip to the shooting range has been arranged and we all arrive and get a quick weapons brief before the Band, Jessica, Managers, and crew step up to the firing line.  I opt out to act as photographer and get some great shots.  I hear a familiar accent from one of the guys and find that he is from Brooklyn, NY one of my adopted home town.  He sounded a little like the Actor John Leguizamo and I picked up on it right away.  We have a short conversation as we head to the airport vehicles and I promise to bring him an “Egg Cream, Kinish, and a Pastrami sandwich hnext time I pass through.  Short drive to the airport where the Plane is waiting, We say goodbye to our new friends at Al Asad and are airborne in the usual time.  A bit of a scare while loading though…no luggage palllet, which shows up eventually and easily makes the flight after a little adjustment to the seat configuration.  Addressing Suleimans concern, I tell him that he is justified since it was me that took him on his first Iraqi tour and showed him how to count and keep an eye on the aircraft pallets as they are brought to the plane.  I tell him that there will be a pop quiz after each tour.  Suleiman, James, and their new “boy” who I have affectionately named “Michael Jackson” ( no one including the locals has ever used his real name, Rahan)  have done a great job and the two sound guys from the band have worked together with them over and above their expectations, even staying each night to load the pallets.  I’m very proud of them all.
Enroute, we stop back at Balad for fuel…I know, Geographically it doesn’t make sense, but that’s where the fuel is.  A short layover and we are airborne once again and headed for Kuwait.  Great young Crew on this one including a cute female load master.  They are appreciative of the pictures the performers sign for them as we begin our decent into Kuwait.  More later, and all the best.
Jim Cantale

Last day…..
I’m sitting in a 4 star hotel room in Kuwait enjoying the air conditioning, clean sheets, and upscale environment, about to leave for my home in Los Angeles at 0500, thinking about how easy we back home have it compared to the all the men and women we have just visited in all the camps throughout Iraq who have given up so much to do the great work they do in the field.  On behalf of Judy Seale, I took Jessica Sierra and the OSB band for a farewell dinner tonight in the hotel and our conversations reflected the pride we all have in you all and the sense of satisfaction we receive from giving up a few of our luxuries for a few days to give something to you, the men and women of the armed forces, who have given up so much for us. To the man they all agree that the impact of their Iraqi visit will be with them for the rest of their lives.  Likewise for me who will probably return with other shows, proudly nonetheless.  Please know that we are all grateful for the work all of you do and that you all remain in all our hearts thoughts, and prayers.  Please feel free to forward or post this as a general thank you from us to you.
Best Regards for a safe return,
Jim Cantale
Tour Coordinator for Stars For Stripes