As this is my last entry about my visit to the troops in Kuwait and Iraq, I have to start by saying that I have a newfound respect for what the men and women serving our country do over here! I’ve been here just over a week and I’m already a wreck! I left my clippers stateside, thinking I wouldn’t shave as part of my “tough it out with troops” mentality and then I realized, “Crap, they are required to be clean shaven!”
As a result, my face and neck are like sandpaper and all this dust flying around isn’t helping! I wonder if the troops exfoliate. At any rate, not only am I in dire need of a meet-and-greet with some clippers, my body in general is feeling the effects of the trip. I already stated the complications of the time change. That, accompanied by the horrible diet I’m maintaining, has me ready to join one of those fad diets for the next three days!
The food here isn’t all that bad, actually. The food the troops are served in the D-FAC (military talk for dining facility) is both good and nutritious… assuming you choose right, that is. Honestly, though, I seldom did. As a result, it only worsened how my body felt because it’s also the offseason for me and I haven’t worked out much lately (by “much” I mean at all). I was feeling so unhealthy and unathletic that I started drinking V-8’s! A few years back, I swore that was the devil’s juice and vowed to never drink them. I guess a week overseas changed all that.
They also have quite the selection of fast-food restaurants scattered about and, of course, Starbucks has made its way across the water. There was a KFC, Burger King, and even a Nathan’s and Pizza Hut. Believe it or not, they also had one of those fast-food Chinese restaurants. To be honest, I don’t eat that stuff at home, but the fast-food in these joints isn’t that bad by any means. Still, it’s not same. We encountered a soldier passing by and the following convo followed:
Me: “So how is the food here?”
Soldier: “The food isn’t bad, but it is a little … off”
Me: “Will I harm my career by eating it?”
Soldier: “Uhhh, no Sammy, all the soldiers eat it and this base has been here for quite sometime.”
After an uncomfortable silence that lasted for what seemed like 30 minutes:
Me: “So, just what exactly does ‘off’ mean?”
Soldier: “Well, at the Burger King, for example, the Whoppers taste pretty good initially but they have an odd, or off, aftertaste. Again, not bad, just off. The Subway is about the closet thing to normal.”
Me: “What about the KFC? The ‘C’ doesn’t stand for ‘camel,’ does it?! (I’m the only one laughing)
Soldier: “Uhhh, no Sammy, it is chicken, but as with the Burger King, it’s just not the same. Besides, the camel is held in high regard out here.”
Me: (stammering profusely) “I, uhh, well, ahem, uhh, umm, so how far is Iraq from here again?”
And that is exactly where our next destination was. We were able to visit a few bases in Iraq — Bucca, Basrah — and then we went into Baghdad.
While in Bucca, we were invited to watch a re-enlistment ceremony. Being an athlete, I know a little something about paying attention to detail and discipline, but watching this ceremony was an amazing display of both. Every movement was so precise and calculated that it left me in awe. Watching the soldiers and hearing the oaths they offered in acceptance of their re-enlistment was unbelievable.
The aspect I found most interesting about Camp Bucca was that it had a fairly large prison, or “theatre,” as they called it. An odd name for sure, but I had an incessant desire to enter the prison. They wouldn’t let us go in no matter how hard we pleaded. I told them that I may be the first person to actually try to break into the prison! My desire to go lessened some when they told me that some of the inmates throw things at those passing by. I won’t say what those “things” are, but I will say that it rhymes with “CiCi’s” — and I’m not talking the pizza chain!
After an enjoyable day here, we packed up the Blackhawk and headed to Basrah — a base that is actually controlled by British forces in the second-largest city in Iraq. Now, how would it make you feel to inhabit the second-largest city in the country when only 30 percent of that city is serviced by water and sewers? A dismal 30 percent! A large reason why this city is struggling today is because it was in serious decline during the Saddam era. Among other things, Hussein had all the city’s trees cut down and the canal system destroyed.
We learned so much while on this base, everything from the history of Basrah and Saddam to the British involvement with the base. We even got to see and ride in what is called the M-RAP — which stands for mine-resistant-ambush-protected vehicle. The name alone tells you that it is a monstrous vehicle! We were also introduced to the Apache helicopter, which is my new favorite military vehicle. We got to sit in one and wear the pilot’s helmet. We also got to actually hold the missiles, as well as some of the ammo! Mr. Freeze, an Apache pilot (that is seriously his name), gave us a detailed tour of the chopper. He explained to us how the gun underneath is aimed, which was unbelievable. In not-so-technical terms, something in the cockpit is aligned with something in the pilot’s helmet so all the pilot has to do is turn his head and look where he wants to shoot and pull the trigger!
This base was probably the closest to what I pictured when I agreed to go on this trip. It’s located way out in the desert, all the “roads” were rocky, and of course all the Humvees and M-RAPs patrolling the area made for quite the scene.
Anticipating the visit to Baghdad had me the most nervous. I had no clue about the entire area, other than the fact that my brother has been deployed there and that it’s a war zone, so naturally the fear of unknowns plagued me. We were guarded at all times and though things are a lot less dangerous these days, the fact that we had to be guarded at all times and wear a helmet and bulletproof vest was enough to raise my heart rate! In Baghdad, we saw some pretty amazing things.
We visited the Al-Faw Palace, which is one of several palaces Saddam owned. To say the least, he spared no expense! It was kind of weird to see the Sadaam’s throne-like chair — a gift given by none other than Yassir Arafat. The palace is now a U.S. complex and it’s here we met the current Commanding General, General Raymond T.
Odierno. Though he is a Giants fan, it was still an experience meeting him. We also met a two-star general, General Jeffery Hammond. I had an extensive conversation with him that was both awkward and enthralling.
By awkward, I simply mean that it’s “weird” to hear about the details of his job. He showed me areas of high combat on a map that covered the wall. He told me about a time when two women dressed in all black had explosives strapped to their bodies. The women were also mentally retarded. They had just enough dynamite to blow themselves up but not destroy their heads. The reasoning behind this was that they wanted people to know who did it. That’s the grim reality of what our soldiers face everyday when they patrol the town. It would take hours to share all that General Odierno told us. One theme that he kept sharing was that he would do whatever it took to protect his men. As the leader of so many in a combat zone, I could not imagine the difficulty in making the daily decisions he is faced with. It was awesome to hear the love and admiration he had for his troops. You could feel it in his voice as he spoke with such conviction. Again, it was a powerful experience.
Watching the Super Bowl with the troops in Kuwait was quite the experience. First off, the day was odd in general because we didn’t do much the whole day due to the fact that the game wouldn’t kick off until after 2 a.m. local time, and we had to rest up because we would be leaving the following afternoon for Iraq.
Imagine that: Most people have to rest up after the big game due to the after effects of drinking, trash-talking and the occasional fighting at Super Bowl parties! Yet we found ourselves resting up before the game in anticipation of a long night.
We actually watched the game in two locations. We left one base at halftime to head to another. And before you start to wonder why in the world we didn’t stick around and watch the halftime show and commercials (probably the best part when you aren’t participating in the game), they actually don’t show any of the famed Super Bowl commercials on military bases… not a single one!
The Steelers fans greatly outnumbered the Cardinals fans at both bases, and this was made obvious when big plays occurred. At any rate, I found it crazy how many times I was asked who I was rooting for. I always replied that I assumed they wanted to know who I thought would win, which is a far cry from “going for either team!” I couldn’t bring myself to actually cheer for either team. I’m not bitter or anything — there might have been one or two other playoff teams I would have pulled for. To be quite honest, we mostly played dominoes with some of the troops during the game — and where I was sitting, I had my back to the game, turning around occasionally when people cheered or to watch the replays. Again, I’m not bitter!
This trip was simply amazing. I am so thankful for the opportunity and will cherish the memory. There is so much more I could write about, but unfortunately there isn’t enough time. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and would absolutely do it again!