Akey in the Mid-East, PART 1

GoVandals.Net is proud to share the entire content of Coach Akey's media session regarding his recent trip to the middle east. It is obvious from his experiences and comments that teamwork will be a focus with the 2009 Vandal football team when they hold their first practice on August 8th. Inside is Part 1 of our two-part complete transcript of his meeting with the media in Moscow.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Earlier this summer, Idaho Head Football Coach Robb Akey, was invited to travel to the middle east and Afghanistan and participate in a morale-building mission to American troops. Four hours after his return he left for a short vacation, and upon his return from vacation Coach Akey sat down with the local media and talked about the trip, the troops, the teamwork, and the Vandal connections.

On how Robb Akey ended up traveling to the Middle East and Afghanistan:

Well, I got a letter from Ryan Copley. He's out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and he's got a contract with the United States Army and he's NWR -- they call them missions basically, bringing different people over to visit the troops, see the troops, help with the morale, different kinds of things. I got an invitation and I had responded to it, and it [a reply letter back to Coach Akey] kind of sat there on my desk for a little while. I came back from a couple of trips, opened it up, and I said, "Holy cow."

The first thing that popped into my head on this, was I remembered back to 2003 when I was coaching at Washington State, we were down at the Holiday Bowl, and one of the functions that they put on with the Holiday Bowl is a luncheon out there on an aircraft carrier. So there was us and our team and our travel party and the band and all those folks, and there was Texas and their team and travel party. Same bit. There was this head table full of admirals and generals and dignitaries from town. They're making a big deal out of this football game that we were fixing to play. Well, after they got everything going they showed this highlight video, and you look at the faces on that video and it was our kids that were fighting in Iraq, and those kids were younger than the kids that we were coaching, some of them. I thought to myself, "We've got this thing backwards. We should be thanking them, not them making a big deal out of us."

So that was what popped into my head as I was reading that letter. Here's an opportunity to put my money where my mouth was; so I had responded back to him and it worked out and we got the trip put together, and I'm very grateful that I went over there.

On the logistics to actually get there:

We flew out of here…actually Spokane, Spokane to Denver and in Denver picked up Bobby Hauck, the head coach at Montana. We flew into Washington, DC, had a nice six-hour layover there, and that's where we picked up Mickey Matthews who's the head coach at James Madison - great guy - and Chris Smeland, who's an assistant coach at Army. And then we flew from there to Doha in Qatar, and that's where the Rice coach, a gentleman by the name of Dave Roberts, who was kind of our tour guide – he's a retired Air Force pilot - we met up there.

We've got two bases there, an Army base and an Air Force base. It was something. I mean it's 117 degrees there. You look up and you can't even see the sky. It's brown just from the dust and all that's in the air. This base of ours, a lot of what we need in Iraq and Afghanistan is shipped out of there. It's where our guys go when they get their R-and-R time. That's where they come back to to get their little break and then they go back into the battlefield. We spent about a day there and got an opportunity to meet a ton of kids there. They were kind of relieved a little bit. They were getting a little bit of some break time.

Anyhow, we flew from there another day later. It kind of got delayed a little bit and I found out why after we got there. We flew from there to Kandahar, which is in Afghanistan, kind of the southern end of Afghanistan. As a matter of fact there were some troops going back in with us when we flew in there, and obviously a number that were getting an opportunity to go home; so we got over to the Air Force base and then we flew a military plane into Kandahar through the night. We got up and they had some deals set up for us during the day. So, we got to meet as many of the kids there as we could.

While we were there I came to find out why our stay at Camp As Sayliyah got extended. That was due to the fact that one of the operating bases that we were going to go visit that day had had two kids get killed in a battle there. As we're flying, talking to the pilots I found out that the base we were going to stay at had been hit with a truck-bombing, and there were two kids who got killed there and another 16 had gotten injured. All the allied forces are at this particular base, and there was a helicopter that the Canadians had that had gone down. There were some somber moments in there. Things were really starting to heat up with the Marines down south, and things were really getting heated up in that area at that point in time.

Unfortunately, six kids got sent home the wrong way out of there while we were at the base at that point in time, so that kind of puts a little … it alerts you to what you're dealing with, what these kids are dealing with every day.

We had an opportunity to meet a number of the forces, and then flew from there. We went up north to Bagram, and we had again another opportunity to see a number of kids. We've got the huge base there, and we got to get out to some of the operating bases. There were actually intentions to get out to more of those, but with the fighting going on the way that it was, that limited some of our accessibility. But, the ones we were able to get to, it was an unbelievable, unbelievable experience.

The thing that stood out to me more than anything was the morale of our kids that are fighting for us. I mean, they've got their lives on the line everyday. They're fighting for freedom. They're fighting for us, and they were…they couldn't wait to talk to us. That was the thing. I said, "Y'all don't know us very well, do you?" But it was a piece of back home that was coming to them.

I think another one of the reasons I wanted to go on this mission was the fact I think too many times we don't let them … do they really know that we appreciate what is being done for us? You know, it's not like World War II where everybody was all gung-ho into the deal. I think in a lot of ways our country got real patriotic when things happened in New York City, and that lasted for a little while, And then … do people really pay attention to what our kids are doing for us everyday? So, this is an opportunity to thank THEM, and boy it went a long ways.

Anyhow, while we were up there in Bagram we had an opportunity to fly over a lot of places, see a lot of things. We went to visit some of these other bases, but there are kids that are re-enlisting. They're coming back in. We've got private contractors over there that are helping make things work. A number of them … I mean they're kids that are younger than some of the kids that I'm coaching here.

These guys depend on each other. The teamwork that they have, the morale that they have, the pride in the job that they all do, whatever it is they take … I'd be going on and on forever. That was what stood out to me the most, and their lives are on the line. While we were in Bagram we got rocketed that night, one of the nights we were there, and they went out and hunted those guys down. It's what they do, and it's all intended to keep us free.

Regarding what was expected and what was seen and experienced:

Well, it didn't differ because I had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. I really didn't. I had no idea what to expect. You go into a deal like this and think "They're not going to let you get too far into harm's way." But, at what point in time is it a really good idea to go visit a war?

So when you see some of those things going on that … I guess I got a better awareness of what it is that we're going to accomplish over there, because I don't think that that always gets out in the media -- what's going on. I guess I kind of had a little bit of an expectation when you're dealing with … I mean we're talking about dealing with the weather and different things like that that are going on.

That in itself is one thing, and then you've got people that are trying to kill you while you're doing your job. That stood out to me quite a lot. Some of our kids are out there in the bases that they're in, the things that they're doing, there's no running water or anything like that. The morale, the spirit, the pride that they all had in what they did. I guess that really stood out to me big time.

I guess you'd kind of expect, you know, it's easy to hear some guys whine: "Oh, it's hot today coach. I don't know if I can go to practice." Well, they don't have an option, you know? I'm dying for some kid to tell me it's going to be hot here during two-a-days. They don't have options and yet they couldn't wait to go do their job everyday, and they're proud of what they did. They're re-enlisting to continue to do it. That really stood out to me.

On Coach Akey's message to the troops:

I looked every one of ‘em in the eye and thanked them for what do for us, and at the same time they're telling us, "Well, thank you for being here." No, thank YOU for being here. That's what matters. You guys are giving us the opportunity when we go back home we can lay our head on the pillow at night and know that we're safe, know that our kids are safe.

I get the opportunity to do a job like coaching football. I thanked them sincerely for what they're doing for all of us, because that's what stood out to us. We were visiting with a fighter pilot crew and squadron. They fly the F-15s up there. They were awesome. They were excited to see us and they were kind of bragging up a little bit the things that they do, and they showed us their planes and different deals that they did. I was walking with one of the pilots around. He said, "I really what to thank you guys for being here. I can't tell you how much it means to us, because we don't always know that the people back home are entirely behind us, see, because when we get deployed to come out here we get the demonstrators at the airport that tell us that we're bad people for doing what we do." That seemed to mean a lot to them, that they got a piece of "back home." That was big, too.

You see their faces and there are a lot of them out there and they're walking around and you say "HI" to them and they kinda perk up a little bit. You sit there and you tell them "thank you" and their eyes start to sparkle and they start talking about back home. It's kinda like a little escape, I think, for them for a brief period time. They kinda rejuvenate a little bit, get a little distraction, and I think that's the way it is with all the groups that come over, and there have been a number of different people that have gone over and done these things. It helps the morale of our guys. As a matter of fact I just opened up a letter from the commanding officer at As Sayliyah and that was kinda what he put into words, thanking us for what we had done.

On the length of the trip:

It was a 10-day trip overall. It took us two days to get there and it still took us two days to get back, but it was all the same day, too. We were fighting against the time zones. It was something.

Q: So you were in Afghanistan for six days?


Q: What day did you get back?

I got back on Sunday, what was that, the 13th? Or Monday the 13th? I landed in Spokane on Sunday night. I got to my house - the plane was delayed in Denver - and got to my house at 2 o'clock in the morning, and at 6:30 in the morning I left and got on the back of a horse and went fishing for four days. I just got back here (Moscow) last night.

On Coach Akey's wife's feelings about the trip:

Initially she thought it was a great idea, and I think as it got a little bit closer to the time period, she was thinking, "What are you doing?" But I think she was fired up about the chance, to go do that. But the boys were asking me, "Daddy, do you really have to go to Afghanistan?" They thought it was a cool thing, but at the same time they worry about what's going on over there. But she was supportive of it big time.

On meeting Idaho alumni on the trip

Well, that was what, a small world? I mean, we're on the other side of the planet and you're running into people. When we were down there at Kandahar I'm walking through and I hear a, "Go Vandals!" I look up and there's a colonel who grew up in Potlatch. His folks just retired from Washington State University. I mean, they're still around here. Up at Bagram, we're in with the fighter squadron, the pilots. I'm standing there in the locker room and there's a gal in there that was part of the crew helping everything go on, she's from Wenatchee, stationed up at Fairchild in Spokane, and she knows people that I know. I'm standing in there and I hear this voice say, "Where's coach Akey? I gotta see coach Akey," and that was Lucky Tucker, a pilot, he's another Idaho alum. His folks are farming outside of Colfax over here. It's a little bitty world.

We got the opportunity to visit with the Special Forces guys on Friday night prior to us heading back this way, and the Special Forces guys, now they're their own deal. They're a different outfit. They've got their own base within the base out there at Bagram. So, we're having dinner with them on this evening and the guy's waiting to take us on a tour, explaining what the Special Forces do, what their missions are, the things that they do, that kind of a deal. I look and the guy's got a Weber State football T-shirt on from 1992. I'm looking at him and he was an assistant equipment manager when I was coaching at Weber State, and he's the commandant! He's a major in the Army and a commandant of that outfit over there now.

Obviously with a number of people from Mountain Home and from Fairchild right up the road here, you run into a lot of those folks over there; so that was a good thing.

Obviously having grown up in Colorado Springs there's the Air Force Academy, Peterson Field Air Force Base, and Ft. Carson Army base down to the south. There was a lot of common theme in talking to some of the kids there. There was one who could have been 19, 20 years old who lives around the corner from where my mom lives now. It's just an amazing little world.

LINK: Akey in the Mid-East, PART 2

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