DAY 3 -- BAGHDAD AND BEYOND (MARCH 7)
Breakfast at the DFAC found us seated with a spirited soldier from Mississippi who had strong views on his favorite team, the Atlanta Falcons.
"Where's Alge? Where's Alge?" he screamed when he learned that Alge Crumpler was with our group but just hadn't made it to breakfast yet. Without Alge to pepper with questions about catching passes from Michael Vick or the new coaching schemes of Bobby Petrino, the soldier settled for quizzing Shelton Quarles about his Buccaneers' intra-division battles with the Falcons.
One thing I've learned here in Iraq is that despite being halfway around the world, the soldiers do a great job of keeping up with NFL football. They often catch games live on Armed Forces Radio and TV Network, even though the eight-hour time difference often has them watching in the middle of the night. The televisions in the DFAC are always tuned to ESPN or other sports programming. Yesterday, NFL Live on ESPN was on television, which allowed the guys to get updated on the new free-agent signings.
Our itinerary for Day 3 called for us to leave Baghdad on a C-130 at 0900 hours. However, when we arrived at B.I.A.P. (Baghdad International Airport) we learned that our plane had been diverted and our departure was now scheduled for 1300 hours. We now had four hours to kill at B.I.A.P., so we set up a meet-and-greet with troops on-site. The players signed approximately 150-200 autographs each and had nearly as many pictures snapped with them.
The commanding officer on the base was Colonel Brian Meal of the 447th Air Expeditionary Group. He "coined" all of our players (with Army insignia coins) before we finished the signing. The four players then met with the fire department crew that was responsible for B.I.A.P. The fire department was comprised of National Guardsmen from the U.S. who are firemen back home.
After chatting with the firemen and signing autographs, the players asked if they could take a spin in the fire truck. Since all four players couldn't fit into the first fire truck, the firemen brought out a second truck to accommodate everyone. The only problem was that the firemen took the players on such an extended tour of the airbase that SMSgt Brown, who heads the fire department, became worried he would miss an 1100 hours meeting with a group of Iraqis that they are training to become the first post-Saddam fire department in Baghdad.
It is these kinds of stories -- of American firemen who are overseas as members of the National Guard and in turn helping to establish an Iraqi fire department -- that we don't hear enough about back in the States.
After two delays, our 0900 departure didn't actually take place until 1500 hours. One thing I was warned about before departing for this trip (my first overseas tour with the USO) was the need to be flexible. Regardless of what our daily itinerary said, I was told to expect it to change at least once. When you are in a war zone, things are always in flux and air assets get redeployed by commanders all the time due to "military need."
Military need sure sounded like a better rationale for a delayed flight than the usual explanations you hear when flying commercial such as, "unusual weather patterns in the Midwest."
Once we were finally airborne, the C-130 took us to Al Ased in Anbar Province in western Iraq. We had intended to do a meet-and-greet at Al Ased but due to our delayed schedule we just stopped there briefly. The players would have liked to spend more time with the troops in Al Ased, but the players made sure they wouldn't be totally disappointed. They had taken advantage of the delay in the morning to "pre-sign" hundreds of photos and then handed them out to the soldiers at the base. After our brief stop in Al Ased, the group split in half. We then boarded two Chinook helicopters, which transported us to Barwanah, a very small base in Anbar Province.
Flying to Barwanah gave a great sense of the vastness of the Iraqi desert and the isolation of some of our "forward operating bases" or FOBS. The Barwanah base seemed like it was not just located in a remote part of a foreign country; it felt like it was on another planet.
The ground at Barwanah was covered with extremely fine sand the soldiers called, "moon dust." I could best describe it as light brown baby powder or talcum powder. And there were large accumulations of it in many places such that it was more than six inches deep. In many places, you would take a step and find your entire foot and ankle sink into this "moon dust."
Needless to say, because of the remoteness of Barwanah, not many visitors get to make the trip to see the 300 or so troops stationed there. In fact, we learned upon our arrival we were the first group of DVs (distinguished visitors) to ever step foot on the base. Out of all the entertainers, athletes, politicians and other civilians that go overseas to visit with American troops, no group before us had ever set foot in Barwanah.
Partially for this reason, our visit was probably the most impactful stop on our tour to date. The soldiers stationed in Barwanah were so appreciative of our coming to see them. You could see it in their faces and hear it in their words.
As Cpl. Joshua Guzon of Auburn, Calif. said, "To see these NFL players give up part of their time off to visit us in this deep corner of the world is just amazing. I didn't think anyone knew that we were here. So now these guys know what it is like for us."
As valuable as our visit was for the Marines in Barwanah, I think that our group of players might have gotten more out of it than the troops they visited did.
As Will Shields writes:
Wow! What a sight to behold. The thought of being the first group to visit these troops was amazing. We hit the ground with a cloud of dust blowing all over us. Cool, I thought. All simple thoughts -- until we walked on this earth that looked like snow but felt like moon dust. As I walked through the camp I felt a change in atmosphere. Yesterday was calm and today a little bit more tense. Guns were out, helmets on and all eyes were peering out over the dunes. We are in a zone where war is fresh on the troops' mind.
We were brought in with open arms. The young men took us around the camp that was just sand and wood. A little different than the camp we just left -- stone and steel. This was a sight to behold -- men connected and taking care of each other like brothers. Every direction you looked, all you could see was desert. It is amazing to know how each soldier has his or her own opinion on the war. And right now I'm just trying to get the best feel for the country of Iraq and the war that we are in. It was so amazing that the soldiers in Barwanah invited us to participate in a ceremony for their fallen comrade, Cpl. Ellis. The fact that they invited us into their personal space was pretty special.
After spending a couple hours in Barwanah with the troops stationed there, the NFL group left covered in moon dust but also truly touched for the time we had spent with the soldiers there.
The next stop for us was the Haditha Dam, a large hydroelectric dam on the Euphrates River in Western Iraq that was constructed in the 1960s. The dam is now controlled by American forces, and is currently supplying over one-third of all the electricity being used in Iraq.
The Haditha Dam also serves as an Army base. The Chinook helicopters we took from Barwanah to Haditha landed on the very top of the dam. We then went down five or six flights of stairs into the dam to the bases' DFAC. After grabbing some "chow" with the Marines serving at the Haditha Dam, we set up a meet-and-greet during which the players again signed autographs and took photos with everyone who stopped by.
It was then off to the fifth floor of the dam's structure, which was halfway between the surface of the water and the bottom of the Euphrates River, where our bunks for the night were located.
Today might have started a bit slow for us, but it ended up as being as jam-packed and fulfilling as a day possibly could be.