With Our Troops

I’m back safe and sound from my trip abroad to visit the troops.
It was a life changing experience….

We were fired on twice: while landing and leaving Balad, Iraq but other than that (like that’s not a big deal) the trip was uneventful and safe.  My personal Air Force Reserve escort, in charge of me 24/7, said it was an RPG.  He wisely didn’t tell me until we were safely back in Turkey.  How strange to feel safe returning to Turkey. 

The three ventures into Iraq were fascinating to say the least.  We first left Robbins Air Force Base in GA to head to Incirlik Air Force Base in Turkey on November 17th.  We took off around 6PM in a C-17 with about half of the entertainers and crew.  The others would follow in a KC-10, a little bigger and faster plane.  They would time it so we all landed within fifteen minutes of each other in Turkey.  We started to circle over New Jersey and I had the great fortune of being invited to sit in the cockpit while we took on 10,000 pounds of jet fuel from an Air Force KC-10 tanker, in the dark, all at 35,000 feet in the air.  It was a thrill of a lifetime!!!  To be connected to this huge airplane a stones throw away for almost 30 minutes was unbelievable!  It took thirteen and a half hours to get to Incirlik.

The great thing about flying on the C-17, there was plenty of space to throw out a sleeping bag and lie down.  So after the refueling, I came back down, the crew served us a bountiful meal of famous Georgia BBQ they had brought aboard, I laid down and slept for eight hours along with almost everybody else. What a treat, our own plane, our own crew with the freedom to get up, walk around at any time, go to the comfort pallet as they called it and grab a snack or something to drink.  Needless to say, we all drank a lot of water.

We landed in the morning in Turkey and headed to our accommodations.  It’s amazing how the US shares this base with the Turks.  US on one side and them on the other!  We would stay for seven straight days at Incirlik.

This was wonderful!  Not having to travel to a new destination, set up, do a show, bag drop and head to the plane daily was a Godsend.  The accommodations were very nice on base.  We each got a small efficiency apartment making it feel like a home away from home.  It was amazing they had that much space to accommodate 82 of us on the tour.  This didn’t include our pilots and crew on our C-17 and KC-10.  I think there were four pilots and four loading crew on each plane.  A massive expedition for sure!

The first two days were filled with meeting and greeting the troops on base in Turkey; me doing a comedy show one night and the next, a big show with all the acts in a huge hanger.  The next morning, they passed out flack jackets and helmets because we were heading into Iraq the next three days in a row.

Our first destination down range was Kirkuk, Iraq.  We left Incirlik, Turkey around 11AM with the entire entourage and equipment packed on one C-17.  It only took an hour and a half to get to Kirkuk; we landed and were greeted by the base commander and staff as we exited the plane.  It was eerie looking out at the dusty flat sandy terrain and thinking how this was the bed of civilization.  All of the history that took place on the ground I stood on was almost overwhelming!  We headed for the base hospital and the principal entertainers and I visited the wounded before we were briefed and whisked off to meet and greets with the troops.  The tech crew set up the stage, PA and musical gear.  It was astonishing they could get the equipment off the plane, to the venue, set it up and be ready for a show in two to three hours.  We started the show around 5:30 and it lasted almost three hours.

I opened the show from the drums doing my comedy drum act then introduced the six New England Patriot Cheerleaders.  They always killed and were so much fun to work with.  Then our MC, Mary Therese would come out, give a few things away to the troops and introduce the Air Force Reserve band.  It was incredible!  They had five horns, bass, drums, guitar, percussionist, keyboards and three singers, two gals and a guy.  They and the band rocked for about five or six tunes.  The MC returned with a little shtick then introduced country star Jamie O’Neal.

She has a great voice and had her sister backing her up as well along with her band: drums, bass, two guitars and keyboard.  She brought the house down.  Then I came back out, did about seven to eight minutes of stand up while the techs moved instruments and monitors around behind me for the closing act, Melina Leon.  This is always a hard spot to be put into as a comedian, trying to keep the attention of the audience while keyboards, monitors, microphones and equipment are slamming around behind you!  Then the musicians come out and get set, tuning and making sure their instruments are plugged in and working.  It’s a challenge to keep the eyes on me with this circus going on in the background.  But, with that said, when I introduced Melina Leon, the stunningly beautiful international recording artist from Puerto Rico, all hell would break loose.  The syncopated rhythm of the marenge beat would start pulsating, the five horns would blast out the off beats, the five percussionists would hammer down and the room was cookin! 

With Melina’s musicians, her male back up singer, the Air Force Reserve band and their three singers, we had 19 people on the stage.  Melina would head out into the crowd, grab a soldier, start dancing while she was singing and the troops would jumped up, started gyrating and for three short hours, we entertained them away from their woes of the desert.  It was most rewarding!!!

After each show, Jamie, The Cheerleaders, Melina and I would sign autographs for sometimes up to two hours!  I shook every hand, smiled into every face, embraced each hug, asked them where they were from and drove home the message that I brought greetings from the United States of how proud we were of each and every one of them.  I deemed them heroes and felt so lucky to be among the finest, brave young men and woman protecting our freedom!

As we signed autographs, the crew was tearing down and loading the equipment onto the plane.  We would shake the last hand, gather for roll call, and get on a bus out to the plane and wheels up by 10:30PM.  We’d get back to Incirlik around midnight, have a cocktail or two in the room and hit the hay pooped.  I would never believe you could do all this in one day if I hadn’t been there myself to witness it. 

The next morning was the same drill to Balad Air Force Base just 40 miles from Baghdad.  It took about an hour and forty minutes to get there.  We were told that this would be the most dangerous place to fly in and out of which proved to be confirmed by the news we’d been shot at coming in and going out! 

 The combat landing can only be explained as falling out of the air as quickly as possible.  The pilots circle down over the airfield trying to make a direct shot as hard as possible.  You feel weightless for most of the last fifteen minutes of the landing.  Magic Mountain’s got nothing on a combat landing!  Nobody got sick and we landed safely in the middle of Iraq.  We got off the plane and went directly to the hospital.  Balad is where the largest and most advanced American hospital in Iraq is located.  If you are wounded, this is where you are sent.  They stabilize and prepare you for travel to the hospital at Ramstein Germany, then on to home.  The hospital itself is amazing but the doctors and nurses are angels!  They will admit everybody:  enemy, local civilians, everybody. 

This is one of the many things our American journalists will never tell you!  They work wonders at this hospital!

As we entered the first ward, two soldiers were rushed in who had just been attacked by a suicide bomber.  I kept my distance but I could clearly see the skilled medics and nurses working feverishly on these two poor souls, their legs shattered!  We were never asked to leave so we continued around the ward greeting the patients.  The grim reality was sinking in!

We passed a wounded Iraqi solder laying motionless on a gurney to my right.  Thankfully I didn’t see his face, just his dark skinned legs exposed and sticking out from under a thin green sheet.  The pale white bottoms of his feet, one pointing out at ten o’clock, the other one cattywompusly pointing out at 2 o’clock scored a picture into my mind I will never forget.  He could have just as easily had a tag around one of his toes, dead for all I could see.  It was surreal. Here I was entering a battle hospital with a Country Music star, a Latin recording artist and the New England Patriot Cheerleaders all dressed up in their little short shorts, halter tops and silver glittery pom poms and all of us looking into the broken faces of men and woman brutalized but IEDs and suicide bombers.  Yet there, laying still on his emergency hospital bed was this Iraqi soldier with no attention being paid to at all.  I felt so bad I didn’t go over to greet the Iraqi soldier but was told by our Col in charge before we left that he had gone over and his eyes were closed and was asleep and/or not coherent.  Still, even with two freshly wounded American soldiers in agony just three beds away, bloodied and moaning, I felt sad for this guy as our parade passed by his bed with no more than a glance his way.

We entered another ward of the hospital but this ward was different.  The enemy soldiers were on one side separated by an open ended wall and an armed guard with each bed.  The American soldiers were on the other side of the wall being watched over by armed guards at every corner.  I talked to a couple of the sick soldiers and most were there for unrelated war injures so I spent the majority of my short time talking to the nurses and doctors standing watch on the floor.  There must have been twenty of them, all with different jobs, smiling at us.  I could feel that they were so happy to see us!!!  Each one had their own story to tell.   I listened to each intently and could not hold back my tears! 

One young American gal no taller that 5’2″ sat on a bench at the front of the room standing guard in her desert computerized camo fatigues with a loaded M16 cradled in here arms.  I sat down next to her and started to talk.  I asked here where she was from?  She looked up at me shyly, with these beautiful 19 or 20-year-old brown eyes and said, New Mexico sir! I pressed my hand on top of her hand resting on the barrel of the rifle and said, “I hope you know how much we love you and we can’t thank you enough for what you are doing over here!”  She lowered her eyes and said, “It’s my job sir and I’m proud to be here!”  She looked back up into my eyes and gave me a tight-lipped smile still looking shy.  I reached into my pocket and gently retrieved one of the 30 letters my next-door neighbor hand wrote to give to a special soldier, placed it in her tiny palm, and autographed a copy of my comedy CD.  As I handed it to her I said, “Merry Christmas my darling!  God bless you!”  I never wanted to leave but we had a show to do. (I’ve enclosed her picture)

The performance was in Saddam Hussein Theater, which was inside the perimeter of the base. Saddam would come to watch plays and musical performances here and I went up and stood behind the chair that he would sit in the balcony and imagined the terror the people around him must have felt in his presence!  Just outside the theater was the grand stand of his Olympic training grounds.  I had performed there a year ago last April with Lee Greenwood and only now understood how dangerous it was to be doing a three hour show, outside in the open within mortar range.  This year we were inside in a mortar protected area.  Luck has been on my side!

To give you an idea of how dangerous it was at each base in Iraq, our C-17 would drop us off and fly all the way back to Turkey and then fly all the way back down to pick us up with a fresh crew.  They didn’t want to chance leaving the plane sitting out in the open for that long.  We got back about midnight and the next day was the same but this time we flew into Tulio in southern Iraq.  This was as close to a MASH base as any we’d seen.  Everything was sand bagged and in tents.  The concrete bunkers were everywhere and we did our show in a hanger.  It was just beyond words the whole trip.

We took a whole day off on Sunday and actually got to play golf on the base there in Incirlik.  The next day we flew to Mildenhall, England, and I did another comedy show one night and a big show the next.  The cool thing for me was I got to sit in the cockpit once again to England and we flew over the Alps!  Unbelievable!!  Then we flew to Germany and visited the Ramstein hospital and did an acoustic show in the dinning hall for lunch.

I wasn’t prepared for the gruesome shape the soldiers were in when we toured the hospital. We had a day off and I did a show the next night and flew home from Frankfort.  What a trip!!!! 

So my friend, there you have it!  13 days in a life a little more than four weeks ago!  Now it seems like a life time. 

God Bless the troops, you and your family! 
Merry Christmas!!!! 

Your pal, Dickie