DAY FIVE: (In Part Three, comedian Sharon Lacey told about flying from Kuwait to Iraq in a C-130 transport plane, and touring the base hospital at Balad.) We’re rousted out of bed early because we don’t want to miss our C-130 transport plane to the next base. What I soon learn, though, is that in the military the motto is “hurry up and wait”. We get to the base airport, where we’re told we have a 90 minute wait. And the power is turned off. We sit in the dark. I talk to a Navy sailor. It’s amazing how quickly friendships are made, and sad to know you may never see each other again.
Our plane arrives, and as we board, a female sergeant named Regan hugs me and tells me she’s grateful they sent a female comedian this time. She says the entertainment they get is usually bands, cheerleaders, beauty queens, or male comedians who can sometimes be somewhat misogynistic. She tells me it was nice to finally have someone the female soldiers could relate to – a mom, an average woman, telling jokes women could enjoy. I’m so glad she shared that with me. I had been feeling bad for the soldiers because I’m no beauty queen. She validated my very presence in Iraq.
We arrive at the next base. Telefar. Out in the middle of the desert. And no one is here to greet us. No one knows we were coming. No one knows what to do with the three comedians. So they show us around, and they entertain us by letting us hold their M4 rifles.
At last our escort arrives, and we run to the Blackhawk helicopter waiting to whisk us away to another base. It’s cold in the chopper. The sides are open with a soldier at each window, hands on the triggers of their machine guns, ready to shoot. We’re shadowed by another Blackhawk, also with two gunners. I feel scared that we’re a target, and yet also calm, because I trust these men and women to protect us.
We fly low over the desert. As I look at the terrain, the Tigris River, the bombed out hovels and tiny clay-like villages, I can’t help but marvel that just a year ago I was in the classroom teaching my seventh grade students all about Mesopotamia, Sumeria, Babylon – and here I am, flying over that very region!
We arrive at Meraz, the base near the city of Mosul. The seriousness of the war is evident everywhere we look. This base has been heavily bombed. The dining hall was destroyed a few years ago. We pass a memorial to the twenty fallen soldiers killed in that onslaught. And we’re told that just three weeks ago, on Christmas Day, ten more bombs were dropped on this base. Worse, on New Year’s Eve, two weeks ago, one soldier was killed by a bomb that was shot into the airport. The shooters were soon found and killed. How did our soldiers find them? Easy. A huge blimp floats over the town of Mosul. Inside that blimp are video cameras with telephoto lenses that can zoom in close enough to read someone’s dog tag. Those cameras are monitored at all times, and it was easy to see where the bomb originated.
We’re escorted to our living quarters. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little scared to be here. But they tell us our bunks are in the most protected area in all of Iraq. Not because we’re anything special, but because some Army general was recently here. We go through a maze of towering concrete walls topped with barbed razor wire. We pass several bunkers fortified with green sand bags, and I make a note of where I will run and take cover if I have to.
The show is a big success, and the troops really seem to want to talk afterward as we’re signing autographs. A few men and women give me their e-mail addresses, and I promise to write to them.
The brave firemen of the Mosul Fire Dept. didn’t get to see the show, so we go to their workplace and spend some time talking and laughing with them.
It’s now nearly midnight. As I walk to my bunk, a full moon lights the way. The air is crisp and clear. I look up and see a thousand stars, and am surprised to see Orion. He looks the same here as he does in my Oregon sky. That gives me comfort.
But then I hear a bomb go off in the distance, and I run to my bunk. As I write about it in my journal, I think I hear machine gun fire, too. Amazingly, though, I’m unafraid. Our military has me covered. And I am grateful to these men and women who do their jobs under duress every single day and night. No matter what I think of the war, or our country’s reasons for being here and staying here, I can’t deny that I owe a huge debt to the courageous people who are here to serve.
[Note: A few weeks after returning to Portland, there are news reports that four soldiers are killed by a roadside bomb near this base at Mosul. I felt terrible for the victims, and was also worried sick that it could have been some of the soldiers I’d met here, because they hadn’t e-mailed me in days. At last I heard from them. One man, Joe, said he’d just come back from the bomb site, filling in the hole and re-paving the road where his fellow soldiers had just been killed.]
(Next month: Part Five of BACK FROM IRAQ: Diary of a Comedian)