[By popular demand we are running the five part series as one complete article so you can better share it with friends. Please email this heart warming story]
I’m a comedian. When I was given the opportunity to go to Iraq to entertain the troops, I jumped at the chance. I wanted to be able to put it on my resume’. I wanted to travel. I wanted adventure. I was going for all the wrong reasons. I went to Iraq with ignorant, naïve opinions that I had held for all of my adult life. I came home a changed person. This is my diary.
DAY ONE: I’m at Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C. I have a seven hour layover here after the five hour flight from Seattle. Plenty of time to talk to the soldiers who, like me, are waiting for the flight to Kuwait. I show my itinerary to the group of Marines sitting near me.
“It says I’ll be at about ten different ‘FOBS’. What’s a FOB?” I ask.
The guys laugh. One of them explains, gently, as if imparting news that might be hard to take. “Well, it’s like this: Over here,” he gestures with his right hand, “is the big, safe military base. And way over here,” he gestures with his left hand, “are the bad guys. YOU…are going to be…here.” And he moves his right hand close to his left hand.
Turns out “FOB” stands for “Forward Operating Base”, and I’m going to be performing for troops who don’t usually get entertainment, because they’re located so close to enemy territory. Well…I wanted adventure.
DAY TWO: The twelve hour flight from D.C. to Kuwait went quickly. I’m excited as I step off the plane and into the Kuwait International Airport. I run to the VISA counter, grab a number, and wait to be called to pay for the paperwork to enter the country.
A soldier walks past me, shoulders slumped, looking like he’s just lost his best friend. I’m over here to entertain the troops, I think. Now’s as good a time as any to start. I catch his eye, and ask, “Hey, are you okay? Is something wrong?”
“Some Christmas vacation,” he replies, glumly. “I get home, and I’m presented with divorce papers.”
My first introduction into what real life is like for a soldier. I want to console him. I offer words of sympathy. But all I can really do is stand and keep him company.
Two hours later, the other two comedians (Davin Rosenblatt and Dennis Ross, both of whom I’ve just met) and I are being driven to Arifjan Base, followed closely by two armed Marines in an escort car. Davin and Dennis are from the East Coast, and their luggage didn’t arrive with them. I’m grateful mine did. I had packed lightly; one small carry-on and a small backpack for ten days of travel. The most precious item in my luggage is the chocolate. I packed three giant Mr. Goodbars, a big bag of peanut butter M&Ms, and a bag of Kit Kat miniatures. I might be sleeping in a tent, trudging through mud, freezing cold at night, but I can survive it all as long as I have chocolate to see me through the tough times.
DAY THREE: At Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, we’re finding that maybe things aren’t as tough as we had expected them to be. The troops have two HUGE fitness centers, each the size of a football field, with all brand new state of the art exercise equipment, huge flat screen tv’s to watch the Armed Forces Network (AFN), racquetball courts, basketball courts, tennis courts and baseball diamonds outside.
They have a nice dining facility (D-FAC) where we have unlimited food choices; nice buffet dinner, or fast food, or sandwiches to order, free Baskin-Robbins ice cream.
I’m amazed at how much money was put into this base – and then find out that the Kuwaiti government pays for it all.
This afternoon, we’re driven to Ali Al Salem base, about an hour away from Arifjan. The Army National Guard troop from Hawaii are our hosts. In spite of their being half a world away from where they grew up, they welcome us with such graciousness, such warmth. They bring us what must be treasured gifts from their own families back home: chocolate covered macadamia nuts, roasted macadamia nuts, things that would be hard for them to get here in Kuwait. We share jokes and laughter, and even play a game of Scrabble before the show. During our Scrabble game in the MWR (Morale Welfare Recreation) Center, other soldiers play pool, ping pong, watch a movie, wait in line to get on the bank of computers to e-mail home.
A few hours later, our first show. There’s an outdoor stage, with a huge camouflage backdrop. I’m standing up there, looking out at 50-60 soldiers, and I’m trying to hide the fact that I’m scared to death. What if they don’t like my jokes? What if they were hoping for somebody famous – I’m no Ellen DeGeneres or Kathy Griffin. What if they’d prefer a young, hot beauty queen? I’m middle aged – I could be their MOM. I crack my first joke, saying something about how I feel like I’m Bing Crosby in the movie “White Christmas” when he’s still in the battlefield singing to the troops. They all stare up at me with blank expressions. These men and women are in their early twenties. They’re all too young to know what the heck I’m talking about. Great. So I do my regular material. And they laugh. A lot.
At the end of my set, I take out the piece of notebook paper I’ve brought from home. “Before I left Portland, Oregon, I asked people what they would like me to tell the troops. They all told me to tell you ‘thank you’ and that they realize what you are sacrificing by being over here. They want you to know they’re grateful for the fact that you’re making it possible for all of us to have our freedom. And they told me to give you a hug from them. So after the show, if you want, I can give you that hug.”
Afterward, the emcee tells the troops that the comedians will be available for autographs. I choke on the water I’m drinking. Autographs?? Who would want MY autograph??!!
It turns out that LOTS of these young men and women not only want my autograph, but they want a picture, too. And they want that hug. No, I take that back. They NEED that hug.
DAY FOUR: Yesterday’s visit to Ali Al Salem base opened my eyes. The men and women stationed here may have a few amenities like fast food places and fitness centers, but the one thing they don’t have… is “home”. And whether my jokes are funny or not, it seems my presence here is giving some of these great people some much needed respite from their feeling of isolation and homesickness.
Something else made me glad I was chosen to be a part of this comedy tour: Several female soldiers came up to me after the show to thank me specifically for providing entertainment for THEM. They said a lot of the entertainers they get are beauty queens, cheerleaders, and misogynistic comedians. Fun for the guys, but not all that fun for the female soldiers who need entertainment, too. I guess I fit the bill for them, and I was so grateful I had this opportunity to do so.
Three hours’ sleep.
Then we rush to get on the huge C-130 cargo transport plane. I’m wearing a heavy Kevlar flak vest, an ugly green helmet, and I’m sitting in this hollowed-out plane alongside and knee-to-knee with the other two comedians and a hundred soldiers and private contractors. We’re packed in like sardines. They all sleep. I’m too excited to sleep.
Ninety minutes later we’re in Iraq, at the biggest U.S. base there: Balad. It looks like a small brown/gray concrete city. No green anywhere, except for a tiny patch of grass that somebody took the time to water every day.
We tour the base hospital. Parents of soldiers stationed in Iraq, let me ease your mind a bit: Everything is state-of-the-art at this emergency facility; nothing but the best in equipment and personnel. The doctors tell us that if a soldier is brought to them within an hour of being injured, there’s a 97% success rate for recovery.
I hear the screams of a small child. It’s an Iraqi toddler, the victim of a house fire due to indoor cooking. The child’s mother hadn’t understood that she was supposed to change the bandages regularly, and now they had to be peeled off while the child suffered excruciating pain. Local Iraqi people come here for emergency medical aid. Part of America’s commitment to helping them. They have nowhere else to go.
The hospital tour ends in the wing where a group of our soldiers wait to be flown to Germany for further medical treatment. They won’t get to come to our show tonight. We want to perform for them, or talk to them, or do anything for them that will help them feel better. It feels awkward. They’re watching a movie, and we don’t want to interrupt them, but yet it sort of feels like some of them want to be interrupted.
So I just blurt out, ‘Hi guys! Hi ladies! We don’t want to interrupt your movie, but we just wanted to say hello.” That breaks the ice, and some answer. I ask where they’re from. Montana, Texas, Colorado… We chat, but it’s a struggle. One guy from Montana asks if I’d write back to him if he e-mailed me. “Sure! Of course! Here’s my e-mail address!” He sends me a short e-mail right that very minute, while we’re still there. He is skeptical that I will really write back to him.
The nurse in charge says our time is up. She whispers apologetically that most of these wounded soldiers are pretty drugged up right now.
That night, I e-mail Josh Leete, injured soldier from Montana. We still e-mail each other to this day.
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.]
DAYS SIX – TEN:
Many people think Iraq is a hot oven all year. It’s not. It can snow in the winter, and it definitely felt cold enough to snow last night here at Meraz Base near Mosul. The heater in my bunk just couldn’t do the job, and the one thin blanket supplied didn’t help much,. During the night I put on my winter coat over my clothes, and added gloves, muffler, two pairs of socks, and leggings. And yet I awake this morning, shivering. I’m staying in the VIP quarters. I can only imagine how cold the soldiers must be.
Over the next four days my two comedian cohorts and I ride on Blackhawk helicopters to seven more bases, and do our best to make the brave men and women there forget for an hour that they are in harm’s way.
There are no women at JSS Love Base, however. This is a small outpost, far away from any of the larger bases. Fifty guys come in to the primitive wooden structure for a lunch far more basic and drab than what the guys at the bigger bases get. They sit on benches at long tables and wait for us to perform. These are young guys, and I’m told by the officer in charge to do my bluest (raciest) material. I do. And it’s all wrong. I get a few laughs, but it just isn’t going as well as my earlier shows. I’ve chosen the wrong jokes, and I’m failing miserably. I feel horrible that I haven’t given them a show that would make them laugh hilariously. I’m so embarrassed, and after my set I go to a little room behind the lunch room and just cry privately to relieve the stress. I feel like I’ve let these guys down, that I’ve let myself down, that I didn’t do my job. As a comedian, you win some, you lose some, and each night you just get back up on that stage and try again. But here, these soldiers deserve nothing but “win somes”, and I feel terrible.
Thankfully, the other two comedians, Davin and Dennis, are both huge hits, and their acts give me time to pull myself together, wipe away the tears, and put on a smile for the autograph session after the show.
As the men file by, I give each one a hug, and thank them for their service. In the helicopter on our way to the next base, Davin and Dennis try to console me, but I just feel terrible for letting those soldiers down.
All of the following shows go much better. We go to two or three bases each day: Brassfield-Mora Base, where we go to the rifle range and shoot M4 rifles, M-240 machine guns, Saw machine guns, and a 50 caliber machine gun out of an armored truck. Turns out one of the soldiers in the truck is from Oak Grove, Oregon, where I live! He even went to the same high school as my daughter! Later, we’re honored to sit at a head table and have dinner with the soldiers before our show; Normandy Base, where we perform on an outside stage as helicopters fly overhead and drown us out with their noise (I’m glad they didn’t shoot!); Woodcock Base (named after a young fallen soldier there), where the officer in charge shows us a huge map of the nearby Iraqi town and pinpoints the exact neighborhood where insurgents are living; O’Ryan Base, where five Iraqis come up to me as we’re leaving and gently grab me, saying, “Yellow! Yellow! Yellow!” (meaning my blond hair), and signal that they want to have their picture taken with me; Summerall Base, where the Command Sgt. Major greets us and lets us try our hand at shooting an AK-47 and a 9mm Baretta before we go inside and perform for his 400 soldiers.
We spend our last night in Iraq at Freedom Rest on Speicher Base, which is a place where soldiers who are completely at the end of their rope, who are in need of a break in a huge way, can come for a brief respite. Waiting for me are two e-mails from soldiers at JSS Love – the base where I felt I had failed. One of the soldiers writes that he appreciated my coming to their base, and that he really needs someone to talk to, and would I please write to him? The other e-mail is from a soldier who says he appreciated the hug I gave him after the show, that the hug had come at a time when he really needed it. My heart is filled, knowing that I had meant something to some of those men, and had helped them in some way after all.
We are tired, but we don’t want to go home. We’re supposed to have this last night off. Instead, we arrange to put on an extra show, specifically for the Blackhawk helicopter pilots, gunners, crew, and their entire brigade. It’s our best show yet.
I still write to those two JSS Love soldiers to this day, and several others, too. My journey to Iraq ended all too quickly. I would go back tomorrow if I could. Ten days earlier, I had boarded a plane heading across an ocean to a war zone, intending to have an adventure. But I discovered something far greater: The men and women of our United States Military put their lives and families on hold to be over there. Whether we agree with why they were sent there, or why their orders are to remain there, the fact is they ARE there, serving with courage, humility, and valor. They deserve nothing but our utmost respect and gratitude. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you all, and I thank your families back home who wait with open arms for your safe return.