WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 10TH AND THURSDAY, DECEMBER 11TH:
Today we leave for Kosovo. Chely Wright and her musicians and a journalist and photographer from Country Weekly are on the tour. Missouri has the largest deployment of their Guard since WWII and they are serving at Camp Bondsteel Kosovo. But, let me back up….
Many, many months ago I was contacted by a super nice, caring lady with the Veterans Commission in Missouri. She was asking if I could get some celebrity entertainment over to “her guys” for the holidays. I was the first person to take celebrities into Kosovo many years ago when the war first began so I was very familiar with the “area” even though I had not been back over there since 2000 or 2001 with the Bellamy Brothers. I also knew that I had dear friends at the Missouri Guard who were C-130 pilots. I contacted them to see if they could provide a plane to transport us into the area. Since I wanted to take an artist with a full band, I knew we would have to fly all our production with us — speakers, amps, mics, everything – and that would mean a couple of pallets of gear. My buddy – Ralph – said he knew they could do it and I’d just need to get the approval from the Guard.
Joe Nichols’ agent had told me that he’d like to go and in a couple of days, we had him confirmed. Then the battle began to get the approval for the C-130 to fly us over. What a nightmare! Everyone was scared to sign off on the approval and we went all the way to the Pentagon trying to get help. Finally, in October when I was ready to pull the plug, MacDill confirmed a C-135 Tanker for the trip. I have never flown that aircraft although I have flown almost every other military plane and chopper. The great thing is, it’s a jet as opposed to props, so we will not have to stop and overnight anywhere. Planning began in earnest to make the trip happen.
Then a couple of weeks later, Joe Nichols had to cancel. I was frantic to find a replacement since we had worked so hard to secure the airplane. Chely Wright came to the rescue. It was a heck of a lot of work in a very short period of time, but we pulled it off. I hated to even ask her because she is already confirmed to go to Iraq for me in 2009. But, she is a wonderful supporter of the troops and they love her.
Last night, I took the entire flight crew – 11 people out for dinner. What a terrific group of guys. AND, I memorized EVERY name. All they have to do is stay in the same formation as they were at the dinner table and I’m good to go. There is John (who has been my POC for months), Peter, Paul and Brandon who are all pilots; Dan and Hugh handle “transportation”; Boom (the arm that is used for re-fueling) is Max and Bob (Bob had a headache and didn’t go out to dinner with us!); Jason and Steve are mechanics; and Billy is a Sweaty (which I think is a word they are using to trick me!). I invited John Adam Murph (the artist that I manage) to have dinner with us as well. We went to an Italian restaurant called Amerigo’s and had a blast. As we were having dinner, Brandon said that the last country music star he saw was someone named Tippin in Afghanistan and their C-130 broke and the Tippin guy got up on top of the plane and fixed it. That was MY TOUR and General North was on the flight, too! I can’t believe Brandon was our pilot!!! I emailed photos and the road report from the trip to the guys when I got home.
Chely had emailed me the night before she was supposed to fly from NYC to Nashville that her beautiful dog – Minnie – was having seizures and had to go in for an MRI and spinal tap. She got the results right before she left for Nashville – cancerous brain tumor. Minnie is 9 years old and is her baby. I would not have blamed her if she had cancelled the trip. I hate it because Minnie is like “family” to me, too.
Also, Chely’s keyboard player just got the flu. My opinion was that he stay home because the flight was going to be brutal on him. Plus, I really didn’t want to take the chance of him infecting everyone else. Sure hope he makes it okay. Nothing worse than being sick in a foreign country.
So, today we met at Customs at 1:00 pm and registered all the equipment. Then we took everything to the airfield to be palletized. Finished up at about 2:30 pm and went back to the office to work. At 6:20, we all met back at the gate to the Guard and took all our personal bags to be loaded on the aircraft. Penny (in my office) drove me out because her little boy – Andrew – says Chely is his girlfriend. He is 6 ½ and so cute. They let him go on the aircraft and look around.
We boarded and it’s MUCH different from any I’ve ever flown. The flight deck is on the same level and the pallets of gear are right inside the side door as you walk on. There were real “stairs” leading up into the plane. There is a toilet like what you see in a camper and “Piss Tubes” for the guys. They had put in a “comfort pallet” so we had 16 seats for 12 people plus the “sling seats” on the side of the aircraft.
Takeoff was smooth but the seats face backwards which is unsettling. The flight crew has decorated the plane with silver tinsel and Christmas stockings. Right after take-off, they presented me and Chely with reindeer antlers that have flashing lights on them. So cute. They put a “table cloth” on top of the luggage bins and put out a HUGE spread of food. Like I said, the flight guys are terrific.
I found a “space” on the floor to put my sleeping bag and wrapped up in my fleece throw. It was nice and toasty…for about an hour. Then it was FREEZING on the floor. I gave up and tried to sleep in my airplane seat. Not much luck with that either. The smart ones on the flight make “beds” on the sling seats that hang from the wall. Next time I’ll know!
We landed EARLY but Renee and her crew were there to meet us. They had a really nice bus to transport us to our hotel and surprisingly enough, the hotel had our rooms ready. They were still not very friendly but at least everything was in order except for the name on one room. Got that fixed pretty quickly. They took our passports and made copies of them and wanted to keep them. That was not going to happen. We all waited until copies were made and then we went to our rooms. The Front Desk reminded us again that we get FOUR FREE DRINKS PER DAY FROM THE MINI-BAR. Renee said they have a lot of UN soldiers staying at the hotel on a regular basis and that is a big selling point with them. J
Hotel is much nicer than I expected. Kosovo is still pretty “dirty” overall but there is lots of new building. Have a fantastic shower in my room that I couldn’t figure out how to turn on. There was a “remote” and inside the shower is a hand-held shower, Jacuzzi, radio, lights, and I don’t know what else. I had to get someone from the front desk to come up and show me how to turn it on. Again, not friendly. Said he was very busy. Yeah, right. Showed me how to use ONE KNOB. When I asked him about the remote, he tried it and handed it back to me and said “needs batteries”! I’m taking it downstairs with me to give it back to him to put batteries in it!
Have been working on email all afternoon. Taking everyone out to dinner at 7 pm tonight to a local restaurant. Hopefully it will be great food and have something Chely can eat since she’s a vegetarian.
The restaurant was truly beautiful and affordable. I ordered a tomato/mozzarella salad and it came on paper thin slices of zucchini with a great sauce. Delicious. The fish I ordered (sea bream) was way overcooked but edible. Chely ordered salmon and had the same problem. Was still much better than I anticipated. Didn’t get dessert but everyone else did and said it was great. It was a really nice meal with wonderful people. I reminded them that this is the ONLY meal they will have on the local economy other than breakfasts at the hotel. All the other meals are at the DFAC at Camp Bondsteel.
I had our interpreter (who we call Eggnog because we can’t pronounce his real name!) walk over to the Urban Fitness Club across the street from our hotel with me. Just wanted to see what time they really open. Hotel said they opened at 10 am which is much too late for me to work out. Eggnog warned me that women rarely went to a gym here. HUH! I walked in and we were right in the weight room and ONLY guys there. I swear everyone of them stopped working out and just stared at me. They continued to stare the entire time Eggnog was getting details from the owner. They open at 9 am (still too late for me) and charge 2 Euros per day to use the gym (very reasonable but not feasible with our schedule).
Came back to the room and have been answering emails for hours. Going to bed very soon. I am “fried”. It’s after midnight now.
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 12TH:
Where has December gone????
Boy, did we all get a “surprise” when we went to bed last night. I sat on the side of the bed and had the immediate reaction one might have when you step into a shower expecting warm water and get hit with an icy cold spray. The “bed” is harder than the floor. I mean absolutely NO padding at all. I ended up sleeping on top of the comforter for a little cushioning. When I went down to breakfast, everyone in my group had similar tales. Sure wish we hadn’t left our sleeping bags on the aircraft. One of the guys said he sort of did a “flop” onto the bed and almost broke his hip.
Did I mention that our air crew had to drop us off and go to Sicily to wait for us. Poor guys. Three days off in Sicily. J They would need to have 24 security on their aircraft in order to leave it on the ground in Kosovo. But, the sad part is, they fly us all this distance and don’t get to see a performance. Not fair somehow. I’m sure they were a little disappointed in our flight over since most everyone slept the entire way. We’ll make up for it on the way back because that will be a “daytime” flight for us.
One really cool thing I got to do right before we landed was go back into the “boom”. They let me lie down on my stomach and look out the window. The glass was so clear, I thought it was just an open space out into the sky. It was beyond cool. I’ve watched numerous “in-air” refuelings but always from the perspective of being on the aircraft receiving the fuel. Have often wondered how in the world the guys could lie on their stomachs and maneuver that “boom” at that speed. I am even more impressed now that I have seen it up close and personal. The guys have promised to let me do this again on the flight home. All I could see this time were clouds and a few snow-capped mountains. We’ll be over water a lot of the trip but should be able to see a few “cities” from the air.
So, I figured out the remote for the shower. We had it turned the wrong way to activate the buttons. There is a “touch screen” in the shower but you have to turn it on with the remote. You would not believe all the “options”. I quickly found that one button activates “jets” of water that hit you from all sides – quite a “wake-up” call. I’m taking a photo of this thing because it is very unique and impressive.
Now, let’s talk about those 4 free drinks in the mini-bar. Actually, it’s a very small refrigerator and forget your visions of rows and rows of miniatures and sodas, juices, etc. There are FOUR drinks in the fridge – one coke, one bitter lemon, one bottle of water and one beer. And Lisa’s fridge only had 3 drinks total in hers. J
I did get up and do a “mini-workout” with my “rubber bands”. I forgot to bring my Pilates DVD. It’s harder for me to pack for a 3 day trip than it is the 10 day trips to Iraq!
Breakfast was “interesting”. Very, very strong coffee and great yogurt. Lots of cheeses and salad. The last time I was in Kosovo, I ate scallops at the DFAC on base (which was stupid in the first place) and got food poisoning. Haven’t touched scallops since that time – almost 7 years ago!
Last night the restaurant owner gave me a beautiful bottle of wine. He said the wine wasn’t very good but the label on the bottle shows that this wine was specially produced to celebrate the “independence day” of Kosovo. Pretty cool. I had given him a cd and autographed photo of Chely. J
Wow, what a day! We departed the hotel at 11 am and arrived at the base at about 12:15 pm. Took about 20 minutes for the bus to turn around on the little street in front of our hotel. We have a different driver today who is not quite as good as yesterday’s driver.
First on the agenda was a stop to have photo ID cards made. And guess who was making them? A guy who looked JUST LIKE SANTA CLAUSE. It was so cool. He’s going to make a surprise visit to our performance tomorrow night.
After securing ID cards, we dropped the sound techs off at the theatre to begin set up and we went to the Northtown DFAC for lunch. Have to say that the DFAC food in Iraq and Afghanistan is much better than here. And, the DFAC was almost empty. I’ve gotten accustomed to having so many troops eating at one time that we have to search for a place to sit.
As soon as lunch was over, we went to visit the K-9 Unit. They had 3 beautiful dogs and let Chely’s guys “suit up” and get attacked by them. We did this in Korea a few years ago, too, and it was lots of fun for the boys. The main handler here in Kosovo turned out to be a guy I had met in Korea when I was there with Daryl Worley!
From the K-9 Unit, we took the guys to the stage and Chely and the Country Weekly reps went to visit the hospital. Took lots of photos with the staff and interrupted one large meeting to sign autographs J There was only one patient – a guy whose appendix had ruptured and he had it removed. Chely seems to attract those type of patients. She once gowned up and went into surgery in Kuwait to watch them remove a poor guys’ appendix. Then she left him an autographed photo that said, “Nice Appendix”!.
After visiting the hospital, we went by to meet Renee’s staff. They have all done such an amazing job of having everything ready for our visit. You can tell that lots of hard work went into the planning and Renee is just the best at that. I sure miss having her take care of us in Iraq, though.
Went back to the theatre so Chely could do a sound check. Then everyone but Chely went to lunch at Southtown DFAC. While I was there, a guy that I had worked closely with in Iraq – Bill — called on Renee’s cell phone. He’s here in Kosovo! Also met General Kay at the DFAC. Super nice guy. I’ve heard so much about him. I saw his photo today in several of the offices and told Chely how much he reminds me of our dear friend Colonel Kyle McClelland that we met in Iraq in 2004.
As we were leaving the DFAC, Bill came by to say hello. I told him to go eat his dinner and then come to the show! Chely was almost dressed when we returned and the theatre was filling up. General Kay came backstage to meet her and they chatted for a few minutes. Then it was show time and she gave another wonderful “Chely Wright Loves The Troops” performance as only Chely can do. I stayed backstage and talked with Bill for part of the performance and then went out and took some photos. Of course, I was out there when she sang “Bumper of My SUV” and I NEVER get through that song without crying. It’s just too close and too personal not be get emotional every time. This time was made even harder because a big, burly soldier sitting right in front of me had tears running down his face. It was truly a great concert for the KFOR troops.
Chely signed autographs for everyone in line and of course, chatted with each one of them. That took 2 ½ hours but that’s why we’re here. I handed out photos and noticed that most of them were wearing the green fleece jackets that I had been trying to scam for over a year. I made that comment and one guy – Anderson – took his off and gave it to me immediately. See, Will! Now I have my fleece and you don’t have to give yours up! J Another guy in line gave me his “rank” – Staff Sergeant. I tried to get General Kay to give me his “star” but I must be losing my touch because I couldn’t talk him out of it. I had so much fun talking to the guys and girls in the autograph line. There was one guy named SHOOFLY. I had to bust him on that name. Turns out it’s his nickname, thank God. But, he said his real name is “Softly”. Not good for a big tough Army dude.
I had my photo made with Anderson and he refused to smile. Said he didn’t like to smile. So you know what I did…I told the person taking the photo to count to three and on three I gave him a “good game grab on the ass”. He sure in smiling in that photo! J
We drove back to the hotel and arrived at around 1 am. Have to leave for Camp Bondsteel tomorrow at 11 am. It’s almost 3 am now, so I’m going to bed soon. We had such a wonderful day. So many of the troops came up to us and said they feel “forgotten” over here and that for a couple of hours, they felt like they were home. You have no idea how wonderful it is to hear that even from one person. Makes you forget all about long days, no sleep, and stressful situations in a hurry.
SATURDAY, DECEMBER 13TH, 2008:
Hate not getting to work out. Just no time to do anything today. Did go have a cup of coffee and some yoghurt and then took a shower. Won’t say a “quick” shower because it still takes some time to figure out all the controls. I managed to turn on the jets that hit you from all sides instead of the overhead shower head this morning. Of course, it was before the water had warmed up, so that was definitely a wakeup call. So funny to have this elaborate shower setup as compared to showers in other countries where the shower floor is the bathroom floor and you are given a squeegee with a long handle to clean up the 3 inches of water that accumulates every time you turn it on!
Bus did not arrive until about 5 minutes after 11 because today is “Market Day” and traffic was heavy. Renee told the driver to pull over and wait for us at the top of the hill because the street in front of the hotel was too narrow to turn around. It’s a different driver today and not a very good one. He insisted on bringing the bus to the front of the hotel and then of course couldn’t turn it around. He spent 20 minutes trying to figure out a way to get back out on the main street. People were coming out of the hotel and surrounding buildings moving their cars. Don’t know if they were just being nice or if they were afraid he was going to crush their car. Probably the latter.
Once we finally got on the road, made good time and were only about 30 minutes late arriving at “The Waffle House”. Like I mentioned (at least I think I did), this is the Aviation Unit (Blackhawks) and on Sunday’s they cook waffles. They had some serious looking waffle irons going. But only had 4 totals so it took a while to get everyone fed. Chely signed autographs and took photos with everyone. This is the Army and they said that they had the same thing at Balad, Iraq only much larger. Supposedly, the “building” was moved to the Air Force side when they left and is still there and in operation. I’m looking for it when I go back to Balad! Best thing that happened at the Waffle House is I got promoted from Staff Sergeant to Master Sergeant! Pretty quick, huh? Less than 12 hours. J
Next stop was General Kay’s office and I don’t think he expected the entire group. But he’s a professional and made everyone feel welcome. He presented Chely with a beautiful plaque and gave everyone Army dog tags. I GOT A COIN. Still didn’t get his “one-star” off his uniform. He gave us a brief history of Kosovo and it brought back memories of my visits here when the war first began.
We stopped at the theatre for a few minutes and Chely and some of the guys ran through some songs while Lisa, Joe, Jeff and I went over to the PX to make some last minute purchases. I found this horrible skull mask with a cigarette in the mouth that said, “The end of smoker. Smoking do harm to health”. Had to buy that for a little fun later.
Back to the theatre and everyone but Chely and Christian went to the DFAC. Food wasn’t any better tonight than last night. Really feel sorry for the troops deployed here. I guess they eventually get used to it or they eat at their Burger King a lot.
Finished dinner and went back to the theatre. Chely had to do a quick interview and I noticed that she didn’t look so great. Said she didn’t feel so great either. The CSM was going to introduce her so I brought him backstage to meet her. Really nice guy. But, he definitely needs to keep his day job. He messed up about everything he could mess up in her intro. “Single White Woman” instead of “Single White Female” and several other things but ultimately called her out on stage as CHERYL WHITE – not once but several times. I think he got unbelievably nervous. She got him back by purposely mispronouncing his name several times as well. J
Her show was just as beautiful and touching as ever. Everyone leaves there thinking they know her personally and in a way they do. Tonight, when she launched into her lecture about smoking, Photo Joe put on the skull mask and came out behind her. I don’t think she knew who it was at first and was a little taken aback. But she rallied quickly and has fund with it.
At the end of the show, Renee and her staff called all of us up and gave us a “Christmas” gift. It is undoubtedly the best “gift” I will receive this holiday season because of where I received it.
If anyone doubts that Chely loves the troops and supports them with all her heart, I challenge them to stand in line for her autograph. Not only does she sign every autograph and take photos with everyone, but she has them sit in a chair beside her as she does this. She asks them questions about their family/personal lives and truly listens. I know she listens because 10 years from now when we meet them again, she’ll be able to recite the names and ages of their children when she met them. I truly hate her for having that “gift”. J
Autograph line lasted almost 3 hours again tonight and that’s fine with me. I get to harass the troops waiting in line during that time. I managed to get promoted to Command Sergeant Major before midnight. So again, I got my promotion in less than 12 hours. I am definitely going for General next.
Took the boys over to the DFAC to get some “to go” sandwiches while Chely was packing up. We arrived back at the hotel at 1 am and it’s after 3 am now. We have to depart the hotel at 9 am, so I’m going to bed now. Or very soon.
Can’t begin to tell you how wonderful this visit was. We have to find a way to get more entertainment to the troops in Kosovo. I read today where Afghanistan is going to have thousands more troops and that we really aren’t pulling out of Baghdad by June 2009. I need to win the lottery so I don’t have to work for a living and can do this full-time!
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 14TH:
Got 3 hours sleep and really needed more! But showered, dressed, cup of coffee and off we go to the Pristina Airfield. Different bus driver today. Very polite and “helpful”…offered to take my bag! Heavy foot. We got there in “record time”. Our plane was already on the ground and fueling up. Flight crew came in and I could tell they REALLY missed us. Yeah. J They said they hit such heavy turbulence after they left us, they had to land in Palermo instead of Sicily for one night. I am SOOOOO glad I wasn’t on board then. When the flight crews starts talking about how bad turbulence was, it is NOT something I want to be a part of. I told them we would have paid big money to have our sleeping bags off the aircraft for the hard beds in the hotel.
Did I mention that the weather was bad all weekend? Rained all the time and very cold. But, there was no snow!
We had to wait about 2 hours in the PAX terminal while the plane refueled and everything was loaded. Takeoff was smooth but they warned us that we would probably hit some turbulence over Italy and again as we crossed into the U.S.
I went down into the “boom” pod (as I call it) and had a quick lesson on “how” it all works. Fascinating. I’ve heard so much about it from my fighter pilots buddies that I was very interested in all Max had to tell me. I remember the mid-air refuelings that I’ve watched from the side of being refueled on a C-17. The tanker always looked close enough to reach out and touch and I remember waving to the guy lying on his stomach in the tanker working the boom. The actual boom is about 25 feet in length and then there is another 20 feet of “nozzle” that extends. The boom has “wings” on it and is moved with something similar to a joy stick. Max said it took him about a year of training before being certified. Think about two aircraft flying that close together, flying at over 300 mph, connected with that “boom”. Totally amazing to me.
We had another nice “spread” for lunch and then were told to “strap” in because we were going to have some turbulence. Boy did we! I wish I had gone on the flight deck to sit it out. Flight crew said it wasn’t “that bad” but I sure thought so.
So NOW let me tell you about the toilet on here. Turns out that if you push the light switch “UP”, it’s the red light. If you push it “DOWN” then it’s a normal light! And there is a way to flush the toilet and a nice mirror hanging in there. Sure wish I had gotten instructions for the flight over.
I read my book and wished I hadn’t packed my other book because I finished this one with 8 hours to go into the flight. Tried to sleep but didn’t manage to do very much of that. I sat in the last row this time so I wouldn’t have to worry about leaning my seat back on anyone.
So obviously the flight crew was right. The turbulence we had at the beginning of the flight was nothing compared to what we hit about halfway through flight. I’ve never experienced what we went through except when the pilots are having some “fun” like they do with us in Iraq and Afghanistan. We were definitely pulling “G’s” and would have been airborne had we not been strapped in. Our main pilot was sitting across from me watching a movie on his laptop. I grabbed his arm so tight I’m sure he will be flying “one-armed” his next flight. He said that it wasn’t turbulence but that the airplane was so old, automatic pilot took over and was causing the “falls from the sky”. He got up and went to the cockpit to see why the other pilot hadn’t turned it off. Came back a few minutes later and said that it really was severe turbulence, not the auto pilot. He said other pilots had been radioing it in. But then the pilot who was flying came back and said that the “initial” dips were turbulence but then the auto pilot kicked in and gave us several more. He said that the auto pilot will kick off if it gets too bad or they can turn it off. Sure wish they had turned it off! Guess they didn’t think that session was “too bad” either.
Looking back on this trip, there were so many people who played an integral part in making it happen. First and foremost is Pat Rowe Kerr at the Missouri Veterans Commission. She was the “brainchild” of the entire project and without her tenacity and unwillingness to take “no” as an answer, it would not have happened. My buddy Ralph at the Missouri Guard also played a huge role. I’m surprised he is still speaking to me! Colonel Ed Shock at AFE made it possible for us to be put in touch with the appropriate people to secure the aircraft and assisted with the funding. Ann and Donald at USAREUR gave me the sponsorship money I needed to cover basic expenses. Joe Nichols, even though he had to cancel, will “make it up to me in the future”. Renee Favors and her staff in Kosovo are simply the best. I never have to worry about being taken care of on the ground. She will always have us covered and then some. General Kay and all the troops in Kosovo who made this the best Christmas ever for us. Our wonderful flight crew who treated us like DV’s from start to finish whether we wanted to be or not! My travel agent…God knows he must be happen when I’m out of the country and not calling or emailing him every 10 minutes. My wonderful staff – Penny and Lindsey (even though she is on maternity leave taking care of my beautiful Grandchildren). Tennessee National Guard for making the loading and unloading process a “breeze” for our flight crew. Ground crew in Pristina who were so nice to us. Country Weekly – Photo Joe and Lisa – who made the trip unbelievably FUN. The musicians and road crew for Chely who are simply the most professional and best group of guys you could hope to tour with. And last but certainly not least – Chely Wright – who touched the hearts and minds of so many men and women away from their families for the holidays and many months to come. She didn’t have to “bail me out” when Joe canceled but never even considered “no” as an option either. I’m sure I have left out really important people who will read this road report and be offended that I left them out. Hey, I’m old and senile so cut me some slack. I’m a Grandma for God’s sake. Make that “sexy” Grandma. J
Once again, my “circle of unbelievable friends has expanded like the circles on water when a rock is thrown in. Acquaintances become life-long friends and everyone is brought into my life for a reason. I am truly one blessed human being and I try to never take that for granted. I fully realize how “tough and demanding” I can be and know how fortunate I am to have “forgiving” friends and co-workers.
The satellite phone on the airplane was “challenging” but I was able to call back to Nashville and get in touch with the Production Company who was picking up our rental gear. We landed at exactly 6 pm – 12 hours after departure from Kosovo. I wanted to get some group shots with Chely and the flight crew but everyone scattered so quickly, it didn’t happen. L Hopefully someone took photos of her with them and can email to me.
I went over to make sure the gear came off the pallets and onto the truck. Then I made it home by 8 pm.
Good to be home for about 10 days before going back to Iraq. Happy Holidays Everyone!