SATURDAY, DECEMBER 27TH, and SUNDAY, DECEMBER 28TH, 2008:
Hoo-Whee, what a day. Guess it really started yesterday….
Leaving today to go back to Iraq. This time with my “annual” comedy tour. Dave Price, Karri Turner and Michael Hitchcock from last year’s tour and two new recruits Wendi McLendon and Jordan Black plus Dave’s cameraperson — Paige. Gus – Aaron Tippin’s production manager – is a repeater, too. It’s a great group and the troops are going to love them.
Weather was an issue tomorrow with tornados and ice storms covering the country. I had called my travel agent to put him on “warning” that we might be experiencing problems. Fortunately, things looked pretty good for LA, NY, and Nashville this morning and DC was having especially nice weather. I was just finishing up answering emails before the taxi was to arrive to pick up me and Gus when my cell phone rang. Karri Turner. She was at the airport and her reservation had been cancelled. Unbelievable. I was panicked that everyone from LA would have the same problem and immediately called my travel agent. Voice mail! So, I called the emergency after-hours number. Yes, Karri’s reservation was cancelled but everyone else was fine. They were able to “re-book” her on the same flights but she was going to have to fly coach from LA to DC. Not good. A five hour flight. Karri gives so generously of her time and “organizes” the Improv Show for me each year. I felt horrible. Tried everyone I knew to get her moved out of coach but it just wasn’t possible.
Gus and I arrived at the airport in plenty of time for me to stress out some more. Karri called and she was on the plane – in coach – and everyone else was there in First Class of course. Our flight from Nashville was delayed by an hour which meant we would arrive at 5 pm instead of 4 pm. Since our flight to Kuwait doesn’t depart until 9:50 pm tonight, I wasn’t overly concerned.
We landed and our secret service agent friend – Mike – met us at the gate. Special privileges. J Checked the Arrival Board and the LAX group was supposed to land on time but the New York flight with Dave and Paige was “delayed” . We went into the Red Carpet Lounge so I could get on the computer and chatted while we waited. Karri, Jordan, Michael and Wendi arrived and fortunately Karri had slept most of the flight. She was such a good sport about it. God love her!!!
We all went into the Lounge and waited for Dave and Paige to arrive. They were only about an hour late. Since the food on United really sucks, we all went to another terminal and had sushi. I really, really like everyone in the group. And Dave Price is still the funniest person I know.
We boarded the flight and I had purposely booked a seat with no one sitting next to me. It was in the middle section in Business Class and had three seats across. I had the aisle, then there was the empty middle seat and then a man was sitting on the other aisle. I got up to talk to Dave for a minute and a group of women in the long black dresses and heads covered entered the plane with several very young children. The flight attendants started asking people to move and we knew this was NOT a good thing. They moved the man in my row and put one of the ladies and a young boy in the seats. The young boy immediately started pushing buttons on my seat and the lady simply ignored him. I told the flight attendant that I really needed to sleep on the flight over and had purposely booked a seat with an empty seat beside me. Believe it or not, he was very accommodating and moved me to another empty seat. I later learned that it was a group of “burn victims” that had received care in the states and were returning to Iraq. The burns were a result of the “war”. I was surprised that no one who spoke any English was traveling with them….no interpreter that we could ascertain.
I didn’t eat because we had the sushi so I tried to work a little, including trying to write this road report. Michael was in the row in front of me and the galley was right in front of him. The flight attendant dropped an entire tray of food and everything splattered all over him. Fortunately he had a blanket over his legs, so that absorbed most of it. I’m just sitting here thinking, what next????
Wasn’t able to sleep on the flight. Just couldn’t shut my mind down and I had a song stuck in my head. I hate it when that happens. We landed on time, cleared Customs easily and all our bags made it. Our escort was waiting for us and we were at the hotel by a few minutes after 7 pm. Everyone was hungry, so I went with them to eat and then went to the health club for my workout. Have been answering emails since then. You’d think emails would slow down on a Sunday!
We must have our bags out at 9 am and we depart the hotel at noon tomorrow. Unless I get a panicked call tomorrow morning saying we must be there earlier. Going to be able to visit some really small FOBs this trip. BUT, we are missing our first Meet and Greet and also the first performance at a little FOB tomorrow because our flight won’t depart Kuwait until 3 pm! We were hoping to be in Baghdad by noon. L
We had the nicest flight attendant on the trip over which was a very pleasant surprise. He gave me an entire bottle of water all to myself and checked on me several times during the flight. Maybe it was because I got a “guy” this time instead of a “girl”???
MONDAY, DECEMBER 29TH:
Slept 4 hours and got up to work out. Still can’t jog because of my ankle, but got in 45 minutes on the stationery bike. Got everyone’s bags out by 9 am and then we all had breakfast. Went over to see the “boat” that is docked beside the hotel. Have never had time to do that before!!!
Well, it was downhill from that point. We got the “panicked” call that we needed to leave the hotel IMMEDIATELY as I was just coming in from looking at the boat. Rounded everyone up and we rushed to the airstrip – only to be told the plane that was supposed to depart at 3:30 had left at 12:30, about 5 minutes before we arrived. I was NOT happy.
Protocol met us and we walked to the base exchange and then had lunch. They got it cleared for us to go to visit the aircraft and maintenance personnel. The security guard at the gate had an “attitude” and didn’t want to let us pass but Protocol finally won that round. The crew had everyone climb on top of the C-130 for a photo op. Then, we got another call from our Kuwait escort telling us to get to the airfield as we had a plane waiting to take us to BALAD! Yippee. My favorite base. As we were getting ready to get back on the bus, Security rushes up and says, not especially nicely, that we are to remain exactly where we are and they need our cameras. Obviously, we were not “authorized” to take photos, even though it wasn’t our idea. They said we would have to delete all the photos we took and they had to watch us do it. Then a “battle” began between our Protocol Officer and the Security Officer. “Supervisors” were called in and I was afraid they were going to make us miss our flight. We finally just made them watch us delete our photos and we were on our way.
Had a nice flight crew from Wyoming and one of the guys had flown me before and remembered me. They let my group take turns going up on the fight deck. Dave asked them to make the “landing” special in Balad and they agreed. He wanted Wendi, Jordan and Paige to have that “experience”. When we finally landed 2 hours later – at Q-West – Wendi and Jordan and slept right through the roller coaster ride. Evidently we had to stop in Q-West to drop off passengers and pick up some more. It was then a 30 minute flight to Balad.
Captain Tucker – our escort from previous tours – was waiting there for us but didn’t realize it was my tour. I had emailed General Bishop to tell him but he had been flying all day and also I had not been able to check my email. My excitement at being able to perform and spend the night at Balad was short-lived. We were only “passing” through and were taking blackhawks to Baghdad! I did get Sal (General B’s XO) out of a movie to come see us. Sure he loved that. J
Captain Tucker was sweet enough to bring sandwiches so that everyone would at least have something to eat. She was told there were 5 people total and brought 8 sandwiches. There were 9 of us so I went for coffee instead. KBR runs the “pax terminal” and said that there was not enough space for all of us and our equipment to fly on the blackhawks because there were other passengers. They wanted to split us up and send our production techs on a Chinook with our equipment that was supposedly leaving for Baghdad 2 hours after the blackhawks. Not an option! I do not split my people up because you may not see them again for a couple of days the way the flights work (or don’t) over here.
I asked why we couldn’t all just go on the later flight on the Chinook. They told me that the Chinook was full. So, I suggested giving up our spaces on the blackhawks to the people scheduled for the Chinook. It’s amazing to me that I’m the only one who thought of that option when these people schedule flights and passengers for a living. They agreed and I asked if we could call Baghdad and let them know our change in plans. We got Sale on the phone and I handed the phone to the KRB person and asked her to give him all the information. She told him that even though she was talking on a secure line, she could not tell him our arrival time or any other information. I was beyond exasperated with KBR by that time. She finally told me that we wouldn’t depart there until midnight and would arrive there at 1 am. Seemed like a really long flight to me.
I took several of my group over to the base exchange and of course, we got the message a few minutes after arriving that we had to go back to the terminal because our choppers were there. It was a little after 10 pm by that time. Hmmmm……
Chinooks arrived and they walked us out to them. I looked inside and they were completely filled with troops. Only about 3 seats empty. It was a hot load so trying to talk to the loadmaster was like a shouting match. I finally made him understand that we had 12 people PLUS a truck full of equipment and luggage. I was NOT putting any of my people on the Chinook without out gear and luggage. Pointless to do so.
They went around to the front of the chopper and had everyone move forward. Then they had us get on (I was very reluctant!) and started shoving our equipment and luggage on board. Huge road cases were strapped down right in front of me and Karri and I was so worried that if they shifted, we’d be crushed. I was also worried about the weight. Obviously since I lived to write this report, it was okay! We flew for about 30 minutes and then they landed. We had no idea “where” but it didn’t look like Baghdad. A few people got off the back of the chopper and they threw some bags off after them. One person got on and then we took off again.
About 10 minutes later, we stopped again and the same thing happened only this time, more people got off. We flew about ½ mile and stopped again. Fuel stop! We all had to get off the chopper at that point. When we got back on, they made us spread out more but the cases were still right in front of us. We FINALLY landed in Baghdad and Karri cut her leg on something really sharp on the chopper as we were disembarking.
We went into the PAX terminal and no one was waiting for us which did not surprise me since they thought we were landing at 1 am. It was 11:30 pm. I called Sale’s office and told him where we were. Got everyone into the DV Lounge but it took about 30 minutes for our vehicles and security to get out to us. We finally arrived at the JVB and thankfully, all the girls were in one room and all the guys were in the other. I answered emails until about 1:30 am and then took my shower and crawled into bed at about 3 am. Had to get up at 7 am.
Everyone was so disappointed that we missed all our performances today. We were scheduled to go to FOB Renegade which is a very tiny FOB that has never had any entertainment. We also missed a “meet and greet” with 10th Mountain and a performance at Camp Slayer in Baghdad. Those two did not concern me nearly as much because they are within the wire at Baghdad and those troops can see shows at the bigger camps any time they want. I tried to figure out a way to get to Renegade on one of the other days, but it just didn’t work out.
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 30TH:
We had to depart the JVB at around 9:30 am to take helicopters to a really, really tiny base that doesn’t even “google”. It is called FOB Alezdehar and only has about 100 people there. It’s pretty close to Camp Delta where we went with HTTP and Bo Bice. Of course when we arrived at the air strip, they told us our flight was delayed by an hour. Good thing because Dave and Paige had forgotten their battle rattle and we had to send someone back to the JVB to collect it. They would not have been allowed to fly on a chopper without it.
My Improv group took advantage of the extra hour to “sleep” and Dave and Paige did some interviews. Choppers finally arrived and they actually shut down because the crew had to go to the restroom. We were told that we would make 2 stops before arriving at Alezdhar but our pilots put me on headset and said that they were taking us to our destination first. They were also going to come back and pick us up to take us to Scania later that afternoon. They were so sweet the entire flight. I put Dave and Paige on the chopper with the equipment because Dave wanted Paige to have a “ride”. I knew that Terry – our escort – had gotten sick the last time she was on a chopper that did that and wanted to “save” her.
We flew for an hour and I swear the last 30 minutes was the most desolate area I have ever seen in Iraq. There was NOTHING….no house, no animals, no vegetation! We landed at the tiny little base and you’ve never seen so many smiling faces waiting for us. Thank God we made it to this one. Dave kept teasing them about their tents because they had all been sprayed with “foam” to keep them from falling over and to insulate them. They looked like Styrofoam housing. Great for his comedy routine. There really was nothing there but rows and rows of Styrofoam tents. And Rocks! Like the ones I almost broke my ankle on a few weeks ago in Tallil. I immediately got my ankle brace out of my backpack and put it on.
Everyone was so nice and appreciative that we were there. We performed in a tent that was their DFAC. Food has to be brought in every day from Camp Delta. It was so tiny but made for the perfect size venue for our Improv group. One of the guys told us that the U.S. troops took over that camp the day that Georgia was attacked and all their troops had to return home.
Dave did an awesome show with lots of audience participation. Troops love it when he embarrasses (in a good way) one of their own. Then the Improv group had everyone laughing for about 40 minutes. We signed every autograph and took photos with everyone. Then our choppers arrived and we were off for a 30 minute flight to FOB Scania.
Our comedy tour went to Scania last year and it was pretty desolate, too. It’s the world’s largest “truck stop” so lots of people rotating in and out. Difference is, there is lots of vegetation, especially palm trees. We landed and somehow my group got separated because we were in 4 different vehicles. I really, really don’t like that. Karri was climbing around in an MRAP because she had never seen one and I was trying to locate all the others. Dave and Paige were supposed to do a live remote from Scania and were working with the people with the Satellite Truck. All the Satellite equipment had been brought down from Baghdad that morning. They guys operating it were unable to get a signal, so the uplink did not happen. L Very disappointing.
I found the rest of my group and we all met the base commander and the “mayor”. The performance was outside in the same “gazebo” where they performed last year. But, this year, I asked them to move the bleachers up very close to the stage. They didn’t do it but they did fill in with chairs and all the chairs were full. It was another great, hilarious show. We started signing autographs and I was a little concerned because the line was so long and I knew that once our choppers landed, we had to leave. I hate cutting off the line.
We probably had 30 minutes left to finish up signing when we were told that the “birds” were on the ground. But, the soldier who gave us the information said he had talked to the flight crew and they were “flexible” and we could go ahead and finish up. I got our sound crew to go ahead and take all the production gear out to the airstrip and I was “monitoring” how much longer we were there. Then the same soldier came up and said, “you have to leave now”. And since I’ve been left by aircraft before (like a day ago!), I was rushing everyone to move along. The celebs did not like walking out on the autographs and rushed through the line. Then Michael realized he had left his glasses on the stage and we had to go back. We found those but then he thought he had forgotten his video case with his IPhone in it and we had to go to the “green room” again. This is what happens when we have to “rush” somewhere. He later found the case in his backpack, thank God.
We arrived at the airstrip and the choppers were just landing! Go figure. We had been told that they were on the ground for over 30 minutes. I’ll never understand this lack of and mis-communication.
The flight was about an hour and was freezing cold. Our flight crew was again awesome and put me, Karri, and Paige on headsets. Karri kept them going with a constant stream of chatter. We were all really glad that we had brought our heavy coats with us though.
Landed at Baghdad and went straight to 10th Mountain to make up our “missed” autograph session. Those guys were the “JAG” and Karri had a blast. Signed autographs there for about an hour and then went to the DFAC for dinner. Oh, we had a quick snack at the first camp today and then lunch at Scania so we were not “starving” this time.
We had thought about doing the Al Faw Palace tour tonight so everyone could sleep in but we were all just “toast” by that time. Since General O isn’t around, we don’t have an office call tomorrow. We are going to depart the JVB at 11 am and go shopping, then on the Palace Tour and then chopper to two more little FOB’s – Independence and Hammer. Never been to Hammer. Think I’ve been to Independence though. It was only 9:30 pm when we got back to lodging. I answered a LOT of email and went to bed at 1:30 am. At 3:00 am, I woke up FREEZING with a sore throat. Someone had turned the air conditioning down to 17 C! Took me about 20 minutes to figure out how to turn it up and then I couldn’t go back to sleep.
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 31ST:
HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!
Since I was still awake from my 3 am freezing session, I heard this announcement come over the loud speaker at 7:30 am. It was really loud but I couldn’t tell what they were saying. It happened twice so I jumped up and ran down to the front desk to check it out. I had a feeling they were announcing a controlled detonation but wanted to make sure. This building was mortared about a year ago and took out some “chunks” of marble by the dining room. Also, last year we had to get in the hallway with our Kevlar when I was here with Aaron because of an attack. I was a little concerned because we had left all our body rattle in the security vehicles…something we rarely do. But, it was fine. Just a controlled detonation announcement.
I got up and showered and started answering emails and trying to catch up on my Road Reports!
This tour is so “easy” because we are staying at the JVB the entire time. Every other tour, we have had to pack up our personal bags and move to a different camp each night. They are definitely spoiling us!
We departed on time and it was a short chopper ride to the IZ and Camp Independence. There are only about 200 U.S. troops at that base and they work one-on-one with the Iraqis. They go out several times a day and patrol the streets of Baghdad. Just goes to show how much safer everything has become. Their Colonel gave us a briefing on the success they have had and what he anticipates for the future. There were several Iraqi translators there and I managed to get one aside and talk to him for a long time. I really enjoy hearing what life was like pre-Saddam and what it is like now. He has two young children who he is delighted are going to have a much better life than he does. He lives at home and drives in to the base to work each day. Just a couple of years ago, he would have been killed by Al Qaeda if he had even attempted such a job. He said that prior to becoming a Linguist, he was a welder and that he learned English from watching movies on TV. That is the only thing “American” that Saddam allowed on TV for the Iraqis during his reign of terror. He was also telling us how much electricity he has each day. He gets 17 hours a day because he “pays” a man with a generator a lot of money. I asked him if it was like that before the war and he said they had much less electricity when Saddam was in power. Before we went over to perform the show, he gave me 1,000 Iraqi Dinars and asked if I wanted to be his second wife. He was kidding. J I think…..
The show was great because it was in a small DFAC so it was up close and personal, the way they like it. Had lots of audience participation and lots of fun and laughs for everyone. They signed autographs for about an hour afterwards and then we had about 30 minutes before our choppers came to pick us up.
We had another short flight from Independence to another remote FOB – FOB Hammer. We were told there were only about 300 U.S. troops there but they are building up the base and probably had 600 troops. We had lots of miscommunication at this Camp. We were told that we would perform at 10 pm and when we arrived, we were told 8 pm!
I ran over to the venue to check it out and then asked that someone walk the entertainers over and have the bus meet us at the MWR tent.
Had a problem getting the bus from the DFAC (which was only across the street) to the MWR Tent. A good 45 minutes later, the bus pulled up with the entertainers on it! Go figure…..again great communication. We were told that there was a “mandatory bonfire” at 10 pm and one entire battalion would have to attend. Great. Right in the middle of our performance. Then someone came up and said that the bonfire had been moved to 11:30 pm so everyone could attend the show.
Dave started the show and it was a great audience with a packed room. Then the Improv group came up and Wendi announced that the bonfire had been moved to 11:30 pm. No one cheered or applauded and I was wondering if there ever was a bonfire scheduled in the first place. About 10 minutes into the show, the first 4 rows of soldiers got up and left. I asked someone if they were going to the bonfire since it was 9:30 pm exactly and was told no, that they had a “formation”.
Show finished around 10:15 pm and the entertainers went back to sign autographs. Only the audience was leaving. Finally someone got on the PA and announced that they were signing (again) and a long line formed. Finished up about 11 pm and went into the “library/green room” to rest. I went outside to check on some things and a soldier came up to me and asked if the show was already over. I told him it was and asked where he had been. He said he was at the bonfire and that it had taken place at 10 pm! Unbelievable. When I walked back into the tent, there was a long line of soldiers getting autographs and all of them had been at the bonfire. At least they were able to have some “contact” with the celebs. Midnight rolled around and a few of the entertainers went outside to see some fireworks. Then we had to pack up and head for the airstrip for our choppers back to Baghdad.
It’s sad because we were the first entertainment FOB Hammer has had and with all the miscommunication, many of the troops did not know we were there or were unable to attend. They have lots of new troops that have just rotated in, so hopefully communication will get better in a few weeks.
Flight back to Baghdad was short – about 20 minutes plus one “stop” en route. We were back in the JVB by 1:30 am and were told we had to be ready to depart at 9:15 AM for a 1:15 pm flight. I tried and tried to get our “show up” time moved to around 11:30 since there is NO reason for us to be out there that early if someone else takes our passports and all our equipment/luggage and manifests everything. Once again, I lost the battle. I didn’t get in bed until 3 am and had to get up at 7:30 am.
THURSDAY, JANUARY 1ST:
Up at 7:30 and in the lobby by 8 am. First thing I’m greeted with is that we don’t have to depart the hotel until 11:30 am. Lot of good that does us now that everyone is up and ready to go. There is a great new female Colonel from Texas who is handling the JVB and she told me that NONE of her “USO type” tours have to be at the airfield until 1½ hours prior to departure. This is EXACTLY what I’ve been trying to make our escorts believe for this entire year. I went to tell Karri and Wendi that they didn’t have to leave until 11:30 am but then we were told we had to put bags out at 9:30 am!
Our show in Kuwait is being pushed from 3 pm to 6 pm. Will just have time to perform and head to the airport.
We left for the airfield right on time and when we arrived, were told that the “bird” would be on the ground in about 20 minutes. Rushed over to the DFAC and got “to go” plates. Boarded the aircraft and Karri and Wendi went to the flight deck for the flight to Kuwait. Our crew is from Texas. Nice guys all of them.
They started the engines and then stopped them. Did it a couple of times and finally came over the loud speaker and said that they were waiting on a couple of things – a DV on another aircraft and “weather” to clear in Tallil. We had several people on board who were getting off in Tallil and then they were taking us on to Kuwait. We had to wait about an hour for the “clearance” to fly during which time Dave Price got on the intercom and “entertained”! He is one funny guy!!!
Finally took off and they said we would not be stopping in Tallil because of the weather there. It seemed to be taking a really long time to land. When we did land, I looked out the window and couldn’t tell if it was raining or we if we were in a dust storm. Turned out to be both. Karri said that the pilots made two passes trying to land and finally decided that if they didn’t make the landing on the 3rd pass, they would have to divert to a Camp where the weather was clearer. Sure glad I wasn’t up there hearing all that. We have flights back to the states at midnight tonight and I did not want to get stuck in Iraq somewhere for another night.
We landed and our escort wasn’t there to pick us up. I called him and he said he couldn’t get a security escort to bring him too us. I had given him the contact name and phone number of the Protocol Officer before I left. I asked him if he had called him and he did not. He called someone else who told him he couldn’t help him! We had to take a 20 minute bus ride to the other side of the Camp, only to get in vehicles and go back to where we had just landed (20 more minutes). Finally picked up keys to the lodging we were using for a few hours and went to the DFAC to each dinner. My Protocol Officer was there eating and wanted to know why we had not called him to escort us. I made sure that I introduced him to our escort so we wouldn’t have this problem in the future.
Ran by lodging to change clothes very quickly and then to the theatre for the performance. Dave and Paige had booked flights to Bahrain tonight and had to leave before we left for the airport. Dave worked out a ride with someone and left right after the performance. He did sign autographs for everyone in line before he left.
It was such a great show. Almost a packed house and the audience was very “responsive” which is good for a Comedy/Improv Show. After signing autographs and taking lots of photos, we went back by lodging to pick up our bags and then off to the airport. Airport was packed but fortunately they were not going out on United. Check in was relatively painless and we all went to the Lounge to wait for the flight to be called. Didn’t have a “lot” of surprises this time (no Iraqis boarding at the last minute) except they decided to “hold” the plane for some arriving passengers. Why won’t they EVER do that for me? It was only about 4 people total but it took them about 30 minutes to get on board and another 30 minutes for their luggage to go through security. I was livid by that time. We have a very short connection in DC and if we miss that flight, we won’t be able to depart until 4:30 pm! Finally took off an hour late and I slept almost the entire flight because I had so little sleep in Iraq. Food still just sucks on United, so I skipped dinner (again).
We landed about 15 minutes late but the line to go through Immigration was about a mile long. Moving at a snail’s pace, too. Finally got through Immigration, picked up all our bags (everything came in!), rechecked everything and went through security again. This time they saw something “suspicious” in my purse and kept searching through it and re-scanning it. I just knew we were going to miss our flight! They never found anything in the purse and we had to run to the gate. They were already boarding but at least we didn’t get stuck in DC. Plane wasn’t full and the pilots made everyone in the first 3 rows move to the back of the plane. That always makes me feel “comfortable”. NOT!
It was such a great tour with an awesome group of people. Hopefully they will all want to do a “repeat” tour in 2009! There is never any question that the entertainers I take over are going because they truly appreciate our troops and want to thank them for their sacrifices. The troops can sense this “love” for them and it truly touches them.
Landed in Nashville right on time. I go to LA this weekend and then BACK to Iraq next weekend with a comedian named Greg Vaccariella and the country music group Lonestar. I’m sleepy! J