PHOTOS (Courtesy of A Pelayo, AP-SandDawg Photography)
SATURDAY, DECEMBER 26TH – NASHVILLE TO LAX:
Hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas!
I flew from Nashville to LAX today to meet up with the New Year’s Eve Improv Tour participants – 5 of them at least. I have two people – Dave Price and Sandy Bondorowsky — flying out of NY to Frankfurt tomorrow. The rest of us – Karri Turner, Michael Hitchcock, Jordan Black, Tim Bagley, and Karen Maruyama – depart LAX to Frankfurt. Usually we all depart to Washington, DC and meet up for the direct flight to Kuwait. This year, United only has the direct flight on “certain days” and our flight date wasn’t one of those days. We will be able to fly back from Kuwait to DC and then to our respective home cities.
I was worried about the weather in Nashville and didn’t want to risk a flight delay that would keep me from arriving when everyone else arrived. As it turns out, we have had unusually HOT weather and except for Tornado warnings every couple of days, the weather was good.
We were planning to stay at Ali Al Salem when we arrived Kuwait because this flight arrives later than the direct one from DC. Since we didn’t know what time our call time would be for the MilAir flight into Iraq, was safer to stay at The Rock. But, that also meant we would have to stand in line to apply for Visas upon arrival – which can be a very lengthy process dependent upon how many flights land at the same time.
I woke up to find an email from our escort in Iraq telling me our MilAir flight would be later in the day than we anticipated. I called him and told him we are going to try and stay at the Radisson and have them issue our Visas. Called the Radisson and, of course, they remember me from my many other visits with them and found 8 rooms for us. They are also getting the Visas expedited so we won’t have to apply when we land. Love that hotel!
My flight was oversold. Clint Black and his wife and daughter were on my flight. There was a “family” in first class – a Mom, Dad, little girl around 3 years old, toddler and a grandmother. They were in the first row and as soon as they boarded, the toddler – a beautiful little girl – started screeching. I don’t mean crying – just screeching at what had to be the top of her lungs. This continued the entire 4 ½ flight. It was so loud, I was worried about hearing damage because I couldn’t find my earplugs. Neither one of the children slept at all. The Dad and Grandmother sat across the aisle from the Mom and offered no help. The stewardesses finally started helping her – probably to keep the passengers from complaining. Felt sorry for the Mom.
The flight was turbulent the entire time. Not good. We landed on time and it took 35 minutes for my luggage to arrive. Found the shuttle to the Hyatt Concourse Hotel easily and it was a 2 minute ride over. I knew the hotel was going to be under construction and was getting really BAD reviews on line. But for the convenience, I convinced myself that I could handle anything that came along for one night. Nice people at the front desk, nice bellman, nice room. No book that tells any of the amenities. Called the front desk and they said they would just have to “tell me”. There is no gift shop but the gym is open. I noticed that it was really COLD in my room and tried to adjust the thermostat. No luck. Called the front desk and they sent up an engineer immediately. He did something but said the thermostat wasn’t working and he would be back. It did start blowing warm air while he was gone. He came back and did something else and when he left, it started blowing cold air again. The front desk offered to move me but took about an hour to find another room. They asked me to check it out but cold air was blowing in the new room as well. In the meantime, the air in my room seemed to be warming up. FINALLY the hotel admitted that none of the guests can control the thermostats in their rooms. They have all been turned off and everything is centrally controlled. It just has NOT been my year for heating and air conditioning in hotels!
I got everyone except the NY passengers checked in. We are on Lufthansa for the trip over and United on the flights back. The Lufthansa website is horrible. Took me over an hour to get the 6 of us checked in. Then I had to go down to the Business Center to print out the Boarding Passes. It’s possible to print boarding passes “free of charge”. But, I didn’t want to have to log in and fight the website again, so I had emailed them to myself. It cost me $8.00 to use the internet and another $2.00 per boarding pass to print!
At least the hotel manager was apologetic about my room and gave me a voucher for a free breakfast tomorrow!
Going to bed now so I can get up early and deal with any “changes or problems” before departure.
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 27TH AND MONDAY, DECEMBER 28TH– LOS ANGELES TO KUWAIT:
Woke up a lot earlier than I would have liked because of the time difference, I suppose. Got a lot of “work” done though….an hour on a live chat with Apple trying to figure out why I can’t change my voice mail message only to be told the problem must be with my cell phone carrier. So, another 45 minutes on the phone with T-Mobile who finally threw in the towel and showed me how to change it by calling in on my mobile phone. I did find time to shower and have an egg white omelet for breakfast! I realized I had forgotten my lotion and the little complimentary samples in my room were shampoo and two conditioners instead of a lotion. I went downstairs and paid $2 a copy plus an $8 service charge to print the work visas for Kuwait. We got all of them except the one for Karen and the hotel said hers was issued as a “male” and was being reissued! Asked the front desk where I could buy lotion since this hotel’s gift shop is closed for renovation. The nice lady brought me a basket full and said “help yourself” and I did!
When I was ready to depart, tried to call for a bellman but no one would answer at the Bell Stand, Front Desk or Concierge. I heaved my 40 pound rolling bag onto my back and grabbed my rolling military duffle and 50 pound small suitcase filled with autograph sheets, sharpies, coins, etc. and headed down to the elevators. When I got to the front desk, there was only one person at the counter checking out. My luck continued when I went out front to wait for the shuttle. The shuttle driver pulled up, opened the doors, looked at me, closed the doors and drove off! I was stunned. I went inside and told the bellman. He called over another shuttle driver who was waiting in the garage next door. That driver said he had seen what happened but didn’t know that no communication had taken place between us. Crazy!
On the drive to the airport, the driver asked me where I was going, etc., and when I told him, he responded, “Sort of like Bob Hope and the USO”. I told him “yes” and he said his brother had deployed and got to meet Drew Carey and Gary Sinise and have his photo taken with them. Made me feel good to know that our visits truly mean a lot to our servicemen and women and they tell their families about us.
I was able to check in the First Class line thanks to Dave Price giving me two 1K upgrades from a friend of his. Lufthansa doesn’t have an agreement with LAX for TSA Pre-Check but again, Dave to the rescue. He said the agent will walk first class passengers through. I was able to talk the agent into walking all of us through by giving him an autographed photo of everyone. J Karri was the first to arrive, followed by Tim – and the laughs began. Tim was worried about not having a “pillow” with him because I specifically suggested bringing one in my “packing list” to everyone. He remembered last time he toured with us and didn’t bring one and really wished he had. So, he went into a trunk in his attic and found a small “baby” pillow. He had the pillowcase in his backpack and it’s embroidered with “Tim” on it. So sweet. But just asking for ridicule from the others. J Michael arrived next, followed by Karen and then Jordon. “Pesh” – the Lufthansa agent – escorted us through security. Michael got him to tell Tim that he wouldn’t be allowed to take the baby pillow through. LOL.
We went to the Lufthansa Lounge which was amazing. The entire International terminal has been renovated and is beautiful. Lots of high-end shopping and restaurants. The food in the lounge was free and better than you could ever wish for in a restaurant. I answered a few emails and then went down to purchase some last minute gifts for friends in Kuwait. When I got to the gate, Pesh was there and told me to bring everyone through the first class line and board first. So nice of him!
First and Business Class are upstairs – something I didn’t really realize until I went to the restroom – which is as big as my restroom at home!!! – and saw the stairs leading down to the coach section. When we boarded, we went up an escalator so never climbed any stairs on the aircraft. There are even storage lockers for our carry on bags instead of overhead space. I took photos of my seat with all the space and compartments but forgot to take a photo of the restroom. We were allowed to watch a movie while waiting for take-off and didn’t have to turn it off during take-off. And there is WiFi! J
The food is amazing on board as well. Flight attendants are super nice. Dave said United is ceasing their service to Kuwait as of January 31st, so Lufthansa may be our new airline of choice. Just wish they had a direct flight from the USA to Kuwait! Even watched a great movie.
Going to try and catch a quick nap before landing in Frankfurt and meeting up with Dave and Sandy for a 5 hour flight to Kuwait. Was only able to sleep for 2 hours. Worked for the rest of the flight except for the breakfast which consisted of eggs – freshly scrambled – and bacon. Pretty amazing.
We landed only a few minutes late even though the flight took off an hour late because they had to take off a couple of bags for passengers who were “no shows”. We had two hours to make our connection but by the time we walked from one terminal to another, then took a shuttle, and cleared security, we had less than 30 minutes before boarding. Dave and Sandy were waiting for us in the Lounge but we didn’t have time to go there. We all met at the gate and boarded on time.
The security checkpoint was ridiculous. There was one line for Business Class and another line for Coach. But the agent was directing the Coach passengers into the Business Class line at one point so there was a “log jam” with people trying to merge two lines into one! Then only one person was allowed to step into the room at a time. That meant no one could take computers, liquids, etc., out of their bags until they were at the belt. The man behind me was complaining the loudest then when it was his turn, he took longer than anyone else to figure out what he had to take out of the bag!
Still flying on my First Class upgrade from Dave and Lufthansa takes their First Class passengers to the aircraft in a car but everyone else has to take a shuttle bus. Dave and I stayed with the group instead of taking the private car. He and I are the only ones in First Class. There are six empty seats and we tried our best to get the flight attendants and pilots to let us bring the rest of the group up, but no deal. L I tried sleeping again but only slept for one hour. Trying to watch a movie and work at the same time the rest of the flight. This plane is still WAY better than any U.S. airlines but isn’t the double decker like we had from LAX to Frankfurt. Flight attendants were super nice again. Dave passed out before we ever took off. The flight attendant wanted to wake him up so she could “make his bed” but I told her told her to let him sleep. On both flights, they put down a “pad” on the seat and then put a comforter on top of that. United does offer that service as well in First Class.
When we landed there were two employees from Lufthansa with a sign with mine and Dave’s names on them. They escorted all of us down and collected our Visas for us, got them stamped, got our luggage for us and escorted us through Customs! United never did that for their first class passengers. ONCE, United met me with a sign but when I told them I had 12 people with me, they never met me again.
All our buddies from PSD and MWR were waiting for us with three SUV’s – 2 for passengers and one for our luggage. It took us less than 20 minutes to get to the hotel. Our rooms were ready for us and I think everyone just “crashed” as soon as they got to their rooms. It was a little after 10 pm by that time and I am still working at midnight. Typical! Love staying at this hotel again and so glad it worked out. And so wonderful to see all our buddies from PSD and MWR again. All great folks. Knight and I stay in touch throughout the year. His home is in Kentucky but seems like every time he comes back to see his little 2 year old son, I’m out of the country!
Our flight time was moved to earlier so we have a 10:15 am lobby call. Which means I have a 9:30 am lobby call to get the bill paid and everything ready to go. I probably won’t be able to send Road Reports from where we’re going until after we leave there. Will check it out. Keep us in your prayers. We are all super excited to be visiting the men and women serving in our military over the New Year! This is such a wonderful group who generously donate their time for this tour every year. It’s so much FUN and I look forward to it all year long.
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 29TH – LEAVING KUWAIT TO BAGHDAD DIPLOMATIC SUPPORT CENTER, BAGHDAD, IRAQ:
What a day! A great day! I had set the alarm for 6 am but woke up every hour. Finally I looked at the clock and it was 6:43 and my alarm had not gone off. I got up in a panic and realized the phone alarm had not gone off either. Good reason. It was 5:43 am. I set my alarm but forgot to change the “time”.
Showered and worked on emails for a while before having breakfast with most of the group. I had a really nice surprise when I watched Fox News this morning. Over New Year’s in 2006, I had Karri Turner, Dave Price and two NFL player – Kevin Butler and Jim McMahon in Iraq. We were in Ramadi on New Year’s Eve and Colonel Sean MacFarland was “in charge” there. He gave us this amazing presentation on how they were “winning” and stabilizing Iraq. I actually asked him to email me the presentation and I still have it on my computer. Basically, he devised the plan whereby the U.S. won the trust of the Iraqis and helped them stabilize their country. If you go to my Road Report for 2006 on New Year’s, you can read about it on the Stars for Stripes website. He also told us that Saddam was going to be executed before we got up the next morning and he was. We flew to Baghdad that day and slept in one of Saddam’s palaces…which was pretty freaky! Colonel MacFarland’s Unit went home to Germany in 2007 and I took Chely Wright through there for a concert. That’s when I met Colonel MacFarland’s amazing wife Lynda. We stayed in touch for quite a while but eventually lost contact.
Anyway, I digress. The first thing I saw on Fox News was how Lt. General Sean MacFarland was responsible for the success in taking back Ramadi last week! They talked about how well-liked and respected he is by the Iraqi Leaders. FINALLY, we do something really smart against ISIS. I emailed Lynda and got caught up with what’s happening in her family.
I was able to see Rudilyn at the Radisson before we departed. She always takes such good care of my groups! We drove to Ali Al Salem and it took us less than an hour. I’m having problems with my cell phone server and not getting my emails. I spent the entire drive working on that.
We had a few minutes to sit in the DV Lounge and autograph some photos. Then we walked over to the DFAC and got a “to go” plate and brought it back to the lounge to eat it. A few minutes later, we were called to the flight line and boarded the aircraft. The C130 was empty except for our group and a couple of other guys and the flight crew was super nice! They let us take turns going up on the flight deck. I put Karen and Sandy up there for take off as neither one of them had ever taken a military flight before. It was a short flight – less than 1 ½ hours and Dave and I sat on the deck for landing. The crew had to do a “combat landing” and spiral down. Definitely much nicer to experience that up on the flight deck than down in the plane “belly”. Took a group shot with the flight crew and then went to the DV Lounge to have our Visas issued for Iraq. (By the way, I can’t send out these reports until we leave Iraq, so it’s okay to say where we are!). It was a lengthy process but not as long as we anticipated. Lodging was nearby so we walked over to our rooms. They didn’t have enough rooms available for everyone to have their own room so I had the guys “draw keys” out of a hat to see who was sharing. Michael and Dave lost, so they are “roomies” while we are here.
We had time for a very quick dinner at the DFAC while Sandy was getting things set up. Food was amazingly GOOD for a DFAC. They were even cooking all different flavors of pancakes. Fortunately for my waist line, I didn’t see that grill until I had already selected the grilled chicken.
The show will take place in the MWR tent. Everyone ran back to the rooms for a quick “touch up” and then back to the venue for the show. It was a great audience and a really terrific “first show” by everyone. I haven’t laughed that much in a very long time. The autograph line wasn’t too long and we finished in time to go to the “Pizza Hut” on base. I was only able to eat the cheese off the top of it. LOL. And they have BEER here because Baghdad Diplomatic Support Center (where we are located near Baghdad International Airport) is owned by the Department of Defense, not the Iraqis. They never returned this part of the base to the Iraqis when the withdrawal took place in 2011. That’s not true at some of the other sites we’ll visit.
Jordan and I left the Pizza Party early….him to sleep and me to work. I tried every available WiFi – including the one I rented and brought with me – and kept getting knocked off. I finally paid for one and it does pretty good. Better than nothing at all!
Our escorts her are terrific – Brian (who I’ve coordinated this visit with), Sgt. Mariela Iniguez, Chief (from Denmark), and Specialist Humber – all have taken such great care of us.
Going to bed as it is 1 am and I have to get up by 6 am again. Tomorrow we take Embassy Air which is a fixed wing 40 passenger jet from Baghdad to Erbil and visit the Embassy and LSA Danger. I’ve only been to Erbil once during all my 37 previous visits to Iraq….and that was just a quick stop to use their restroom as we were passing through. J
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 30TH, 2016 – SECOND PERFORMANCE IN IRAQ – LSA Danger, Erbill, Iraq:
Definitely a “restless” night of sleep. The heat is a unit on the wall and is either too hot or too cold. I only had 4 hours to sleep and I woke up about every 30 minutes to adjust it. Met everyone but Karri for a quick breakfast and then we walked over to the flight terminal in POURING rain and much colder weather. As I mentioned, there are no “drainage” systems in Iraq so these huge “lakes” that have formed from so much rain will be here for weeks. Our flight is a little twin prop jet with 40 seats. The wind is blowing, it’s pouring rain and there is a very low cloud cover – perfect flying weather for me. L
We had to “weigh” ourselves and our checked bags. The guy checking us in was “Mr. Personality” and told Karri she had to check her carry on bag because it was a completely full flight. She didn’t want to do that, so she took out what she needed and put on her heavy coat then Brian went to Sandy’s room, put Karri’s suitcase in there, and got an empty duffle bag from Sandy for Karri. Then we boarded the flight and only 20 of the 40 seats were full. I wanted so badly to take a photo of the “half empty” plane and show it to Mr. Personality. If we didn’t have to deal with him for 3 more days, I would have!
I as an absolute wreck the entire flight. In all honestly, it wasn’t NEARLY as bad as I expected. But it was turbulent and even a little turbulence isn’t okay with me. We landed at Erbill which is a “thriving” Northern city in Iraq populated by the Kurds. Tall buildings could be seen outside the base perimeter and there is a new airport there with commercial flights landing regularly. Our show was at LSA Danger.
We walked to the DFAC to “hang out” for an hour while Sandy got the production set up. Evidently, they don’t have any “speakers” at this base and planned on running the entire show through a boom box. THAT did not work at all. The show is being held in a big open space in what I thought was an office building but turned out to be the new terminal. Everyone was super nice and helpful. We were told they rarely get entertainment here. The DFAC is pretty “primitive” as well but the salad bar was great. After lunch, we walked over to the show site to prep for the show. The base Chaplain came by to talk to us and what a nice guy. I also met a guy with several guitars in his office. When I quizzed him about who had signed guitars for him, he mentioned Craig Morgan. He saw us last year at Camp Phoenix AND he is from Georgia. Talks like I do. LOL
The entertainers decided not to use the mics. There will only be about 50 people who can attend because they work 24/7 here. So, if they are not at work, they are sleeping. Again, there’s no stage and no stage lights. When Sandy turned on the video, it was projected on the white wall but you couldn’t see it because of the lights. I turned them off but some soldier came running out all upset because there was a Major working in his office and it turned out his lights. Wish we had thought to “clear” this before the show began. Tomorrow I will ask when we arrive.
It was a really wonderful show for a very appreciative group of men and women. I love getting to these little places (used to call them FOB’s. Now they are LSA’s). The group took photos with everyone and then we had about an hour to “wait” before flying back in the still horrendous weather to Baghdad. We all hit a “wall” and lots of us (including me) fell asleep for a few minutes.
We got checked in and boarded the fight on time. I noticed really dark clouds on the horizon and was expecting even worse weather. Again, I was pleasantly surprised even though there was a little turbulence. When we landed we went to the two “exchanges” here – one regular base exchange and one diplomatic exchange. The only thing I purchased was a bag of nuts.
We all walked over to the DFAC for dinner and the “specialty” tonight was Indian food. Big mistake. Although it fit my “no carbs” diet, it was incredibly spicy! A young soldier sat with us but he was a fan of “older music and entertainment”. Was fun to talk to him about old TV shows. What fascinated me was the fact that he was eating a bowl full of croutons like it was popcorn. Never thought to try that if there is no popcorn available.
After dinner, I came back to the room to TRY to re-pack an overnight bag for our one night away from Bagdad. Tomorrow we will take helicopters to the Embassy (formerly the Green Zone). We’ll perform at the Embassy tomorrow afternoon and then go across the street and perform at Union III tomorrow night. After the performance, we’ll chopper to Taji and spend the night. The Embassy MWR reps have scheduled “shopping” for us at the local “market” which is located on the base. I feel sure I’ve already purchased at least one of everything they have after 37 tours to Iraq and 15 to Afghanistan since 2001. But it will be fun to look. I’m still packing and re-packing but going to bed soon as it’s almost midnight now.
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 31ST – BAGHDAD TO THE EMBASSY AND UNION III, IRAQ – HAPPY NEW YEAR AND HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO SGT. INIQUEZ!
What a fantastic New Year’s Eve. Woke up several times during the night and finally just got up at 6 am. Had plenty to time to dress for breakfast and do some work before walking over to the DFAC for breakfast. Had a great egg white omelet today since we weren’t on a time deadline. We departed lodging at 10 am and walked over to the flight light. We took Marine choppers today and they were really nice. Not sure if they were Huey’s or not but think so. I’ve flown them before, but it’s been a while. It was a very short 10 minute flight to the Embasssy.
A “Rhino” picked us up at the flight line and delivered us to “security” where it took a while to get everyone checked in. Absolutely no photos are allowed here. We had time to check out the venue “Baghdaddy’s” – a bar. Yes, the Embassy folks get to drink! I think that is the main reason most people want to be stationed at the Embassy. J
We went to lunch and the food was excellent. We sat in a private dining room and had the most amazing conversation with a lady named Julie. She was wearing the traditional head cover but when she spoke, it was with a British Accent. She was from England and had married a local Iraqi that she met in England. Her husband’s family wanted him to return to Iraq so she moved with him and her two very young children back to Baghdad. We didn’t let her eat anything but quizzed and quizzed and quizzed her about “life” here during the war and how things are now. She verified a lot of the things we already knew but it was amazing to hear how she and her 4 children (she had 2 more after they returned to Iraq) have lived this past decade. I could have sat and talked with her all afternoon.
Karri, Tim and I walked table to table after eating and invited everyone to come to the show. We also ran into Julie’s husband and it was so nice to meet him and talk to him for a few minutes too. Julie brought us these cute camels and a cell phone holder with the British Flag just before the show.
The show was great and was PACKED. That’s pretty impressive for an afternoon show on New Year’s Eve, too! One guy in the audience looked like Bruce Springsteen so you can imagine he got picked on quite a lot. Turned out to be Jessica’s (our escort) husband!
They group took photos with everyone and then we hopped back into the Rhino and went across the street to Union III. No restrictions on photography there. I’ve been to the Embassy and Union III many times but they sure have changed since my last visit. Captain Rowan took us on a tour of the old Bathe Party Headquarters and everyone found that fascinating. I had toured it a long time ago, but still loved walking through it. It is completely “bombed” out but the view from the top is spectacular. We could see both sets of crossed sabers marking the parade route plus a Ferris wheel and some other rides and a big high rise hotel named the Babylon. We could also see the building with the gallows where Saddam was executed was executed on December 30th, 2006.
As we were walking back to the building where our bags were stored, a “motorcade” drove up and we had to step aside. I saw someone get out of the vehicle with an “entourage” and I can’t believe it did this, but I yelled, “General MacFarland”! His head whipped around like “What the heck?” and I said “Judy Seale”. I have to say he was pretty shocked. We talked to him for a few minutes and I reminded him that he had met Karri as well in 2006. Dave had also met him but he was still at the Bathe Headquarters and missed his opportunity. I gave him a big hug for his wonderful, amazing wife – Lynda.
We walked to the DFAC and had another excellent meal. Seems like all we do is EAT! Tim had bought Sgt. Iginuez a “t-shirt” from all of us and we sang “Happy Birthday” to her. Tim, Karri and I walked table to table again and invited everyone to the show. It worked because we had another GREAT show. The group even brought Captain Rowan up for one of the “skits”. Signed autographs afterwards and then headed for the flight line. This time we flew Blackhawks. I was in the front with Dave and Michael and the “gunner” gave us a signal that they were going to shoot off the flares. Karen was in the back and has never ridden in a Blackhawk and didn’t know this was going to happen. I heard her scream some obscenity when they went off. LOL.
We weren’t sure we would be able to come to Taji because the weather forecast changed and it is supposed to start raining at noon. Since we have to take choppers, we could get stuck there and not be able to get back to Baghdad for our C130 flight back to Kuwait. Cpt. Rowan made the decision for us to go to Taji but changed the ShowTime to 3:00 pm so we can fly back before the weather gets bad.
Lodging here is nice and everyone has their own “bedroom” with a shared bathroom between the two bathrooms. The “bummer” is…there’s no internet! At least not one that anyone has the “code” too. Our room was out of toilet tissue and someone was going to bring it to us. I was waiting for that and I guess everyone decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve without me. I couldn’t find anyone when I went back outside, so I missed the party! Called Zac and Zoe and wished them a Happy New Year. The connection was horrible so not sure how much of my conversation they heard but it was wonderful to hear their voices.
It started just pouring rain around 1 am. I am on the top floor of our “metal container” lodging so it sounded even louder than it was, I’m sure. I guess for some folks that might be “good sleeping weather” but it sure wasn’t for me.
Going to bed now as it is almost 2 am and breakfast is at 7:30 am.
FRIDAY, JANUARY 1ST, 2016 – TAJI TO BAGHDAD:
Can’t believe it is 2016 already. I want to slow time down but it’s definitely not working out for me. I did sleep really well last night and was dead to the world when the alarm went off at 6 am.
Dressed and went over for a quick breakfast of egg white omelet then stopped by the Base Exchange which only had the basic necessities. Have a couple of hours to kill before going to lunch and then the performance.
We had to go eat lunch at 11:15 am and it seems like we just ate. I’m having a really hard time finding anything that is “healthy” that I like on this base. We were scheduled to go visit the Aviation Division here (Calvary) after lunch. Tim, Karri and I walked around and invited people to the show before leaving the DFAC.
The group loved the visit with the Calvary. They got to see the drones, Chinooks (the NEW one that we didn’t recognize), the Black Hawks and the Apaches. Got some great photos and no one wanted to leave when we had to go to the venue for the performance.
We had another great – LAST (Hard to believe!) – show at Taji. The group added a few new skits that went over well. Everyone took photos with the attendees after the show. One guy came up to me and thanked me for telling him about the show. Said he would not have known about it if I hadn’t come by his table and invited him.
We were given a tentative departure time of around 1 pm tomorrow and I hope that holds.
We rushed back to lodging to pack after the performance. The skies have indeed cleared up and we should be able to fly by 7:30 pm. Had dinner at the DFAC before going to the flight line. We are flying Chinooks back to BDSC and it’s a much “nicer” ride (heated) than the Black hawks. Took about 15 minutes and we landed and secured our badges again. The group went to have Pizza but I had to get in touch with the Radisson and try to secure a “half day” rate on rooms tomorrow. Hopefully that will work out as well but if not, we’ll just stay at Ali Al Salem and go straight from there to the airport.
There was NO WiFi connection today at Taji so I had over 200 emails to deal with tonight. I could read most of them on my phone but couldn’t answer them.
Have to have our bags over at the terminal by 7:15 tomorrow so I need to grab a couple of hours sleep!
SATURDAY, JANUARY 2, 2016 – IRAQ TO KUWAIT:
My phone rang at 4:00 am and it was T-Mobile following up on the problem I had with my voice mail. I had told them when I called from LA NOT to call me until after January 3rd when I was back in the USA. I didn’t answer, so they got my voice mail message which instructed them to send me an email and gave my email address in the message. The person from T-Mobile left me a message saying they can’t send me an email because they don’t have my email address. DUH!
We met at 7 am and walked over to the terminal to get checked in. There was a bit of confusion about “when” we had to turn in our badges, etc., and a lot of walking back and forth between buildings as we got it straightened out. We were finally able to go to the DFAC at around 7:45 AM. Right now our flight is scheduled to depart at 11:20 am but as we were leaving the terminal, I heard “talk” about a stop in Erbill. Not good. Erbill is an hour North of Baghdad going the WRONG way back to Kuwait.
We sat in the VIP Lounge when we returned to the terminal and learned that we were DEFINITELY making a stop in Erbill. Supposedly, we would just do a “touch and go” but I KNOW how that always works out. They were giving our arrival time into Kuwait as 1:50 pm instead of 12:50 pm.
The plane and flight crew were out of Texas. I gave the first guy I saw the photos and coins and then took the first seat in the “webbed netting”. We had several other passengers on the flight but the crew would only put down enough seats to accommodate us being squeezed together. There was PLENTY of room to drop the other seats, too. Very disappointing from Texas boys!
Right before the flight took off, there was this really strong smell of urine.
I looked at the metal “canister” attached to the wall right beside me and thought “that looks like a urinal” with a lid. As we continued our one hour flight, the smell got stronger and stronger. When we landed in Erbill, one of the crew came up to me and said “Sorry mam but I need to use the toilet”! It WAS a urinal and placed right there beside the passengers. Never in my 2 decades of flying on C130’s have I seen that. There is always a honey bucket located in the back of the aircraft. And, while we were stopped, the crew didn’t even bother to empty it! I told them that I needed to get off and go to the toilets and everyone followed me. It was freezing outside and there were snow capped mountains which we didn’t notice on our visit a few days ago. I changed seats for the 2 hour flight to Kuwait but there were “bags” hanging behind my head with metal buckles on them so it was impossible to lean back and try to get comfortable. I’m not sure which was more miserable, the smell of urine or the metal buckles crushing into my scalp!
We were on the ground in Erbill for over an hour which put our arrival time even later into Kuwait. I canceled our rooms at the Radisson and asked Travis to find us “somewhere” either at Ali or Arifjan that we could change clothes. We finally landed in Kuwait and Travis was there to meet us. He took us to Arifjan – an hour drive away – and straight to Chili’s on the base. First time I have not packed some type of snack in my carry on bag – either a protein bar or nuts. I was starving as was everyone else.
After dinner, we drove to lodging but because it was a last minute request, we were all lodged in “Open Bays”. That means a huge room with little cubicles, no curtains, and a set of bunk beds with room for NOTHING else in each one. People unfortunate enough to live here have to put their bags in a wire cage between the rows and rows of cubicles. I should have taken a photo. There are always people trying to sleep because of the different shifts of duty and I don’t know how they do it with so many people coming and going all the time. There is a “shared” latrine only the female one had flooded from an overflowing toilet so we had to go up 3 flights of stairs to use another one. I talked to a female civilian in the restroom who handles Forensics and has been there for 4 months. I told her I have the utmost respect for her not only because of her profession but her living conditions. She said it hasn’t been too bad because she doesn’t have a room mate….yet. God Bless our military because I don’t think I could live in those conditions for months and months and months.
I changed clothes and went into the “lounge” area to get on the internet. We knew our flight was delayed but things had gotten worse. Supposedly, the flight was late leaving DC due to mechanical problems. It was going to Bahrain and then on to Kuwait. Instead of departing at 1:10 am, we were going to depart at 2:15 pm. Only that kept changing. Before we even left for the airport, our arrival time into DC had been changed from 7:30 am to 9:15 am. That meant everyone was going to miss their connections.
When we arrived at the airport for check in, there were no long lines which was a surprise. But there were also only a couple of agents working the counters. Fortunately, one of them was one I remember and he remembered me. He “protected” us on the next flights out of DC just in case our flight didn’t make it and he said he could book us on “any airline” that had seats available since it was United’s fault that we would misconnect and it was mechanical instead of weather. After going through another security check and Immigration, we stopped by the Transfer Desk to make sure everyone was protected on another flight out of DC. She said there were no other flights and she couldn’t book us on another airline unless we were delayed for 4 hours, not 2 or 3. I told her what the United agents told us when we checked in, but she really didn’t care. We had plenty of time to go into the Lounge but I ended up spending most of my time on the phone with United trying to find flights for everyone with first class seats still available.
At the Kuwait Airport, there are several “security checks” prior to boarding and the last one is at the gate. Everything has to be taken out of your carry on bag and if you have a computer, laptop, iphone, etc., you have to turn it on for the agent. We were in line for Business/First Class passengers and this obnoxious lady with 3 children (NOT young children) shoved past everyone and went to the front of the line. She definitely wasn’t in business or first, just rude.
We finally boarded the flight and I was in the first seat on the plane. I opened my overhead to put my rolling bag inside. The door swung down and the bag almost fell out and it weighed more than 70 pounds. It was a red duffle bag with some kind of “animal horns” strapped around it. I could not let go of the bag to close the compartment but a nice man behind me assisted. I opened the next compartment to find it completely filled with headsets! The purser happened to walk by at that time and I told him there was no overhead space for my bag. He told me to take it back towards business class and put it in the “closet”. I explained to him that since I had paid full fare for 8 business and first class fares, I expected to be able to sit in first class and have somewhere to place my carry on bag in the overhead. I asked him WHY my space had to be used for headsets. He said, “That’s what we do. We transport headsets”. Really? Really? In all my years of flying, I’ve never traveled on a commercial airliner in the business of transporting headsets. Maybe that’s why United will no longer fly into Kuwait anymore in a couple of weeks. They are losing too much money transporting headsets instead of passengers! Good riddance United. I hope I never have to fly that carrier again.
I decided to take the high road and apologize after he moved the headsets and I was able to stow my bag. Gave him some autographed photos and he apologized for the huge red bag. He said it belonged to the pilot and there was nothing he could do about it. I asked why it was so big and heavy and he said it was either a parachute or an animal or person. I know he was kidding but I think it was very rude to use that space provided for a paying passenger.
After boarding, I noticed the “men in the orange vests” boarding the plane which is never a good sign! Dave got up and started asking questions when at 3 am we were still sitting at the gate. Evidently, the sink in business class was broken and the engineer was trying to repair it. Dave kept giving me updates and we both knew it was only a matter of time before the crew would no longer be allowed to fly due to the number of hours required for crew rest. We were right. I think it was between 3:30 am and 4:00 am that the flight attendants announced that everyone should go back “home”. They said there are no more flights on any airlines from Kuwait to the USA with seats available tonight and that we had all been booked on an 11 pm fight out of Kuwait to DC tomorrow! They told us to all go see “Customer Service” when we got off the plane. I had watched half of a movie with Robert DeNiro called “The Intern” and it was great. I had also reclined my seat about halfway and when I got off, it would not move back up or recline. I told the flight attendant that she might want to have someone fix that before we boarded this same flight tomorrow night for the trip back to DC. I am willing to bet, it will still be broken tonight when we board but I moved out of that seat and into the one Dave vacated. Hopefully that one isn’t broken but with United, you just never know!!!!
Dave and Sandy were the first ones off the plane and first in line at the Customer Service Counter. When I got down there, they were both on the phone with United trying to find another flight out of Kuwait earlier that would get them back to NYC on Sunday, not Monday. I called the “Priority” Line for United and held and held and held. David and Sandy were holding as well. Then Dave told me that British Airways had seats available via London. I finally got an agent who told me there was NOTHING available. I told them my friends had just re-booked their flights and there are seats available. I held for 31 minutes and he came back and said he could get me booked in business class but not first class but only had 4 business class seats told. I asked him to get me the price difference for me to pay to upgrade from business to first so that my friends would all be able to fly with me. Now keep in mind that I have already paid full fare for a roundtrip business class and upgraded with my miles to first class on the overseas portion. After another 28 minute “hold”, he told me it would cost me $5,800. Impossible. I talked to everyone and Karri said she would take the later flight out but by the time I went back to the United rep on the phone, we had lost two of the 4 seats available! And he had canceled everyone’s seats on the 11 pm flight tomorrow night. This entire time that I’m talking to United…over an hour and a half, we are waiting for the United Customer Service Staff to “decide what they are going to do” with all the passengers. Because the flight delay and cancellation was mechanical and not weather, United had to pay for hotel rooms, meals, and ground transportation. As luck would have it, the same inept female that we had talked to previously was still working at the desk. There were at least 6 people behind the desk and not one of them doing anything to help the more than 100 people standing in line for more than an hour.
Someone finally decided that they would issue the vouchers to the Holiday Inn. They had to issue one hotel and two meal vouchers per person and it was at least a 10 minute process per passenger. We finally got all our vouchers but then had to go to Visa Processing to apply for a new Visa. We had already been stamped out of the country when we departed so we had to go through the whole process again….another hour plus wait! We finally got our visas and picked up our bags. The Holiday Inn had a bus and trailer outside to take us to the hotel about 10 minutes away. I made sure I was first in line to get my group checked in when we arrived. By the time we got to our rooms, it was 9 am. I had gotten up at 5:30 am the day before in Iraq so that’s almost 28 hours without sleep! I was fried. I sent a couple of emails to Travis and my friend Wally and passed out until 2 pm. Got up and showered and started calling United Airlines again to try and get my first class passengers back in first class instead of coach from DC to LAX. I was able to move one person online when I checked everyone in for today’s flights but no one else. Karri was already in First since she was taking a later flight. Another hour phone call only to be told there are no first class seats and I could not put everyone on a “waiting list” for First Class even though we had paid for First Class.
I met everyone downstairs to eat and Karen and I tried calling United again. We got through but once again, the agents would not help us. Then it was time to go back to the airport. Travis was so great to provide us with a ride and “escort” so we didn’t have to cram onto the Holiday Inn shuttle. United had told everyone that we all had to arrive at 6:30 pm for the 11:00 pm flight tonight!
When we arrived, the line was out the front door for the United check-in. I walked around everyone in line and found my “friend” at the check-in counter. He told me to bring everyone through the “Business/First” line where there was no one waiting. We did and everyone in line HATED us but we got checked in quickly. My friend also told us that there was a 9 am direct flight with 3 First Class seats still available from DC to LAX! He quickly moved Karen, Jordan and Tim into those seats. They were originally scheduled to take the 8:38 am flight, so they will only arrive about 30 minutes later than Michael. Poor Karri is stuck in DC until noon though. But at least she is in First class all the way.
We arrived in the Lounge by 7:15 pm and now have to wait until 10:30 pm to board the flight. We will land in DC at 4:30 am on Monday, January 4th.
I’m going to end this road report and start the next one as Monday, January 4th. Been a LONG, LONG 2 days! Keep in mind that everyone in the tour group has been so patient and understanding. And, they are not being demanding about the first class seats. That’s me trying to deliver what I promised them. No one gets paid to do these tours. We all donate our time and get very little sleep while we are on tour in Iraq. The least I can do is make the more than 24 hours of travel and flights back to the USA as comfortable as possible for them!
MONDAY, JANUARY 4TH – HOME AT LAST!
We sat around in the lounge from around 7 pm until it was almost time to board. According to our boarding pass, that would have been at 10:25 pm. I got up to go to the restroom and glanced at the departure board. It said “Final Call” for boarding the flight to DC! We literally ran to the gate. I am not sure what I would have done at that point if we had missed the flight because they changed the boarding time and didn’t tell anyone. The plane was pretty empty so evidently lots of passengers found alternate flights back to the USA. The same crew and flight attendants were on the plane. This time we didn’t even get the amenity kits because they said they used them all for the flight last night! I had moved my seat to the other side of the airplane because I did NOT trust them to fix the broken seat AND I didn’t want to deal with no overhead space again. We tried our best to get the rest of our group moved up but no luck. The plane eventually filled up anyway. Guess lots of people didn’t hear the boarding announcement.
I watched the rest of “The Intern” and it was great. Then watched “Grandma” with Lilly Tomlin and it was pretty cute, too. After everyone had boarded, the pilot announced that the landing time in DC would be at 6:30 am instead of 4:50 am as everyone had been told! Said we had to fly over Egypt so that made the flight longer. Of course, everyone on the plane had booked their connecting flights based on landing at 4:50 am. Way to go, United! I slept for about 4 hours and then worked for 4 hours. Every single time I got up to go to the toilet, it was gated because a pilot was in there. It’s so stupid to only have one toilet for all of first class and all the pilots!
We landed on time and it didn’t take long at all for them to go through Immigration. I have Global Entry, so I was there before everyone else and was going to start pulling the bags off. Michael had the first flight out and was only going to have less than an hour to make the connection. When he arrived at baggage claim, he realized he had left his ipad on the plane. I immediately went to the lady at Customer Service and asked her if she could have someone check for it before the plane left again. I gave her the seat number and told her “where” he had left it. She was incredibly rude and said everyone was busy and she’d tell them when they had time. I went back and got Michael’s boarding pass and showed her what time his flight was leaving. She said, “Well he still has 35 minutes before his flight leaves. Plenty of time”. I reminded her that NONE of the bags had even started coming out and he still had to re-check his bags, go through security, and go to a different terminal to catch his flight. She said if he left before they found it, he would have to file a claim with “Lost and Found” on the United website and “it would go through 5 people before it came to her and he might never see it again!”.
Our bags were marked “Priority” but were the last ones to come off the belt. The belt also “broke” twice while trying to deliver the bags! Michael was not going to miss his flight for the ipad, so I asked Karri if she would mind waiting for it and she had several hours in her layover. She got in line for Customer Service again as we were leaving for our flights. Michael told her it was an Ipad Mini in a black cover.
As we were going through an impossibly long line at baggage re-check and security (two more flights had arrived), Karri called and said there was a black iPad Mini there but they wouldn’t let her have it because they couldn’t be sure it was the right one. I told her that I was sure I was the ONLY person who had asked that someone go look for an ipad left on the plane. They told her “you would be surprised at how many people leave their iPads on the plane”. Okay, so everyone who left their iPad on this flight went by seat 8D and dropped it in that seat, I suppose? Unbelievable.
Karri tried to call Michael but he was ahead of us in the security line and we could see that he had just put his bags on the scanner. He called her after he cleared security and gave her his PIN number to unlock the iPad and they finally released it to her.
Michael made his flight and I rushed to mine to find that it had been delayed by 30 minutes. I was praying that was the longest it would be delayed. We finally started boarding and when I got on the plane, the flight attendant said I had to check my rolling bag. I told her it zipped apart and it would fit as I had flown this flight many times in the same aircraft. She said, “do not try to force it in the overhead” and I told her I wouldn’t. I didn’t need too. I took it apart, slid it in, and closed the cover to the overhead. After everyone had boarded, she came straight back to my row, opened the overhead, and started pulling my bags out. I asked her why and she said, “it doesn’t fit. The cover won’t close”. That made no sense because the cover was closed already and she had opened it! I got up and said I need to get my computer out and keep it with me. She said “all right” but had an attitude. I told her I needed a claim check and she said “get in your seat”. I did but I was not going to stay there if she hadn’t brought me the claim check. She did after a while and I didn’t speak to her the rest of the flight. I tried to get her name but she kept her badge turned over. I should have been brave enough to just stop and take a photo of her badge with my phone. But, since she was the only flight attendant on the plane, I figured I could complain to United and they would know who it was.
We landed on time and I really wanted to “kiss the ground” when we did. I hope I never have to fly United Airlines again. I sent out a “tweet” about their horrible customer service and someone from United responded wanting to know what problems I encountered. I responded that they should send me an email address and I would reply with several pages of complaints.
Captain Rowan, Sgt. Iniguez, Chief Jensen, and SFC Humber were terrific hosts in Iraq. Travis (MWR) and PSD in Kuwait went out of their way to assist when our commercial flight back to the USA was cancelled. Protocol at Ali Al Salem was awesome.
We had some challenges within Iraq due to “weather” but worked through those and were able to deliver all our performances at the Camps on the original itinerary. We were able to spend time with the troops in their work areas at several locations as well as always interacting with them at the DFAC during meals. Those times were as rewarding as the actual performances.
Our “needs” were very small. Only one camp did not have the PA system we required. They provided a “boom box” instead of speakers. Fortunately, the show was held in a small room and the group was able to perform without their mics. Iraq really needs the entertainment visits and as long as groups understand there are no “stages” and no “lights” and only minimal PA available, we should try to get more tours pushed out to them. The decision to move all the performances indoors was an excellent call.
Hopefully more tours can be pushed to that area. The men and women there definitely need to know we support their efforts. This provided a huge morale boost for them over the holidays. While I don’t suggest sending “full band” tours, I do believe a small “acoustic” group could be accommodated as long as the PA and backline can be rented in Kuwait.
SOOO good to be home!