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Saturday, July 18, 2009

On the Covert Trail... Next Stop? Kuwait, Iraq and Germany

(Photo of Ron Barr; Courtesy Sports

From Ron Barr's Blog:

I was right, Kuwait Airlines was a experience. It’s always unique when an American, especially a white one, goes from being in the majority to being in the minority. However, flying a foreign national carrier I figured the four of us might be the only Americans on the flight. I was right again. Actually I enjoyed it because it gave me insight into another culture and one all four of us were going to have to live in that culture for awhile. Middle Eastern women are beautiful, at the least the part you can see. They all wear head scarves and many on the flight were fully shrouded except for their eyes. Also, it’s very clear that there is a definite separation between men and women in the Middle East. And, their roles are sharply defined. The women take care of the family and kids, in which there were more then I’ve ever seen on an airplane, and the men, well, they do whatever they want. In many cases, the men sat in business or coach class and the women and children were in coach. I had to wonder how so many families with so many kids were able to fly on such an expensive trip. That question was answered for me on one of my previous trips to Kuwait when I was told the government gives each family a large sum of money for each
child they have.

Let me now amplify on my statement that Kuwait Airlines was an experience. First, it gives you an appreciation for the fine job most of our U.S. carriers do. If you ever fly Kuwait Airlines make sure you have track shoes and sharp elbows. Unlike in the U.S. where they board a flight in an orderly fashion, usually the elderly and disabled followed by first and business class passengers and then coach passengers. No, at Kuwait Airlines they don’t make an announcement that they’re ready to board. They don’t invite wheelchair and elderly passengers who need help to get on first. They don’t board the first and business class passengers second. No, everyone kind of guesses it’s time to board and rushes the boarding gate. It’s a real rush. Those boarding gave no consideration to the wheelchair passengers, and women carrying children got no “why don’t you go ahead first” from anyone. God help if anyone had fallen, everyone would have walked on and over them.

My major disappointment with Kuwait Airlines is that since it’s a flagship carrier of an oil rich country, and this flight was from a major U.S. city (New York), I would have thought they would put their best airplane on the route. Our Boeing 777 was old, worn and a number of things either didn’t work or were broken. Ones first impression of the airline and to some degree the country was not a favorable one. However, there were some saving graces. First, the cabin crew worked hard and did the best they could with crying babies and passengers who seem not to understand that you don’t walk up and down the aisle when we’re taxiing to take off. The best thing about the flight is that we got in an hour ahead of schedule and that our flight which was almost exclusively Kuwait citizens made it easier for us to get our visas. In my previous 4 trips to Iraq and/or Afghanistan we had to come through Kuwait as well, but those flights were on United Airlines and Lufthansa and they had primarily Americans and Europeans onboard. So, when they landed at about the same time, there was a crush of all non-Kuwaitis to get a visa to get into the country. It usually took anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours to get your visa. This time it took just 20 minutes. After a 12-hour flight I’ll take a shabby airplane over a United or Lufthansa flight anytime.

After we got our luggage and got harshly introduced to the blowing sand and 120 blast furnace heat, our escort and security folks brought us to the Arifjan Army base where we’d overnight before taking our C-130 into Iraq and Mosul. The 40-minute ride thru blowing sand and vast nothingness rekindled my memories of previous visits and the ongoing question of, “How in the hell does anyone live here.” I doubt that I’ll ever find an answer.

Tim Dwight and Bob Delaney had the same impression most people do when they get to the base. The young male and female soldiers makes it look like it’s a college campus. I thought the same thing when I first came here and also when I got to Mosul the first time. The big difference of course is that these kids carry M-16s.

Our accommodations are nice here. It’s a dorm like environment where VIPs, like us, have private rooms and the transiting military personnel, depending on their rank, either also have private rooms or are in big, multi-bed bunk rooms. The word got around fast and everyone was excited that some sports VIPs were on the base. No, it wasn’t us they were excited about, it was the 6 Philadelphia Eagles cheerleaders that were also staying overnight after going to visit the troops in Iraq.

But, we also got into an early meet and greet with the soldiers when they asked Bob Dela
ney, an NBA referee if he would referee a soldier game. Bob, who brought his referee’s uniform and whistle said, “Yes.” The players were excited that a real, big time NBA referee was going to work their game, and the referees that he would work with were excited to be working with a big time, NBA referee. All that went up in smoke when the woman who was the manager of the gym and sports recreation center didn’t think an NBA referee should work the game because the teams were going to use NCAA rules and not NBA rules. Stupidity drives me nuts. Instead of having something positive for the players, referees and fans, some management fool who doesn’t know whether a basketball is stuffed or blown-up decides that an NBA referee doesn’t know what a foul is, an out of bounds call is or a jump ball is because they’re using college rules. I’ll never understand it.

Well, time to hit the road. Already our 10:30 am pick-up for our 12:30pm check-in and our 3 pm takeoff to Mosul has been changed to a noon pick-up for a 2 pm check-in and a 6 pm takeoff. I have a special place in my heart for pilots, so whenever they want to go we’ll be ready to go with them. See you on the ground in Mosul.

First Story:

I’ve got everything packed and even though it was a tense two days tying up loose ends on our athlete guest list, I was ready to get aboard my United flight to New York. Being a pilot and a seasoned passenger, I try to anticipate trouble in order to lessen the aggravation of today’s air travel. There were the typical security lines at SFO, but that aggravation was lessened by my running into Super Bowl winning coach Dick Vermiel. Vermiel is a man I’ve known for a number of years and have had on the show a number of times. The first thing we talked about was our mutual friend Bill Walsh, who passed away. Walsh and Vermiel were contemporaries and they had a deep friendship. In Walsh’s early days as the head coach of the 49ers, he relied on Vermiel, who was the head coach at Philadelphia for strength and moral support. The story goes that Vermiel would often be late for Eagle team meetings because he was listening to Walsh on the phone air his doubts and concerns about the challenge he had taken on in rebuilding the hapless 49ers. Like others, when I told him where I was going, he shook his head and said be careful.

The flight to New York was unique for me in that the flight was 30 minutes early, I cleared the plane at JFK and got the terminal train and checked in for my Kuwait flight all within 20 minutes of landing. That has got to be a record for anyone.

Our team is meeting at JFK and flying out to Kuwait City. Another first for me is flying Kuwait Airlines. This will be an interesting experience. At the counter I ran into my trusty partner in my previous four “broadcasting deployments” to Iraq and/or Afghanistan, Jon Bullock. Like the American Express commercial says, “I never leave home without him.” Tour director, producer, problem solver, mistake fixer and general great guy, JB is my Butch Cassidy. The other two members of our group is Tim Dwight, a 10-year NFL veteran and former wide receiver and kick returner with San Diego, the Patriots and the Raiders. This is Dwight’s second troop visit, having gone to Afghanistan before. The rookie of our group is 22 year NBA referee Bob Delaney.

What a story Bob is. Twenty-two years refereeing the likes of Michael Jordan, Lebron James, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and others. But, his life is made for Hollywood. Prior to becoming an NBA referee, he was a New Jersey State trooper who went undercover and infiltrated the mob. Sounds like a good book and indeed it is. Delaney recently published a book about his undercover experiences called, “Covert: My Years Infiltrating The Mob.” What a story and I recommend the book. The undercover sting operation secretly transformed Delaney into a trucking company President and he took the name “Bobby Covert.” You’d think the wise guys would have caught on quickly. Apparently they weren’t wise enough. Delaney was under deep cover for three years. It took its toll on him and he talks about that as well in the book. The bottom line is, Delaney and Project Alpha sent 30 mobsters to prison. Now here’s the real kicker. On a conference call this week, Delaney told us he had just gotten back from New York and testifying against a mobster that he had sent to prison 25 years ago. Apparently the wise guy didn’t wise up and broke the law again. Hearing this, we’re all wondering about the wisdom of being with Delaney at JFK. However, Dwight and I have come up with a solution to guarantee our safety. We’re going to wear shirts that say, “I’m not Bob Delaney, he is”, with an arrow pointing in his direction. That should get us on our Kuwait flight safely. Hopefully Bob will too.

Time to head out and to see what awaits us on the 12-hour flight to Kuwait City, our jump off point for Iraq.

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