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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Ramble On.... What It's All About

This from Ron Barr's Blog on Sports Byline site:

The Iraq war may be the “forgotten war” to some, but to the 130,000 U.S. servicemen and women still in Iraq, it’s stares them in the face every day. And, this time of the year it’s a double dose of blowing sand and 130-degree days. Multiply that by the thousands of family members and friends of those serving there, those killed or injured there, and Iraq should never be a forgotten war.

This will be my “fifth broadcast deployment” to Iraq and/or Afghanistan. Iraq has left me with bittersweet memories. My first time there was in 2005. The war and combat operations were roaring. We were in Mosul, north of Baghdad with the 125th Stryker Brigade out of Ft. Lewis in Washington. I was invited to bring Sports Byline USA to Iraq by then Colonel Bob Brown. He’s now a Brigadier General. Brown is a West Point grad and a former academy basketball player. His coach was now Hall of Fame and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. During a Sports Byline interview Coach K told me one of his former players was now a commanding officer in Iraq. I contacted our AFN (American Forces Network) contact and he ran down Colonel Brown and I had him as a guest on the show to talk about his playing days and life in Iraq. Sports Byline USA has been carried worldwide on AFN’s 500 stations in 177 countries for nearly 20 years. At the end of the interview Brown asked if I would bring the show to his men and women in Mosul. I said, “Yes.” And that’s how it all began.

That first “broadcast deployment” was one of trepidation, excitement and appreciation. Thanks to Colonel Brown, a great staff and all those who were helping us, we pulled off 3 days of live, flawless broadcasts. It was the first time anyone had ever broadcast a sports talk show from a war zone. One of the “sweet” memories for me is being able to let the soldiers co-host the show and talk with our big name sports guests like Phil Jackson, Bill Belichek, Jerry Rice, Coach K, etc. Sports are a great morale booster and after I returned home I was touched by many emails showing how important our visit was.

Mr. Barr,
I want to thank you for what you did by bringing your show to us. I will be able to tell my children what you did. You do not know how much we soldiers enjoyed what you brought to Mosul. I enjoyed having the opportunity to experience being on live radio. I never though I would get to talk guys like Mr. Ripken and Mr. Staubach. You made that possible. I wish you and “Sports Byline” the best. God bless.

Edward B. Rojas

Dear Mr. Barr:

My son, Dave Nieradka, had a chance to call me after being on your show today and was feeling real good to be allowed to be part of your interviews with such good people. I would like to thank you for giving him that opportunity. The only problem with the whole ordeal is he asks me “guess what happened to me today, Dad”…well, obviously he was still alive, but after what he and his guys have been through, I was only thinking ‘not good stuff’. However, after my heart rate came back to its’ normal level, it was a good visit and it was really great to hear him so pumped about something, which hasn’t been the norm during these last 11+ months.

Anyway, thanks again and be safe.

Tom (and Diane) Nieradka

For me the broadcasts were surreal. On our first show, outside under a canopy, in 135-degree heat, the sounds of explosions and gunfire punctuated the air and could clearly be heard on the air. Our location was at one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces, but that didn’t shield us from the reality of the ongoing battles and war. Being one to capture the moment, and a play-by-play man who can call any action, at one point I stopped what I was saying on-air and started doing play-by-play to those sounds of war, “There comes another flurry of shots, here comes an Apache helicopter, there goes a rocket. Boom, the bad guys are gone.” In retrospect, I think it was an effort to defuse my anxiety. Also, it was my first taste of the reality of the Iraq war. This is serious stuff.

A “bitter” moment, but also a laughable one is my “combat injury.” I did nothing brave in suffering a broken leg. How many people can claim they broke their leg at Saddam Hussein’s palace swimming pool? I still laugh about it today. It was one of the few pools in all of Iraq and it was one of the few benefits for those soldiers who were headquartered at the Palace. It was our oasis in the desert. I didn’t trip. I didn’t slip. I stepped up on a low ledge bordering the pool as I was leaving to get ready to do my first show. When I stepped down, the dirt gave way and I heard a sickening crack as my ankle turned. It hurt like hell. I was treated well by the Army doctor who I talked out of a hard cast in exchange for a soft cast and crutches. I got rid of the crutches the next day and I “soldiered” through the rest of my broadcast deployment. There is a happy ending to this story. Before I left Mosul, Colonel Brown asked if I would join him for a surprise special ceremony. In front of the command staff, and others, I was awarded the first “Purple Fart” medal, for as it says on the plaque, “For grievous wounds incurred while negotiating challenging terrain in the vicinity of a large water obstacle.” You can laugh because I still do.

My Iraq broken leg is one of two injuries I’ve suffered in my trips to Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m often asked why I go and why I’m willing to keep going. The answer is simple. After my last broadcast in my first trip to Iraq, a young soldier came up to me and said, “Thank you Mr. Barr. For three days this week you made me feel like I was back home.” That’s why I’m headed back to Iraq again, and I’m looking forward to it.

Hooking Up In New York

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 took 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.

Next Stop, Kuwait

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 accomodations 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 Delaney, 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.

Back to Mosul

Sunday was our travel day to Mosul, Iraq. Our car trip to the Ali Al-Salem Air Base in Kuwait made us wonder whether we'd even get out of Kuwait. Gusting wind and blowing sand made visibility and driving a potential demolition derby on the roads. During a blinding sand-out we came across the roadway littered with Coca-Cola cans that had blown off a trailer truck. There were hundreds of smashed cans littering the roadway and more were blowing off their pallets and exploding on the ground as they hit. We were under a Coke can attack. But Sam, our driver, successfully maneuvered us through the Coke minefield and we made it safely to the airbase.

As I've mentioned in the past, military air travel is a hurry up and wait affair. Schedules are tentative and you either go or don't go, or wait to go, or wait very long to go. All of us thought it would be a miracle if we got out with such harsh wind and sand and limited visibility. But, one of the unknown and under appreciated aspects of the Iraq war effort is the job the Air Force and Air National Guard crews are doing. They understand their assignment to get supplies and personnel to bases in Iraq and Afghanistan is essential. So, they make a Herculean effort to fulfill every mission no matter how bad the weather or conditions. Our C-130 crew was commanded by Capt. John Kojak. Think Telly Savalas and you have the right image of this air warrior. They were a Wyoming Air National Guard crew with one crew member from Tennessee. Also, traveling with us was an Air Force flight surgeon checking on the health an operational interactivity of the crew. As I've said before, the two wars are hard on personnel and equipment. It was nice to see the military is concerned and watchful. The C-130 is the military's workhorse. As a pilot, I have the highest admiration for the equipment. For more than 50 years it has been an irreplaceable aircraft that has been dependable and able to do things other Air Force plans can't. You don't survive as an Air Force plane unless you're unique and special and the C-30 is both. Capt. Kojack (what a great name) extended cockpit privileges to me. It wasn't long after takeoff and reaching our cruising altitude of 18,000 feet that the headset cockpit conversation turned to sports talk. Everyone had a favorite team and they asked me my opinion on them. The crew said they were glad to have us on board, but were disappointed we weren't the other sports celebrities another C-130 crew had the day before us. Of course that again was the Philadelphia Eagles cheerleaders. Damn we can't get away from them.

Our first stop on the way to Mosul was in Kirkuk to drop off 40 soldiers who were coming back from two weeks furlough at home. I couldn't help but think about the traumatic whipsaw this must play on the soldiers’ minds. For 6 months you're in combat conditions, then you head back home. You leave Iraq and in 24 hours you're thrust back into familiar, happy and comfortable surroundings. You can go to a restaurant, have a beer, see a movie, see your wife, girlfriend, boyfriend and love ones. It's a normal life, but one foreign to you for the last 6 months. There are no explosions to deal with and the only patrol you may go out on is to check out the hometown mall. Then just about the time maybe some normalcy is coming back into your life, you leave and in 24 hours you're in the back of a Wyoming National Guard C-130 headed back into war conditions in Iraq. While I've never heard any soldier complain in any of my trips to Iraq or Afghanistan, you have to believe it's hard, confusing and takes a lot of self-discipline to make that type of commitment. After we landed at Kirkuk and as I watched the soldiers deplane, I had a feeling of understanding of their commitment, but also a very deep appreciation for their having made it.

We were on the ground for less than 5 minutes. Engines were kept running, troops and equipment was unloaded. Speed and efficiency are important in Iraq. The engines are kept running in case the airfield comes under a mortar or rocket attack, that way the C-130 can takeoff immediately. Things seemed rather tranquil, but that can change quickly and when you least expect it. We were off for our short flight to our destination in Mosul.

Having been in the cockpit on my first visit to Mosul back in 2005, I wondered if anything had changed flying wise. In 2005, I remember we couldn't make our approach from the north, as the wind dictated we should have because that would bring us over the city and it was likely we'd take ground fire. Also, I remember the evasive, rock and roll, high altitude and then dive approach we had to use. Not much had changed five years later. We still couldn't make an over the city approach because of the threat of ground fire. We still had to use the rock and roll procedure. And the flight engineer and navigator still
looked for missiles and stood ready to deploy the missile defense system if it became necessary. Five years later and at least from the flying standpoint nothing had really changed. For me, it was a strange, deja vu feeling as we touched down. Our long day was close to coming to an end. As we deplaned, our C-130 crew shut down the engines and asked if we'd take pictures with them. Pictures taken, the crew jumped back aboard and headed home to Baladw for the end to a long day for them as well. As they took off, I thought "thank you."

There waiting to greet us was General Brown. It was good to see my friend, who started my "broadcast deployments" five years ago right here in Mosul. Bob Delany, Tim Dwight, J.B. and myself are ready to go.

Boots on the Ground in Mosul

After we had dinner at the DFAC (mess hall), General Brown gave us an unclassified briefing. The one thing that jumped out at me is something that few Americans understand. While the U.S. military initially was a combat force in liberating Iraq of Saddam Hussein, its role also was and still is helping build a functioning free government and social structure in Iraq. That means setting up a judicial and law system, as well as health and public social services. Yes, the U.S. military is still in a combat mode and fighting when needed or asked to by Iraqi forces, but the military is also helping get Iraqi citizens more electricity and clean drinking water; they are also helping to open and setup schools and hospitals and working to build economic strength thru micro-loans to small businesses. The media often reports primarily on the military's combat mission and casualties, but rarely reports on other worthwhile military efforts. It doesn't matter what your politics are, pro or con about the war, but one should at least understand the whole picture and effort.

Our long day left us looking forward to getting some sleep. However, a reminder of where we were and the dangers that surround us was enforced strongly by a late night explosion near us and another even bigger one early in the morning. Later in the morning we found out that 10 Iraqi soldiers in a convoy were killed at the entrance to our base by an improvised explosive device (IED). It refocuses you and makes you remember to be smart and alert to what's happening around you.

I've mentioned this before, but I've become acutely aware of it again, I can't eat three meals a day here, or at least I have to moderate what I eat at each meal. Our troops are fed quite well. Gone are the days of military cooks and KP duty. Now, food services are doled out to companies and just about every type of food is available to the troops. When we arrived on Sunday night I had lobster and crab legs, a salad, a milk shake and steamed greens. You can even get a cappuccino if you want.

Monday dawned warm, but certainly nothing like the searing heat of Kuwait. I can handle 90 degrees in the morning. It was also windy and there was a haze from the blowing sand. We were alerted to the fact that we might be limited in some of our visits to FOBs (forward operating bases) because of the weather. The helicopters that would ferry us around to the FOBs weren't able to fly. One trip General Brown wanted to take on was to Erbil. Erbil is in Kurdistan. Kurdistan is an interesting part of the Iraq puzzle. You don't hear much about Kurdistan and under Saddam Hussein the Kurds were treated harshly. Kurdistan is a semi-autonomist region in northern Iraq and after losing the first war back in the early 90's to the U.S., he unleashed his fury against the independent minded Kurds by gassing and murdering thousands of them. For the Kurdish people, those atrocities are seared in their memories, and the tragedies fuel their desire to be secure and independent. It's an interesting tight wire they walk. They're a part of Iraq and are ultimately under Baghdad's control, but as I said they are autonomist and have an independent regional government.

General Brown, his staff and a small security detail took us to Erbil by helicopter. It was the most impressive thing I've seen or done in any of my visits. J.B., Tim, Bob and myself all came away impressed with what we saw and experienced. We quickly found out that Kurdistan and Erbil is nothing like the rest of Iraq. It's modernizing while retaining its historical charm. It's green and clean. The Erbil International Airport is as modern and up to date as any you'll find in any world modern country. The surprises we got began when we landed at the Erbil International Airport. We were met by one of the top generals in the Kurdish military. From that moment one we had a military escort that took good care of us. The Kurds are proud of their record that not one American military personnel has been either injured or killed in Kurdish territory. It was also apparent to me that the Kurdish military is more disciplined, better trained and more prepared than the Iraqi Army. I've heard some interesting war stories about the Iraqi military since I've been here. All of this comes about because the historical memory the Kurds have of the harsh treatment by Hussein, their love for Americans and even deeper appreciation for their help and protection after the first war and also a strong self image and desire to become a modern, successful and peaceful part of the world.

I'll have more on this unforgettable and impressive day in my next blog.

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