What the hell am I doing going to a war zone? That's what I thought as I boarded a flight from Dallas to Kuwait City, and then to Iraq, where I would join Butch Harmon, Tom Lehman, Tom Watson, Howard Twitty and Joe Inman on Operation Links, a USO-sponsored visit to boost the morale of American servicemen and women.
Michael Clifton/USO Tour
I grew up in Ulster, in Northern Ireland, in the 1960s and '70s, and the thought of being in a war zone never bothered me. So why did I feel uneasy this November morning? Perhaps because I was a child then, and now I had children.
On my flight out of Dallas, I examined the USO's press packet, filled with useful information about Arab culture, such as: Don't lean away if a man tries to embrace you, even if he's just farted Arabs have little concept of "personal space." Me, I have a Heisman stiff-arm zone around me into which only freshly showered family members, friends, and beagles are allowed, so if I was to avoid an international incident, adjustments were in order. Before I knew it, we were wheels down.
Day 1: They pay how much for gas?
We landed in Kuwait City and were swept through immigration. Early the next morning, we set off for Camp Arifjan, comprised of 7,500 people on 64 square miles of powdered camel dung, and then Camp Beuhring, the major staging area for troops entering Iraq.
Along for the journey were Capt. Trevor Garrett from the Pentagon's Armed Forces Entertainment Department and Scott Past from the Department of Defense, both packing heat. And, not for the last time, I wanted to shoot something. It was quail season back home, and we passed through scenery that makes west Texas oil country look like the snowcapped Tetons. Kuwait smells like a camel's arse.
As we roll down the road in our bus, massive oil refineries loom to the left, and majestic white-stucco houses line the right. I can only assume that every time a Kuwaiti fills up his tank, the government gives him a hundred bucks. (In fact I'm not making this up a gallon of unleaded goes for 78 cents in Kuwait.)
On both bases, our first stop was the D-FAC the dining facility where I ate seven scoops of Baskin-Robbins ice cream and a cheeseburger, in that order. We did our first meet-and-greets, signed golf balls, gave away goodies from EA Sports, Cobra, Titleist, Ping and Adams Golf, all while Butch offered tips to the boys hitting balls into a net. After shaking hands with about 200 Marines, my right hand was mangled. On the bus back to the hotel, I fell asleep on Twitty, who's very comfortable. Henceforth, we called him "The Desert Sofa."
Day 2: To the theater, President Lincoln?
In route to Al Asad Air Base, in western Iraq's Anbar Province, we were strapped into a C-130 a four-engine turboprop aircraft that roars louder than Roger Maltbie after two pushups. We wore heavy body armor and helmets, and as Kuwait slipped away behind us, visible through the open tail, a young Marine behind a jackhammer-sized machine gun scanned the desert floor for nasties. Harmon might have looked like a camouflage Teletubby, but he's been on these planes before, having served three years in Vietnam in the '60s.
Now run by the Navy, Al Asad was Saddam's main air base. One year ago, Anbar was considered unwinnable, a haven for car-bomb factories and Al Qaeda. But as of Thanksgiving, the base which has two runways, thousands of troops and many locals had not received incoming fire for several months. We went to our billets, known as "cans," dropped off our luggage, and hit the D-FAC (more ice cream for me). Then we met the legendary "SeaBees," Navy engineers who can build anything, anywhere roads, bridges, fortifications, driving ranges ahead of schedule and under budget (and can blow the crap out of anyone who tries to stop them.) We hit balls, shook hands, signed autographs, and heard from the grunts.
"Tell everyone at home we want to finish this," one of them said to me. "Give us the chance, and we will." I thought to myself, At home, why is all the news bad?