"The closer we get to Baghdad, the more I suspect that the smartest Americans are in Iraq, and they get progressively dumber the closer you get to Washington."
Michael Clifton/USO Tour
Sunday, May 10, 2009

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.

\nI 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.

\nOn 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.

\nAlong 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.

\nAs 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.)

\nOn 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.

\nNow 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.

\n"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?

Around the perimeter, we visited a Harrier Jump Jet squadron. They'd planted in their sandy range a 3-by-3-foot board bearing my smiling puss, which they use for target practice. "I can do you one better," I told one airman and ran to the 100-yard mark, dropped my pants, and gave them something to shoot for — a thin sliver of Arabian moon. But the hole was too tight, even for major champions Lehman and Watson. "I missed on purpose," Harmon said. "No one wants that kind of a lie for a second shot."

\nThe base's hospital had hardly anyone in it. In one room lay a young, Asian-American soldier who'd been electrocuted, his life saved by a female sergeant who kicked him off an electrified fence that was in the process of broiling him. Of the six patients here, two were insurgents, treated, I'm told, with all of the care and respect given to coalition forces. We weren't allowed to see the wounded insurgents, which is just as well, as Harmon or I might have "accidentally" stepped on an oxygen hose.

\nIn the next room, we visited a U.S. soldier, who, on his third tour, was struck down by depression. I didn't have to ask what was wrong; I could feel it enveloping him, and trying to suck the air from my lungs, too. When I was researching my family history, to find the origin of my battle with mental illness, I discovered that my grandfather, David Weir, fought in the Great War, at the battle of the Somme, where more than a million men were killed or wounded. He did not speak a word for three years after he came back, one of the few in his regiment to survive. The horrors he witnessed in the trenches lingered for the rest of his life. While this young man had all his limbs, he might have been the most broken soldier in the hospital.

\nFrom Al Asad, we visited three Forward Operating Bases (FOBs), each closer than the last to Baghdad. Our first trip was to FOB Hit on a Marine Corps CH-53 Sea Stallion transport helicopter, which was dripping hydraulic fluid ominously onto its tailgate. I asked one of the crew if this was, umm, normal. He screamed over the roar of the rotor, "If it's not leaking, we don't fly, because that means it's empty!" Very reassuring. We make it, though, and meet Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Dill, one of many base commanders who explained eloquently why the Anbar situation has so dramatically improved. His men move freely among Iraqis outside the base's barbed-wire perimeter in the town of Baghdadi, where just a few months ago they regularly endured small-arms fire and IEDs (improvised explosive devices).

\nThe locals now have electricity and clean water. They no longer have to slaughter a goat every day for fresh meat. They have an optimism, thanks to the determination of Coalition forces and the bravery of locals, such as Colonel Shab'an B. al-Ubadi, the local police chief who has survived eight assassination attempts, seen family members killed, and spurned countless bribes on his way to delivering the No. 1 insurgent into the hands of the Americans, precipitating the collapse of Al Qaeda in the area.

\nFrom FOB Hit, a V22 Osprey tiltrotor Marine chopper (Watson, aka "The Desert T-Wat," reassuringly noticed that it wasn't leaking) whisked us away to Haditha Dam, the only operating hydroelectric plant on the Euphrates. A driving range has been fashioned atop the dam, where soldiers splash shots into the Euphrates some 300 feet below. It's a hoot, and one hulking Marine won the long drive with his first swing, smacking his drive a good 400 yards, 50 past Watson and Lehman!

\nIt was back into the Ospreys, westward, close to the Syrian and Jordanian borders to FOB Korean Village, named for the Korean workers who built Saddam's roads. The camp bears the scars of war. That night we visited the men who run the IED seek-and-destroy missions using a "Buffalo," a massive, blast-proof, Kevlar-reinforced vehicle with a pneumatic shovel arm designed to break away if a device explodes. The men were about to take it out to play. Walking past heaps of defused and exploded devices, we retired with a bunch of soldiers to the chaplain's quarters, and then to his rooftop range, where we broke open glow sticks, poured the chemicals over a bucket of balls, and lashed them like tracer bullets into the inky blackness of the Arabian night. One soldier caught a ball dead on the heel and gonged the chaplain's satellite dish, prompting a "Holy Crap! There goes my ESPN!" from the man of the cloth. I turned in early, my right hand crushed, a result of shaking the hands of thousands of muscular men — and two dozen women who could kick my ass. Ego deflated, sex life ruined.

Day 3: Good news is no news
We were billeted together in a sand-bagged, cinder-block, 50-caliber-pockmarked fleapit. It turned out to be a riotous farce, with me playing the part of Rear Admiral Farting, Inman as Private Nothing, and Harmon as General Idiot. I peered out from under my blanket that morning to see Inman standing in the middle of the room like a mule staring at a new gate. "What's up?" I asked. He looked at me sheepishly. "I needed to pee so badly, I went to the Port- O-Let and got lost. I peed myself before I found the toilet." I thought, Why would he tell me this? Doesn't he know I'm writing a story? Then Harmon stumbled in from the next room, rubbing his eyes, and in a moment of weakness said, "Yeah, I did the same thing!" This was too good. Now, along with the Desert Sofa, we had the Desert Sprinklers.

\n I wasn't exactly innocent myself. Even a casual glance at any pair of my shorts would show that my talented-yet-noisy digestive system, fueled by mint-chocolate-chip ice cream and the vast amount of sand I'd swallowed, had turned me into "The Desert Fertilizer."

\nI soon hit the showers, where a G.I. was toweling off. I'm not one to strike up a conversation with a man with a visible willy, but it was cold, and I thought I'd seize the chance to see if I could get a negative reaction from someone about being stuck here, about how we're losing the war. This soldier had no idea who I was, so, as we stood side-by-side shaving, I said, "God, but this sucks, doesn't it?" "Maybe," he said. "But can you imagine how bad it would be if we weren't winning?" I told him who I was and asked why I hadn't seen another journalist. His answer: "You know that saying, 'No news is good news'? Well, it should be, 'Good news is no news.' " Then he pointed at my groin and laughed. Like I said — it was cold.

Day 4: Call me Florence of Arabia
In route to the former hellhole of Ramadi, nearer Baghdad, there was evidence that the trip was growing dangerous. Captain Garrett looked increasingly more alert as we lifted off in the Ospreys, and two Cobra gunships rose menacingly alongside us, with Marines manning 120-mm machine guns jutting out each side. Even I, Florence of Arabia, felt safe surrounded by men packing this kind of heat. We'd gotten a close look at the Cobras minutes earlier, as each of us signed one of its missiles — just a polite message to our friendly neighborhood insurgents. I wrote "You're welcome" on mine. But Butch, who saw and lost the most in Vietnam, was less polite.

\nAt the Ramadi base, we met Command Sergeant Major (CSM) Clarence Stanley, a bull of a man with a bristling military mustache. He was overjoyed to see us. While politicians and generals move their little chess pieces, it's the sergeants major who run and win wars, who get things done, who feel the sting when young people die. "I'm more like a parent," CSM Stanley told us. "My job is to ensure that my children get home safely to their families."

\nHe gave us a tour of the intel center, which was too intelligent for everyone except Watson. Between satellite images, stratospheric spy planes, human intelligence (squealers) and other top-secret sensors, if Bin Burpin lets out as much as a goat-falafel burp in the desert, coalition forces can have a laser-guided surprise up his man-dress within minutes, provided the trajectory of same surprise is uninhibited by the presence of anything innocent or friendly.

\nSo if the Bearded One wants to launch a rocket at the base, he'd better do it from the hood — though the hood is now against him too. In February of 2007, the Ramadi base saw about 30 attacks daily. As of November, they'd had only one in the previous four months. Recently, the townsfolk even held a 5-K run and a parade with fire trucks to celebrate their freedom from Saddam and Al Qaeda.

\nTwo more stops, the Ospreys replaced by a CH-46 Sea Knight tandem-rotor assault helicopter, with gunship outriggers. In the services, where everything has a code name, we were now "Watson's Wussies" (hey, Hogan had his heroes) and were headed for Fallujah, some 40 miles west of Baghdad, on the Euphrates. Just a year ago, Fallujah made '80s-era Beirut look like Miami Beach. We met a general who reported that violence is down and the troops are being welcomed. Politicians and TV talking heads arrive, see the difference, and forget it on their way home, he explained. The closer we get to Baghdad, the more I suspect that the smartest Americans are in Iraq, and they get progressively dumber the closer you get to Washington.

Day 5: Extreme Makeover: Saddam Edition
The next day — shadowed by the Cobras that crisscrossed in our wake like hunting dogs — we bypassed Baghdad International Airport and landed at Camp Victory, where the second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq, General Raymond Odierno, has thrown out Saddam's crap at one of the henchman's former palaces and turned it into his military headquarters. Saddam's old digs were impressive from a distance. But once inside, the place seemed to symbolize the cruel man who slaughtered his people.

\nThe marble interior is a thin veneer, held on by liquid nails; the massive chandelier in the entrance hall is made of Perspex. The place looks like Saddam sent a few of the Republican Guard down to the Home "Despot" to buy materials and do the job themselves. It's big, hollow, and falling apart on its foundation of camel dung. On the way up to the general's office, Inman had a senior moment and went up an extra flight of stairs, almost setting off a total lockdown. We put him on a leash for the rest of the visit.

\nNext, we had urgent business, the opening of a driving range dedicated to CSM Jonathan Lankford, much loved by his soldiers, and whose idea it was to give the troops somewhere to whack a golf ball. CSM Lankford died of cardiac failure at Camp Victory, leaving behind many broken hearts: his wife, 2-year-old daughter, and, judging by the turnout, hundreds of servicemen and women. Wherever we went, golf was a common denominator. Our soldiers have covered Iraq with makeshift driving ranges. They hit balls off of roofs, into blankets, into rivers. Golf is a shared language here that helps ease the stress of being far from home and in harm's way. There was a huge turnout at the range, which backs onto the house where Saddam's two scallywag boys, Hooray and Poosay, or whatever their names were, practiced their favorite hobbies: rape, torture and murder.

\n It seemed surreal to be out there watching Watson, one of golf's great champions, surrounded by American troops and whacking balls off a patch of artificial turf out onto a walled-in section of desert. Harmon and Lehman gave lessons, the Desert Sofa and Sprinkler hit balls, and I roamed the crowd pretending that I know Tiger. Operation Links was all but complete — but as it turned out, we had an unexpected stop to make.

Day 6: The long flight home
In all, we visited five hospitals, 11 bases, signed about 50,000 autographs and I ate 14 gallons of ice cream and discarded seven pairs of underpants. We boarded the C-130 to go back to Kuwait, and that's when it happened. "We have to pick up HR," the brass told us. "HR" means human remains. We landed at Balad Air Base, about 40 miles north of Baghdad, at dusk. Our group walked off the plane and watched from a respectful distance as six Air Force airmen stood in doubleline formation. A flag-draped casket was wheeled from an unmarked white van into their awaiting arms, and was carried to our plane with the delicacy of a funeral procession. In the background, a pilot taxiing his C-5 Galaxy transport plane saw the unfolding scene, stopped, and silenced his engines. Only the distant screams of F-16s that patrol the Iraqi skies 24/7 could be heard as the body of the fallen warrior was gently loaded onto the tailgate, slid into our aircraft, and secured to the deck, resting inches from our seats.

As it should be. This wasn't cargo. This was another passenger.

\nMoments later, we were wheels up, off on our 24-hour journey home. It was hard on Butch, who had seen this before, many years ago. I sat in a trance, staring at the gunmetal-gray casket for most of the trip, and the words of Baghdadi police chief Shab'an B. al-Ubadi came back to me. "The tree of freedom does not grow without the blood of sacrifice."

\nI wish I knew who was in that casket — one of the 3,887 Americans killed in Iraq as of December — so I could write to the family to tell them what an honor it was to be on the same airplane as their son or daughter, and to thank them. I owe a debt of gratitude to the men and women of the U.S. armed forces, not just because of what they are doing in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, but because of what they left behind.

\n The insurgents they face have left one barren, theocratic hellhole to go fight in Iraq. Big deal. Americans leave behind America, the best place in the world to live. The message that Tom Watson, Tom Lehman, Butch Harmon, Howard Twitty, Joe Inman and I bring home is right from the lips of people who, thousands of miles from their families, lay their lives on the line every day to protect our way of life, and to improve it for the inhabitants of wherever they fight. The worst thing we could do is make them come home before they have had the chance to finish their job. I am proud to write their message.

About the USO
\nThe United Service Organizations (USO) is a privately funded agency that relies on the generosity of the American public. Almost every U.S. household receives a USO mailer, so this year, please read it, or go to USO.org for details. They do great work, and they need your help. — D.F.

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