Thursday, April 30, 2009

Help for a wounded soldier and family

This is an email I received today from Leeann Tweeden who was on the trip to Iraq.

If you can help, you can contact me at, or the other conacts Leeann lists below.

Godspeed Brendan and Michelle. We will get you some help.

Dear Group,

Before I go into depth on the reason for this email, I want to take this opportunity to say it was a pleasure to travel with everyone on our mission with American Airlines and Operation Iraqi Freedom a couple of weeks ago. For those that have been before and those that had never been, I think we can all agree it was life-changing.

I realize that our group was split up to reach as many troops as possible, so I'm going to share a story that most of you didn't have the chance to experience.

On our final day in Germany, a group of us got to visit with some very special patients at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. We got to meet a young Marine who had his back broken when his Hummer was hit with an IED but still managed to pull all of his men to safety before collapsing himself. That was the second time they tried to blow him up...all before his 21st birthday. We got to meet an Australian Special Forces guy who was hit in Afghanistan and became a double amputee. He was the life of the party though, with a great sense of humor and his best friend and Mom at his side.

Now comes the story of a young soldier that I think everyone should know about. This is the story of PFC Brendan Marrocco of Staten Island, NY. Brendan was in a convoy in the early hours of Easter Morning when they were hit. Brendan survived the explosion but became a quadruple amputee in the process. This is an excerpt from his Mom, Michelle Marrocco...

Hi Leeann, it is nice for you to keep in contact with me. I am so tired when I get back to the room that I don't make it to the computer, but I am pushing myself tonight. Well 16 days and 9 operations later, Brendan is doing well. He is in alot of pain, but alert and responsive. You asked for a description of his injuries: he had all limbs amputated in the blast. The left arm is below the elbow, the right above. Both legs are above the knee. I am told he is the first "quad" to survive in the armed services. He also had his left carotid artery severed. He was badly burned on his face and had over 75 staples and stitches to his face. He lost several teeth. The left eye is badly injured. He will have shrapnel removed from it Thursday and they will try to restore his vision in that eye. No promises on that.

As I was making the rounds in the hospital, I had heard there was a quadruple amputee that had just been injured in Iraq. I walked around the corner and that is where I met Brendan's Mom, Michelle. She was standing in the doorway to his room, watching the flight surgeons prepare Brendan for the long flight across the pond to Walter Reed. In these situations, there's no guidebook on what to do, so I asked her, "Are you Mom?" She turned and looked at me as if in a daze and said, 'yes.' I introduced myself to her and asked if I could give her a hug. We hugged and cried and she thanked me and said she needed that. I asked her what happened and she told me he was injured in an explosion, and that it was hard to see her 'baby' like that. To top it all off, Michelle is a registered nurse, so she was fully aware of what the extent of his injuries were.

My mind was moving in fast forward and I asked her if she was moving down to live at the Fischer House at Walter Reed. She replied that she wasn't sure of anything yet, but that she'd hopefully find a nursing job so she can still pay her mortgage. Michelle lives in Staten Island, NY, but was determined to be with her son on his long road to recovery. (I didn't mention that Brendan is only 22 years old.) Michelle is also divorced from Brendan's father.

My initial response was to get her information and to use some of my contacts in the Pentagon and Walter Reed to see if I could help her get a job. My dear friend, SMA Preston, is the head of all enlisted personnel in the Army. I have traveled with the Sergeant Major of the Army on USO Tours to entertain our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan the past 3 Christmas Holidays. I briefed him of Brendan's situation and that of his Mom, and the SMA was going to do whatever he could to assist them.

I also started working on ideas with Jim Palmersheim (our fearless leader from American Airlines who is a former Army aviator himself) and Mike Meyer from The Coalition to Support Americas Heroes. Together the three of us are trying to do everything we can to help the Marrocco family and to get the word out. Jim and I discussed auctioning the Tweeden Bunny off and giving all of the proceeds to the Marrocco's.

This is where we need your help. Any donation will help this family that is in its time of need. Brendan represented everything our trip to the Middle East was about. It's up to us to honor his sacrifice and show our continued support when he needs it the most. I know some money has already been sent by Mike Meyer and the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes. I heard that Mary Eisenhower will see the Marrocco's at Walter Reed this weekend, and I will hopefully see them in a couple weeks with the folks from American Airlines while we're in town supporting the G.I. Film Festival in Washington.

I know this trip touched me in ways that will affect me for the rest of my life. I think each of you had a similar experience and I hope we can all band together again and use our money, resources and time to help PFC Marrocco because of his sacrifice and service to this great country of ours. Basically, we're adopting Brendan as our own...

Please feel free to contact myself, Jim Palmersheim ( or Mike Meyer ( if you have any questions or concerns. Again, it was a real honor traveling and supporting our troops with each and every one of you.


Leeann Tweeden
NBC Sports

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Seven more good reasons to be mistrustful

Seven plead guilty to raising funds at LAX for terrorist organization
7:15 PM | April 29, 2009
Los Angeles Times

Members of a group that for the last few years has sought donations from travelers at LAX on behalf of what they said was an Iraqi-based charity pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal charges of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization.

In a plea agreement that came just as a jury was being selected for trial, the seven defendants each pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization and one count of actually providing material support to the group.

In court the defendants admitted that they knowingly raised funds to support the activities of the Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK, by collecting money from MEK supporters and soliciting money from unwitting donors at public locations, including the airport. Donors were told they were supporting a charity called the Committee for Human Rights, which was sometimes referred to as the Committee for Human Rights in Iran.

However, the Justice Department charged that CHR was simply a “front organization” to support MEK operations, including its terrorist activities.

The fundraising activities took place from late 1997 to February 2001, authorities said. The group had established nonprofit status and set up bank accounts from which itwired money to the MEK.

“These defendants raised money at locations like LAX on behalf of the MEK, which is a terrorist organization,” U.S. Atty. Thomas P. O’Brien said. “We cannot allow any terrorist organization to fundraise on our shores or to steal money from our own citizens so that they can finance their own terrorism operations. Terrorism anywhere poses a significant security risk to the United States.”

The seven defendants are: Roya Rahmani, 48, of Vienna, Va.; Alireza Mohammadmoradi, 38, of Los Angeles; Moustafa Ahmady, 54, of Los Angeles; Hossein Kalani Afshari, 52, of Mission Viejo; Hassan Rezaie, 54, of Los Angeles; Navid Taj, 58, of Santa Monica and Mohammad Omidvar, 54, of Corona.

The defendants face a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison. Sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 10.

Cynical and alive, or naive and dead?

How well do we really know anyone?

Our kids, our friends, our neighbors, our family.

If I think about it much, it is scary.

The University of Georgia didn't know that one of their professors was (allegedly) capable of mass murder. Neither did his family, friends or neighbors or students.

The family, fiancee and friends of Philip Markoff thought he was a second year med student soon to be married with a bright future ahead of him. He is the (alleged) Craigslist killer.

The people that we are closest to are the ones best able to deceive and take advantage. Because we are blinded by love and trust. And their minds are manipulating us all the way into thinking what they want.

How do we protect ourselves? How do we protect them from themselves?

With all of our technology, all of our medical advances, all of our research, we can't tell the walking timebombs from the saints. We can't tell Machiavellians from Mary Magdalene. We can't tell Barney Frank from Barney.

I've been blindsided so many times because I am an idiot. I can't remember to distrust people.

I, and maybe all of us, need to heed these words.

Bill Nighy plays the character of Alan Blunt, head of MI6 in the movie "Stormbreaker".

"We don't trust him. We don't trust anybody. That's what we do."

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Why American Airlines gets a free pass for life

When I spoke with managers at American about the trip to Iraq, I asked them how in the world this came to happen.

In a public corporation in a terrible economy, it would have been so easy to say no. I cannot imagine the leg-wrestling with lawyers as to the thousand ways a legal beagle could see this whole thing becoming a disaster.

The quick simple answer was this. When he first heard about the idea, Gerard Arpey, the CEO of American, said, "It is the right thing to do. Figure it out."

That is leadership. That is visionary. That is management. That is compassion.

And that is what happened. American Airlines figured it out.

The first American flagged commercial airplane to fly over Iraqi airspace and into Kuwait.

Oh, there are always things that a company can do better. And I know they try.

But if you can do this, you get my loyalty for life.

This flight was a life changer. I hope you will appreciate American Airlines and take time to thank them when you can.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Apparently, even smart Pollocks are stupid

Poland's Krystian Zimerman, widely regarded as one of the finest pianists in the world, created a furor Sunday night in his debut at Walt Disney Concert Hall when he announced this would be his last performance in America because of the nation's military policies overseas.

Before playing the final work on his recital, Karol Szymanowski’s "Variations on a Polish Folk Theme," Zimerman sat silently at the piano for a moment, almost began to play, but then turned to the audience. In a quiet but angry voice that did not project well, he indicated that he could no longer play in a country whose military wants to control the whole world.

Mr. Zimerman, you don't speak German because our military liberated your country in World War II.

Mr. Zimerman, you don't speak Russian because the U.S. faced down the U.S.S.R. with military might and freed Eastern Europe.

Mr. Zimerman, the U.S. doesn't want to control the whole world. If it did, it would have happened a long time ago.

Mr. Zimerman, good riddance.

And, I hope the folks who did not walk out of the concert follow you all the way home.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Empty Chair

By the grace of God and the talents of some amazing friends, we have a great house to live in.

The two best porches in history.

One is private. I have coffee and a smoke there most mornings as I watch the mist rise over the lake.

The other porch is the social porch. When I turned 50, dear friends at Foundation Design sent me five Adirondack chairs as a present.

Those chairs are part of our family and my life.

Pete and I sat on the porch in those chairs and talked for hours. And hours.

Pete never had a casual conversation. He really was interested in what you had to say. And, he had a point of view about everything.

Not in an argumentitive way, an informed way.

This kid had been reading National Geographic since he was five.

He read Russian history books for fun.

He studied sports because he became a sportswriter and he didn't want to be a hack.

I learned more from him on my back porch than I have ever learned in a university.

Pete was different. He wanted to make a difference in this lifetime.

After graduating from Texas A&M with a degree in International Studies, he went to France to work as a tour guide. He had the gift of language. He was fluent in French within months. I remember visiting him in Nice. He was working his cell phone in French. How the hell did he do that.

When he came back to Dallas, he moved into our house and became something of a recluse. We were worried. He spent hours daily in his room. Rarely came out. Rarely went out to play with his buds.

Months later I came to understand why.

Pete had applied to the CIA. The application process is grueling.

He told us nothing about what he was doing. We were concerned he was into something bad, but we should have known better.

One day out of the blue, I get the following phone call.

"Dad, I am in Langley, Virginia."

"What are you doing there?"

"The CIA just offered me a job."

"Out of the blue?"

"No, dad. This is what I have been working on in secret for the past months."

"Well, congratulations. What an honor. You must be thrilled."

"Yes and no, pops. I'm honored they want me. But, something in my gut tells me it's just not right."

"Pete, I can't help you. This is your decision. This is so outside my realm, I am helpless to give advice. Trust your gut."

He turned them down.

To this day, I don't know why. It was his gut.

He returned to Dallas and tried to make his way in his version of corporate America. He had told me years ago that he could never do what I do. Seventy hour weeks. Meeting upon meeting that weren't meaningful.

He loved sports. So, he worked in sports. And learned that if you aren't on the field, it is business. Cowboys. Desperados. FC Dallas.

He liked and appreciated every one he worked for and with. He just hated the meaningless of the job. He hated working for money. He had bigger ideas.

Pete had talked since early high school about serving his country in some way. He understood history. He wanted to be a part of it in a positive way.

We sat in those Adirondacks for hours upon hours. Night after night.

He talked to every branch in the military.

After much study, he decided the Army was where he should be.

"Pete, this means you will more than likely be in Iraq."

"I know, dad. I don't agree with the strategy. But, this is not somebody else's war to fight. This is what our country is doing. If that's what's necessary, even though I don't agree, so be it. I want to serve and I like what the Army is about. I want to be an officer in the Army."

Be careful what you ask for.

The honor graduate of his Basic Training class at Fort Benning. President of his Officer Candidate School class. Off to Fort Sill for Field Artillery training.

He hated field artillery. Fort Benning is the home of the Infantry. He did not want to be part of the "gear in the rear". He wanted to be on the front line.

Shortly after the surge strategy was announced, Pete learned he had been assigned to the Second Stryker Cavalry Regiment. Based in Vilseck, Germany, but headed for Iraq.

Pete was a physical animal. He loved to test himself.

He applied for Ranger School. He was accepted. Infantry officers are somewhat expected to carry that tab.

He went back to Fort Benning. The first week is fight week. He passed.

The next test is land navigation. They get you lost in the woods and you have to find your way out. He missed by five minutes.

When you fail, they either tell you to go to your unit, or they tell you you can have another shot.

He stayed. He wanted the tab. And, he felt that as an officer, he needed that tab to prove to his men that he was qualified to lead them.

Five weeks in the Fort Benning heat. Sweeping. Mopping. Doing nothing but biding time until his next class. Working out like a mad man.

The next class started. He fought his way thru fight week and won.

In order to get to Ranger School, he had to complete 18 mile runs with 80 pound rucksacks. If you ever meet someone with the Ranger tab, know that you have met a man.

Here is his email from that second try.

hello ladies and gents,
well, i'm sad to report, that after all that waiting at fort benning, i was unable to complete ranger school. my second attempt at ranger school started out much better, as i passed land navigation without any problems. however, on day 4 i injured my back during the road march. it's nothing debilitating, however, at the time, once i finished the march, i was unable to stand up straight. many other injuries can be overcome in ranger school, but, when you hurt your back, to put it simply, you're screwed. ranger school requires you to be able to carry a heavy rucksack along with other equipment for several kilometers at a time through the woods. with the the way my back felt, that would have not have been possible.
so, i was given the choice to recycle again or drop out and come back later when i'm healed up. naturally, i chose the latter, which brings me to my next bit of news. i will be reporting to my unit on sunday, july 29, in vilseck, germany. as for when i might head to iraq, i don't know, but i would expect sooner rather than later.
anyway, i will have phone and e-mail access should you want to contact me.
i hope all is well with everyone, and i'll talk to you all soon.

Pete was given the choice of staying for one more try. Most don't get that.

He chose to go join his team. He felt guilty that Ranger school was selfish. He felt he needed to be with his men.

And so, he did.

And so, there is an empty chair on my back porch.

Physically, empty.

But, I sit out there every night and talk to Pete. I am still learning from him.

There will always be an empty chair in our family.

But, as much as we miss him, we are thankful for the change he has fomented.

Conflicted on Iraq

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.
Groucho Marx

Try as I might, I can't figure out why the United States really went into Iraq.

WMD was the purported reason. We could have used the United Nations process, but no. The fearmongerers in Washington, lead by Dick Cheney, scared the populace into going to war with photos of mushroom clouds. And unfounded rumors of yellow-cake uranium going into Iraq.

So in we went. With only 150,000 ground troops. We sent almost 500,000 to invade Panama. Nice planning Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and General Franks.

The war planners assumed we would quickly overwhelm the Iraqi Army (which we did) and be met with happy throngs celebrating us as liberators (which didn't happen).

We captured Saddam in December 2003. If that was the objective, we should have left then.

As a friend in the Pentagon recently said to me, the war with Iraq ended in 2003. Since then we have been fighting a proxy war with Iran.

Ever heard that before? I have not.

Iranian arms and military trainers have been flowing in for years to arm the Shiite militias. Iran is Shia, and Shiites in Iraq had been treated terribly by the Sunni minority (which was headed by Saddam). Iran would like to own Iraq and it's oil and land. So for years, our military has been trying to prevent a Shia and Sunni bloodbath. Why? Why is this bloodbath more important than those taking place in Africa?

We didn't send enough manpower to seal the borders. al Qaeda fighters flowed in from all over. And no, al Qaeda was not in Iraq training during Saddam's reign. al Qaeda hated Saddam. But with Saddam gone, AQI had US targets on the ground and a Muslim land they might shake with fear and take over as they have in Afghanistan and Pakistan with their Taliban brethren. General Eric Shinseki said so in 2003 as Army Chief of Staff. He was vilified by the Bush administration.

I have read every book I can find. I have asked elected officials, senior military personnel, intelligence experts, Iraqis, Iranians. No one can explain, no one understands why the Bush adminisration went into Iraq.

Personally, I think it was two things. Neo conservative macho men who wanted to take out Saddam. Macho men who had never been to war, and in fact had dodged it when it was their turn to serve.

Secondly, money. Money from oil. The US oil companies needed the cheap Iraqi oil. Money from infrastructure. Halliburton and KBR are all over the friggin country building stuff, serving food, providing non-potable water, you name it. Money from arms. Billions of dollars for guns of all kinds, ammunition, radar, planes, vehicles.

In his farewell address, President Eisenhower warned about the "military industrial complex". We have failed to heed his warnings.

President Eisenhower's granddaughter, Mary, was on this trip. She heads a global non-profit that was started by her grandfather, People to People International.

Their mission statement reads as follows. "The purpose of People to People International is to enhance international understanding and friendship through educational, cultural and humanitarian activities involving the exchange of ideas and experiences directly among peoples of different countries and diverse cultures.

People to People International is dedicated to enhancing cross-cultural communication within each community, and across communities and nations. Tolerance and mutual understanding are central themes. While not a partisan or political institution, PTPI supports the basic values and goals of its founder, President Dwight D. Eisenhower."

A man that saw war first hand started a foundation to foster understanding. He warned about the military industrial complex. I don't think he would approve of this mess in Iraq.

Mary Eisenhower is a smart, humble, compassionate woman. She and I had a long talk in Kuwait. She had visited the USS Eisenhower. She felt like she had a new family. The sailors and officers adopted her and she felt so humbled and thankful.

I got the sense from Mary that she probably would agree with her grandfather.

But, after the massive FUBAR of the original dumbasses that got us into Iraq, some smart people figured out that we needed a different strategy. Colonel H.R. McMaster pointed the way when his unit settled things down in Tall Afar. Colonel McMaster is the author of "Dereliction of Duty". In his book, he scorches the military leadership in Vietnam for not standing up to the politicians and doing the right thing.

In Tall Afar, he scattered his troops amongst the populace. Gaining trust and information, he was able to work with the locals and root out the bad guys. It became the road map for General Petraues and the surge. The surge worked, not only because of more troops, but because of the new strategy.

The briefing that we received in Balad was a result of this strategy of intermingling with the locals to understand the fabric of Iraq.

So, now after two years of progress, a politically mandated deadline for troop withdrawal is upon our military. The transition has already started. Combat troops will be withdrawn by the end of June.

And in the last week, Iraq has started going crazy again. Huge suicide bombings. Bloodbaths outside mosques. The fabric is starting to shred.

Now, President Obama and Congress face a new dilemma. Will they allow Iraq to disintegrate? Or, will they push back against the politics and make a decision to reverse course and stay?

President Obama, your photo op visit last week only encouraged the enemy. Your message to the troops was clear. We are leaving Iraq.

For what?

Just because the Bush adventure was a colossal mistake, the gains that have been made in the last two years shouldn't be junked. It is not in America's best interest to have an unstable Iraq.

And, while troops are moving out of Iraq, they are moving into Afghanistan.

For what?

The Obama administration admits they have no clear mission for Afghanistan. That is as muddled as Iraq. So we are going to send more troops into another battle for which we have no prescribed objective?

The only thing I know is I don't know. But, I do know that the people on the ground know alot. And, I don't believe many elected people in Washington know squat about the realities of Iraq or Afghanistan.

President Obama and Congress, please listen to them. Listen to your intelligence people. Your military leaders. And don't be afraid to ask hard questions and make sure you aren't hearing what the military wants you to hear. Dig in and talk to the officers that are on the ground.

Don't use your politics to bully them. Listen.

Then do what is right for America.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Into Iraq: Leaving Baghdad

The buses roll early from the "hotel" headed for the Baghdad airport.

Because of the checkpoints and security designs, it takes almost 45 minutes to go 5 miles.

The airport and this road were also paid for by the bravery of men who battled to take it away and make it safe for US aircraft.

The terminal building is the size of one at a small US airport. Think Macon, Georgia. There are still symbols and art from Saddam's reign. It is incredibly well fortified.

Just outside the terminal building is a CIWS (pronounce sea wizz) gun. What a machine. It is most often found on US naval ships to protect them from missiles.

It looks like R2D2. It has a radar system that tracks any incoming hostile fire and shoots the crap out of the sky with a 20MM Galting gun that shoots 3000-4000 rounds per minute. Literally filling the air with lead to destroy missiles or mortars before they can do harm.

Many of us were sitting outside and the thing starting bobbing around. It was pointed directly over our heads. Luckily, it was just undergoing some testing. It never fired, but I would sure like to see it go.

We have learned the meaning of hurry up and wait. We sit around the airport for a couple of hours for our C17. It is one busy place. Lots of people coming and going.

To help while away the time, there is a recreational tent outside on the tarmac with TVs and a ping pong table. Zac wiped me out and never lost a game to the challengers that came along. I really hate that about him.

Suddenly, our plane was on the ground and hurry up time was here. Get on our body armor, helmets and board.

Whoosh, we are on our way to Kuwait City.

Our time in Iraq has ended. It was a relief mixed with sadness. We are leaving 150,000 military men and women behind.

It is unlikely any of us will ever be here again. But if asked, everyone on that plane would come back. We have been inspired by what we have seen. We want to support, help, and not leave our military alone in this. They need all of us behind them with our hearts and our minds helping them finish the job as best they can.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Into Iraq: Last Night in Baghdad

As the group reassembled at the "Hotel Uday and Qusay", alot of emotions started to flow.

One by one, almost every person on the trip sought Zac and me out to chat. I have come to realize that we are a rarity. There are 4200 Gold Star Families from Iraq. That's alot of sadness, but it is a small number amongst 300 million Americans.

We have experienced thousands of these meetings in the past 18 months. Sometimes, people avoid us because they don't know how or just can't handle it. That's ok. Usually, they just open their arms and say "I'm sorry, I don't know what to say."

We have learned that there is nothing exactly right to say. There are no magic words. A hug and an acknowledgement is all anyone can do. And for us, don't be concerned about bringing up Pete. We like talking about him. It keeps him alive. We love to tell his stories. Especially the funny ones.

Susan Botsford, Miss America 1978, approached me and said, "I have been trying to figure out what to say all week. I have children your age. I can't imagine. I just want you to know how sorry I am and how I appreciate what you are doing." Then she hugged me and we misted up together.

Lee Ann Tweeden found me and Zac. She hugged us, wept a little, told us how sorry she was, and told us how much she appreciated our being on the trip. We learned that this was her 10th trip to Iraq and Afghanistan. Her dad is a Vietnam vet. She gets it.

She told us that she is engaged, and she met her fiance on one of the trips. He is an Air Force pilot.

She asked, "What was it like for you when Pete deployed?"

"Sick with worry 24 hours a day. Sit by the computer for email. Never be away from the phone less you miss the precious call. And tremble anytime the doorbell rings."

"I assumed as much. That's how I feel and I was just wondering if I was doing something wrong."

No, Lee Ann. You are doing it all right. Just because she is blindingly beautiful doesn't mean she isn't smart as a whip, down to earth, and big hearted. She is a patriot of the highest order.

Steven Baldwin, one of the Baldwin brothers, was on the trip. More hugs and tears.

Corinne Chapman, a singer from Nashville that you will hear on the radio soon, was seated near Zac and I on the plane the entire trip. The best hugs. Incredibly supportive.

Jeff Bolton, morning talk show host at KLIF in Dallas, sat us down for several talks. His kids attend the same school Pete attended. He said his family will never forget the day the school shared the news about Pete's passing. Jeff worked his butt off broadcasting from Iraq every day. He is a new family friend. Bonded by faith, love of country, and touched by Pete.

We finally began making our way to bed. Another early call was coming the next morning, and it was late.

I was filthy. Tomorrow would be a long day of travel. And I really didn't want to shower in the pleasure palace. What had happened there? Who had been under that shower head?

Zac was the same way. We finally manned up and took the fastest showers in recorded history. Oooooooo yuk.

The sleeping arrangement for us was a large room with three metal bunk beds. Fish and I were the last two to pick a spot. I offered to take the top bunk. Unbeknownst to me, Zac had already made bets with the others in the room that I couldn't get my ass up there.

This is when the giggling started. Once I realized what was going on, I did a Fosbury flop and made it on the first try. Not pretty, but up there.

Then the farting started from various corners of the room. The bunk beds were shaking and squeaking from the body laughs.

Fish then gave us some great news. "I just want you to know I don't snore."

"Much appreciated, Mike", I said. "I want to announce that I do. And I don't want any crap about it."

Mike then continued to talk. As a friend says about such folks, "They were vaccinated with a phonograph needle."

Fish was in mid-sentence, and then snoring. He had every move down. The full hog intake. Puff. Groan. A pro. I laughed for an hour. Trying not to shake the bed too much cause I didn't want to wake him.

Somehow I drifted off to sleep. In the middle of the night I had that awful occasion of waking up and having no idea where I was. Then it hit me. I was in the top bunk of in the pleasure palace in Baghdad. And I had to pee.

I started to maneuver to get out of the crow's nest, and woke Zac up in the process. I realized that crawling down would result in stepping on Fish. So I did the only thing that made sense. I jumped.

It was a long way down. I still have the imprint in the bottom of my foot from where I landed on the seams in the marble floor. Zac thought I had broken an ankle. When he realized I was upright, he started laughing at me so hard that a lesser man would have had his feelings hurt.

After visiting the gold trimmed commode, I returned. Now how the hell am I going to get back up there.

I find one of the gaudy chairs left over from the reign of terror and jerry-rig a ladder to get back into bed.

Fish never moved. I was quickly back asleep.

Zac is still laughing.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Into Iraq: Night Three, The Concert

In addition to all the boxes of goodies for troops, school supplies and soccer balls for Iraqi kids, this trip included a large group of entertainers who put on fantastic shows on the USS Eisenhower based off Bahrain and at Camp Liberty in Baghdad.

Gene Bicknell is a huge hearted, very successful businessman that loves the music business and owns alot of the theaters in Branson, Missouri.

Gene was the first to demonstrate his ability to entertain. Gene, who is on the positive side of 65, sang "I Just Don't Look Naked Anymore" to all of us to get us in the mood before we left the USA.

Gene arranged for the top rated show in Branson, Country Tonite, along with several other amazing singers to make the trip at his expense.

He also arranged for the headliner. Tony Orlando and his band, The Lefty Brothers.

If you are under 40, you might ask "Tony who?"

Tony Orlando and Dawn were a huge act in the 70s. A breakthru in the fact that he is Hispanic and his backup singers were African American.

They topped the charts with "Candida", "Knock Three Times", and his most famous song, "Tie a Yellow Ribbon".

That song popularized the symbol of a yellow ribbon for troops away from home.

We had a yellow ribbon in our front yard for Pete.

Tony is 65, has more energy than a 3 year old, and is the most decent, caring, giving man and entertainer I have ever seen. He knows his song is part of American history, and he has been giving back to the military his entire career.

The last night in Baghdad, the entertainers put on a big show at Camp Liberty.

Vandel-Snook. Country Tonite. Lee Ann Tweeden, one of the most beautiful women on earth. (Just Google her if you don't already know. The troops knew her very well.)

The two angels from American Airlines that put this entire trip together, Jim Palmersheim and Steve Blankenship, conducted a "Baghdad Idol" competition that featured audience members from the Marines, Navy, Air Force, Army, and Coast Guard.

It was a huge hit.

Then Tony and his band took the stage. And I mean took it.

Tony had expressed quietly his concern of his relevance to the young audience. One of those young audience members was my son Zac. He had no clue. Had never heard the songs.

The energy of Tony and his band and their musical prowess put the audience in the palm of Tony's hand from the first note.

For two hours in the desert night, he sang, danced, told jokes, and featured every member of his amazing band. They played Led Zeppelin. Black Sabbath. The Beatles. The best cover band in history.

Then Tony introduced Tony Wine, one of the keyboard players. I had recalled seeing her on the trip and wondering whose grandmother she was.

One of the most accomplished singers and songwriters in history. "Candida". "Groovy Kind of Love". "Sugar, Sugar". Several McDonald's jingles. Sang backup with almost every member of the Rock Hall of Fame. And was the voice that sang "Meow, Meow, Meow, Meow" for Meow Mix television spots.

Tony Orlando was born in Hells Kitchen, New York. Met Clive Davis and went to work for him as a talent scout in his early twenties. He signed Blood, Sweat and Tears. Barry Manilow. James Taylor. He knows talent. And, he has plenty himself.

The troops loved them and they loved them back. It was so genuine. The night before, a rap act had been thru. The guys I talked to said they had wondered about Tony Orlando. After the show, they said he kicked ass compared to the previous night's show. Tony's show was for them and they felt it.

During the show, Zac was mingling with the audience because he is their age. He was making buddies and asking questions all night.

Every branch. Officer and enlisted. MPs. The fire department.

During the show, the fire guys took off in a hurry. Zac was talking to them. All he knew was that something had happened that needed their attention.

A mortar had landed 200 yard away. None of us knew it until much later in the evening. It is such a common occurence for our military that they don't even flinch.

After the show, the entertainers invited everyone in attendance to come backstage for photos and autographs. The line was long, orderly and took almost two hours to get everyone thru.

Exhilirated and exhausted, the group returned to the creep house for some much needed rest.

Into Iraq: Day Three, Camp Liberty

Five miles from Baghdad International Airport is the sprawling Camp Liberty.

From what I can tell, it is the largest US base in the world.

It is built around several of Saddam's former palaces.

Included in his pleasure dome was a large man-made lake with water diverted from the Tigris. The fact that he did this when farmers were suffering from drought didn't seem to ruffle him. The lake was stocked so visitors could fish from the patios of the number of palaces built right at water's edge.

One of those palaces was our home for a night. It serves as a hotel for visiting guests of the military.

It was big and tacky. Guessing 30,000 square feet. It is not a palace in the European sense, i.e. beautiful architecture and breathtaking craftsmanship. No, this place is like an oversized ego home slapped up with sub-prime mortgage money in a suburb of Dallas, Phoenix or Las Vegas.

The engineers with us pointed out where the building standards sucked. Crooked windows. Thin layers of stone poorly mortared with rebar showing behind it. Wonder if TARP funds will cover this?

We ask about the history of the place. Apparently, it was used by Uday and Qusay as a pleasure palace. Like when they sent their henchmen into town to kidnap virgins to bring to the party. It was already creepy. That made it creepier.

This joint is on the shore of Lake Saddam, across from one of the Presidential palaces. A huge place that is now Multi National Force Headquarters. General Odierno works from there.

After a bit of settling in, we realize how relaxed this place feels compared to Balad. Still in a war zone, but slightly less intense. Until we walked onto the back patio and heard gunfire from a firefight nearby.

In a bit, we went to lunch at the mess hall. It is huge. More Ugandan guards. Very nervous and jerky. No hats, no purses, no backpacks.

Why? Not so long ago an Iraqi shithead walked into this very place with a backpack of explosives and blew himself up along with a number of Americans. The only thing with black eyes he is looking at is Satan. Who is no virgin. And that martyr is getting screwed regularly, just not the way he envisioned.

Why would somebody agree to be a suicide bomber? Islamic sainthood, hero in your hometown, and a promise of $5300 for your family. That's the mindset we fight against. It doesn't make sense to us. That's why it is so dangerous. When life has so little meaning to the enemy, we have to fight a different kind of war.

We scatter amongst the thousands of people. We shake hands. We tell them thanks. We invite them to tonight's concert across the street.

The group is planning to tour some of Saddam's other palaces after lunch.

On the way in, Zac and I spotted a Stryker unit in the parking lot across the street.

Pete was in the Second Stryker Cavalry Regiment, 2SCR. A Stryker is another form of armed personnel carrier. It has six huge tires, can get up to 60 miles an hour, carries a variety of armament, can be operated entirely by video screen in the safety of the vehicle with no one exposed, and is designed to get alot of boots on the ground to hot spots in a hurry. Once, the Cavalry rode horses into the shit. Today, Strykers.

We had never seen one before. Zac and I introduced ourselves to the troops and told them why we were there. They adopted us and showed us the vehicle from top to bottom. We now understand exactly what Pete was doing, where he sat, where he was standing on that morning.

We also learned that the enemy has continued to ratchet things up. Their new favorite toy is a hand grenade version of the EFMP. At roadblocks or on crowded streets, they can lob these lethal bombs right onto our vehicles. And they penetrate everything we have. Strykers, MRAPs, you name it.

The courage and determination of the young people that wage war for us is remarkable. They want to win. They want to finish. They want to kill the bad guys and help the good guys.

President Obama, you called the folks on Wall Street our "best and brightest" in your 60 Minutes interview. You couldn't be more wrong.

America's best and brightest are on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Into Iraq: Morning Three, Black Hawks to Baghdad

When Pete told me he was moving from Taji to Baghdad, I asked how he would get there.

"Black Hawks, pop."

Visions of Vietnam and Mogadishu flashed thru my mind.

"Be careful, son."

Early in the morning, we awoke and were taken to a remote part of the airstrip at Joint Base Balad.

After a few minutes, two Black Hawk helicopters appeared out of thin air.

They are the meanest color of grey you have ever seen.

The power, noise and downdraft of the propellers is enought to scare you before you see the guns.

As soon as they touch ground, two door gunners exit the ships. They are wearing Darth Vader looking masks. They motion us towards the open passenger doors and begin ushering us in.

Helmet, body armor, and shoulder strapped into three bench seats, seventeen of us were loaded in seconds.

This was my first time in a helicopter for a reason. I'm claustrophobic and afraid of heights. I'm sweating like Bill Clinton when he had to face Hillary about Monica.

I want off. The only thing that kept me on was not pride. It was the troops. If they could, I could.

Off we go in a roar.

Two Black Hawks, each with two gunners right and left manning high caliber machine guns. This ain't Six Flags. We are over Iraqi countryside where the locals like to practice their RPG marksmanship.

About 30 seconds into flight, we begin to relax a tad. Then all four gunners start shooting. We're in friggin' Apocalypse Now.

They were test firing their guns into some body of water below. They don't forewarn the uninitiated. (I will miss those jeans.)

In 30 minutes, we are in Baghdad.

Land at a place that is like a bus stop for people moving around Iraq. Signs saying "Tikrit", "Balad" and other names we have read in the news are on 3 foot high wooden signs. The folks line up at the sign. When the helicopters come in, one group unloads and the next group loads up. The Greyhound station from hell.

Into Iraq: Night Two, The Golfing Fool

After a very long day, we returned to our trailers for a last night.

Some decided they were going to sit by the runway and watch the F16s take off.

Not me.

I went inside, turned on the TV tuned to AFN (Armed Forces Network) and watched the entire Masters live broadcast.

Including the playoff.

3:30 in the morning, with one eye still open, I saw Cabrera win it.

I have either watched or attended Masters Sunday since I was 8 years old.

My streak is intact.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Into Iraq: Night Two at Joint Base Balad

The red dust is everywhere. In your food. In your clothes. In your computer. In your eyes. In your guns. In your MRAP.

The guns are the only thing that get cleaned everyday. Everything else is just hopeless.

To the trailers for a much needed shower and nap after the day we had had.

Don't know about you, but I really don't know what non-potable water is. But that's what your water in your trailer is. Including the sink. Where has this stuff been? What happens if it gets in my mouth? Yuk.

But it felt like rain straight from heaven. Warm water may be the greatest invention ever. Washes away not only dirt but the stresses of life.

Following a nap, we proceeded to walk around the base a bit.

Here at Joint Base Balad, with 25,000 or so living here, the merchants can't stay away. Adjoining the PX is the food court, a tailor shop, a computer shop, a laundry, and then some of the most random stuff you can imagine.

Bizarre bazaars. Selling everything from "fine jewelry" to carved ivory. Cigarettes and cigars from every place in the world. Counterfeit electronics. Used shoes. And an array of the tackiest lingerie on the weirdest mannequins. Freak show.

When Zac and I saw the tailor shop, we had another Pete connection. Pete's nephew was born two weeks before Pete was killed. Pete had a set of tiny ACUs made for him by this Iraqi tailor. Those will be part of the family for generations.

You can also buy a Harley Davidson here. Inside a trailer are three guys offering great deals, so they say. Will be delivered to your house back in the States.

The favorite store on base was Ali's place. Ali sells counterfeit DVDs. I got 6 for ten bucks. I heard a soldier say he bought a Windows program that retails for $800 for $7. Ali is there everyday, manning the cash register, making friends, making deals.

At dinner time, we head for the mess hall. Another Pete moment.

The boy liked to eat. And at Camp Anaconda as it was called when he was here, the food is awesome and abundant. A cafeteria on steroids. Salad bar. Pasta bar. Grill. Daily specials. Fresh fruit as far as you can see. Steaks. Burgers. Pizza. Every non-alcoholic drink ever made. Soda. Energy drinks. Gatorade. Waters. Fruit drinks. Then, the dessert bar. And an ice cream bar. And it's all you want baby, all day long.

Pete used to write emails after he ate and you could hear him licking his lips as he typed.

The Green Team regroups at dinner and begins to share stories from the day.

The other group had a very different experience from us. Thanks primarily to the Iraqi police.

When they arrived at their school, the IP were there. They actually started stealing school supplies for themselves before the group could get them off the trucks. The police got very aggressive with the women in the group. To the point that a Lieutenant got in the IP's faces and told them to back off. There was clearly stress in the air.

There was also a sheik there named Sheik Thia. Somehow, he had heard about me and Zac. He wanted to meet us. Sheik Thia is working for progress. He is opposing the bad guys. And he has been targeted. Recently, an IED meant for him killed his oldest son and the sheik's brother. He wanted to commiserate with us. I don't know how, but we will connect. I get chills thinking about it.

We also learned that within two hours of our safe return, an IED got an MRAP on the same road we had just been on. Injuries, no casualties. But by the grace of God it could have been us.

After eating, a country duo that was with us set up an impromptu concert stage outside on the deck.

Phil Vandel and Matt Snook are two of the most talented, sweet, compassionate, honest, open, loving men on this earth. They aren't wealthy entertainers. Yet. But they donate hundreds of hours of their time performing for our military and veterans.

They have written a song called Welcome Home. It is dedicated to all who serve our country. I have heard them sing it live about 10 times. I cry everytime. It is a beautiful tribute to those that "wear the cloth of the nation".

Vandel-Snook introduced me so that I could present several hundred pounds of care packages to the servicemen there.

I could hear Pete applauding as I spoke. All I am doing is continue what he started. Pete is with me like a tuning fork. When we are on course, it is a pure sweet note in my ear. When we screw up, it is just an irritating buzz. Thanks, bud, for being with me every step.

The folks there were cautious at first. With encouragement, they began to shop thru the boxes and take what they wanted and needed. Clean socks. Hand sanitizer. Gatorade. Girl Scout Cookies. DVDs. CDs. Sunflower seeds. Clif bars. Cheetohs. Cheez-Its. Crystal Light packets. And fresh baked cookies sent from New York by a writer friend who is a gourmet and a food and travel critic. Whoever got those got the good stuff.

All were incredibly grateful. Not so much for the stuff, as for the gesture.

We heard over and over that the dreariness of Iraq and the monotony of the work wore on their souls. Seeing a fresh face, a pat on the back, talking about what's going on at home, a couple of country songs, anything to change up the routine was immensely appreciated.

We let every one we met know that all of America is not at the mall while they are at war. We let them know that thousands, millions of Americans think of them and pray for them daily.

They were glad to hear it. As this conflict is in transition headed to wind down, they wonder if anybody gives a hoot at home.

Thousands now know first hand that we do.

Into Iraq: Visiting Balad

The Green Team was divided into two groups to visit two different schools.

Zac and I were teamed with a former Miss America, the Crocs ambassador of goodwill, Big Dice, The Fish, and a couple of DFW area businessmen who give their hearts and their money to support the our military veterans.

When Zac and I first saw Big Dice at the DFW airport, we started trying to guess who he was. Had to be an athlete because he was a big man and built like a brick shithouse. Dressed cool in a blazer, jeans and ball cap, maybe an athlete turned actor. Turns out he is just a big man with a bigger heart. He does humanitarian missions all over the world. He was leaving for a trip to Bangkok the day after we got home from Iraq.

The Fish is Gary Sinise's best friend. Perhaps the funniest man I have ever been around. Zac is still laughing at Fish stories. One favorite is on film. We asked Fish to take a picture of us. Fish took the picture allright. Except he held the camera backwards and we have a lovely closeup of his face.

He told us he saw the day that Gary became an actor. They were in high school together and Gary had decided not to graduate. A teacher approached him and said she had an idea as to how to get him some needed credits. She invited him to join a theater class. He did. He got the lead. The rest is history still being made.

We were going out with a different platoon than the one that brought us in. Another briefing. Travel route. Rollover brief. Rollover into water brief. IED brief. Small arms fire brief. Battle rattle check. Load up and roll.

Over the radio speaker, we can hear the chatter between the soldiers in our truck. On the way up from Balad, the Lieutenant in charge had told his guys to behave on the radio since they had guests. No such warning on this short ride, which provided much needed humor.

These guys hammer each other as only brothers can do. Laugh at mistakes. Laugh about missing their girlfriends. Laugh at Iraqis. Poke fun at everyone in sight. This day's primary target was a "fuckin' female captain who they just saw ask an nco to show her how to load her gun". Oh, was she roasted and toasted to the delight of all.

Sitting across from me in the back of the truck was the platoon's interpreter. An Iraqi. A contractor. In full US Army uniform and battle rattle. I have to guess this may be one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. The bad guys don't want Iraqis to help our Army. I don't know his motivations, but he was a member of this unit. He was one of the brothers.

In a few minutes, we are in town. It looks like a Mexican border town. Cinder block and stucco buildings. Lots of dingy auto repair shops. A few small markets. Dirty. Bullet holes everywhere.

Our MRAPs roll into a gravel area and come to a halt. We are at the school.
We civilians are told to stay in the truck. The troops exit, form a security perimeter around us, and shoo away all the locals.

They motion for us to exit and we tumble out of the trucks. Literally. With 60 poounds of body armor, you are a bit top heavy. No face plants, but it wasn't pretty.

We enter the gate into the courtyard of the school. A one story hourshoe shapped cinder block and stucco building with a dirt courtyard. No electricity. No running water.

This is an all girl school. In Muslim countries, if girls are educated, they are segregated from the boys.

We are first met by a large group of 5 to 6 year olds. We must have looked like Martians to them. They backed away. Their beautiful little eyes were full of wonder.

Zac found a rubber ball and began bouncing it to the girls. Does this kid know how to break ice or what. Within seconds, we were playing with the kids and the love fest began.

The mayor of Balad, the head of education, several other assistants, and the mayor's bodyguards met us in the courtyard. Handshakes, photos, thank yous. It all felt genuine. It was a bit surreal to look at his security men carrying their AK47s while we noticed our Army guys had taken up security posts around the school. Our sniper was on the roof.

The mayor and the head of the school gave the okay and we began to distribute the goodies. Candy. School supplies. Crocs. Very orderly. The teachers would firmly call the girls to order when they got a little too excited. There were smiles everywhere.

A local tv station showed up. They took video and, surprise, they wanted to interview Miss America.

I went to classrooms to hand out candy. The rooms are dark. I didn't see blackboards or books. The girls were dressed in that third world mix of jeans, track suits, odd t-shirts and other world hand me downs. They all wore shoes, leggings and had a white scarf over their hair and a blue wrap worn like a sari. Maybe the school uniform.

We were trained not to make eye contact with the adult Iraqi women. So we didn't. However, there is obviously no issue with Iraqi men making contact with American women. The couple of women in our group were blonde and attractive and were viewed from head to toe by every Iraqi.

A local sheik showed up. Don't know which tribe or what he represented, but he wanted his photo opp. And cigarettes. He bummed them off everyone of us he could. And he chatted up the ladies.

When the supplies had all been handed out, we began saying our goodbyes. We noticed a couple of blue uniform Iraqi police had showed up. They slunk around in the background. They were creepy as hell.

The mayor asked us to stay in touch and asked if we could provide more help. Books. Blackboards. Anything to support the schools. I think he was genuine. I hope we can. Only sustained connections will make a real difference. Drive by mission work doesn't have lasting impact.

We loaded back up and returned to Paliwoda. It was lunch time.

Behind many more blast barriers, we entered a fine mess hall. That's when it hit me. This was Easter Sunday. The place was decorated with bunnies, colored eggs, special desserts, the works. We had ham, turkey and dressing and all the trimmings. Our boys and girls eat well over there. (Apparently, they should. Halliburton has the contract to feed them. The rumor amongst soldiers is it costs about $20 a plate.)

About a thousand soldiers live here. They like it. There is not as much brass around as at bigger bases. They have it to themselves. We passed an intense co-ed volleyball game boing on between the blast barriers. Kids having fun. With their guns nearby.

We loaded again and headed back to Joint Base Balad. The longest 30 minutes of our lives. We were now aware that we were in very dangerous territory. Everything had gone so well. Zac and I looked at each other. This was a morning just like Pete had experienced many times. And then, one last time.

Rolling along with your unit of 17 soldiers and an interpreter headed for home. Then a blast and the world shatters. It was hard to breathe. We winced at every bump in the road. Oh, God, please. If it has to happen, take me. Leave Zac and these other kids. I've lived. I've had more blessings than one person should.

Nothing happened.

We rolled onto Joint Base Balad. We thank the guys for taking such good care of us.

I asked them what the rest of their day would be like. The sergeant asked if I remembered some orchards we had passed. He said they would wait until dark and then head in there. It is a favorite place for bad guys to hide caches of weapons.

He said it like he was going to the Xerox machine.

Can you imagine knowing you are going out into the Iraqi night, into an orchard known by bad guys, knowing you might find weapons or an ambush? Oh, and maybe an IED on the road to boot?

I hugged him and told him to be safe.

"We always try, sir."

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Into Iraq: Morning Day Two, The Briefing

"We misjudged then — and we have since — the geopolitical intentions of our adversaries … and we exaggerated the dangers to the United States of their actions."
Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War

The Green Team is invited into a large conference room at FOB Paliwoda.

We didn't know this used to be Baath party headquarters.

It is now the conference room of the senior Army officer responsible for the security of the entire Balad area.

He enters the room and you know he is in charge. You know this is the man.

I won't name names for sake of security.

This officer proceeds to give us a briefing on what the military has been doing in Iraq since the fall of Saddam.

He speaks with the power and conviction of a man that knows his territory.

He is responsible for security in the entire Balad region. Which includes Joint Base Balad. The commanders at JBB have to consult him on issues there because he is the sheriff in these here parts. He is Boss Hogg, and I mean that in a good way.

He gives us a Powerpoint presentation to try and educate us on the complexities of Iraqi society and the what we are dealing with.

As an interested observer of things in Iraq, I have read alot of stuff. I think I have a clue.

I don't know shit.

When the pressure cap of Saddam was removed, the nature of Iraq was let loose.

He explained that it is way more complex than Sunni versus Shia. Which, by the way, makes my head hurt still to remember why they hate each other. And, he confirms, you cannot tell them apart visually. They look alike, dress alike, sometimes marry each other. They are visually the same. Internally, they are as different as night and day.

But beyond that, he explained that Iraqi society is ruled by 17 major tribes. Tribes are totally loyal to themsleves and their selfish objectives. And, there are at least 30 other smaller tribes that have their issues.

The tribes don't care about Iraq. They care about themselves.

I had never heard or read this before. I had thought we were caught in a crossfire between Sunni and Shia. Instead, I learn, we are in a crossfire between at least 47 tribes battling for power. With Sunni and Shia overlays. With Iranian and Syrian outside influencers and fighters in Iraq. And AQI (military for al Quaeda) thrown in for good measure.

Oh, and don't forget, the super Shiite Moqtuada al Sad'r. Fiery mullah who lives in Iran most of the time, but leads the most powerful political and military force in Iraq. His army is referred to as JAM.

Confused? Me too.

But not this officer.

He has it mapped out. He knows the leaders of each tribe. The sheiks. The mullahs. The city councils. The mayors. The Iraqi Army and Iraqi national police.

He and his troops are making progress. They have shown the locals that the way forward is economic, not war.

This region of Iraq produces most of the food in the country. Tomatoes are one of the lead products. Balad had a large tomato canning factory before it was ruined in the war. They have now reopened it.

The tomato farmers now have a place to sell their produce. The canner has a steady supply and can employ locals with steady jobs.

This is what our military is doing. Yes, they fight when necessary. But they are doing state department work to prevent violence and promote a sustainable life in Iraq.

At the end of the briefing, we get a chance to ask a few questions.

The Iranians are busy screwing around with Iraq. AQI is weakened, but not forever. He is worried about their ability to reload.

The one clear thing we hear is that he is concerned about the politically driven deadline for the US leaving.

The Iraqi local leaders are pleading with him for the US not to leave. They say they are not ready.

After all, it has been only 4 years since the fall of Saddam. This isn't going to work like Iowa overnight.

The briefing breaks up.

The Green Team starts to put the body armor and helmets back on.

Before we can, this officer appears in full battle rattle.

He is headed out.

He goes out at least 6 days a week to meet with the locals and get the temperature of what's going on. He attends city council meetings. He meets with tribal leaders.
He gets information on where the outside bad guys are and what they are up to.

He is a hero in every sense.

And, he doesn't want to leave now. Yes, he misses his family. Yes, he wants his men and women out of harms way.

But, he has worked so hard to understand the fabric of Iraqi society. And he and his troops are having positive impact.

He is afraid it is all going to go up in smoke if we pull out as prescribed.

Godspeed, sir. And, may our elected officials come listen to you.

God help us if men like you are not listened to.

Into Iraq: Early Morning Day Two

We were up early.

The military doesn't wait for anyone.

The 17 of us were bused to meet up with an infantry unit on Joint Base Balad. The Green Team was the humanitarian group. We were here to deliver school supplies and Crocs shoes to school kids.

In our body armor, helmets and our sleepiness, we were briefed for our mission. We were now Army.

We were briefed like the 20 other soldiers. We would leave the base and head for Forward Operating Base Poliwado.

Camp Paliwoda, formerly known as FOB Eagle, was renamed in memory of Capt. Eric Paliwoda, who died January 2, 2004 when an enemy mortar round scored a direct hit on his room. Forward Operating Base Paliwoda is a former training base for Saddam Hussein's elite fighters.

Balad is ground zero for Baath Party sentiment in Iraq. At one time, about 80 percent of the attacks against coalition forces occurred in this triangle area formed by Baghdad, Tikrit and Ar Ramadi.

Nobody bothered to share this history with us.

The 17 members of the Green Team boarded five MRAPs with the best soldiers you can imagine. A driver and a passenger up front who was in charge of the vehicle, a gunner standing up in the hatch manning a 50 caliber machine gun turret, two men in the back of the truck. None of them over 30. Most under 25. Upbeat, tough, brave, knowing their job, got each other's back.

These behemoth vehicles are the most armored up vehicle we have. They have been designed to withstand most of what the enemy can throw at us. However, the enemy keeps ratcheting up and even the MRAP is not impervious.

A primary concern is rollover due to the top-heaviness of the vehicle.

We were briefed on what to do in case of rollover, rollover into water, attack by IED, and small arms fire. In case of rollover and rollover into water, we were briefed as to how to exit the vehicle and where the emergency oxygen tanks were on the vehicle.

In case of IED, we were informed that we would roll past the "kill zone" and then they would cordon off the patrol and assess damage and injuries. We civilians were to stay in the trucks.

Puckering and "what the hell are we doing" was common amongst us.

We rolled out at 0830.

Before we could leave the base, there was a test firing range for every vehicle. This wasn't Disneyland. This was battle ground.

We rolled "outside the wire" of Joint Base Balad, past the multiple checkpoints, past the multiple concrete blast barriers.

We are now on the road. In the Iraqi countryside. Farmland. Cows, goats, grain are growing along the road. A number of houses that look unfinished but are lived in are visible.

We pass thru checkpoints every quarter mile or so. Manned by Iraqi military of some sort.

We rumble along the road for about 30 minutes until we reach FOB Paliwoda.

This road had been built and kept open with a price. Lots of US and Iraqi lives had been lost here.

The Green Team had been green indeed until this. We were now experienced. We were outside the wire. We were in it.

Early morning, we arrive at Camp Paliwoda.

It is a dump in the middle of a dump.

Bordered by cement blast shields backed up by more blast shields.

Once we past the gate, our unit rolled to a stop and we exited the vehicles.

Seventeen wide eyed American civilians had had their first taste of what these guys do everyday.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

To Iraq: Night One

After about 15 minutes of exploring our government contracted trailers, many of the 17 members of the Green Team re-appeared outside.

We were hungry. We wondered if there was internet access. We needed a place to recharge cameras. We were scared and wanted to be together.

An Air Force protocol officer had been assigned to watch over our group. She was still there and we convinced her to take us to get something to eat.

A short ride away was the the community area. USO office. MWR building (morale, welfare and recreation). A good size PX. And a food mall.

Operating out of little trailers around a gazebo like seating area were Pizza Hut, Subway, Burger King, and Cinnabon.

The food was just like at home. It tasted wonderful.

These food operations are staffed by people that look like the cast of a Spielberg-Lucas movie. Black haired, black eyed, olive skinned, reedy men from every Asian country you have ever heard of and a bunch you haven't. Imagine working at a fast food operation on a Forward Operating Base in Iraq. I imagine these guys think it is a great gig compared to home.

We notice that everyone under the gazebo is staring at their laptop. Wifi. This is where they come to chat with home and friends.

The Green Team was named because our luggage had green tags to designate that we were the Balad group. Our bonding began that evening.

Men. Women. Age range from 23 to 75. A former Miss America. The Crocs representative. A couple of wealthy businessmen. Two young men that operate Operation Iraqi Children. Some folks affiliated with American Airlines. Me and Zac.

One of the team had told us that he had a son in the Army and he was stationed at Balad. He was hoping to see him.

Out of the night the young captain appears and he and his dad embraced.

I teared up.

I was so excited for them. I know the feeling of anxiety that a dad lives with 24/7 worrying about his son. I was ecstatic to see them connect.

And yes, I wished it was my son. I wished it was me and Pete. Oh, how I wished it was me and Pete. But that day will come again. This was their turn.

One of the things us civilians noticed is that every person there carried their gun. In uniform, in workout clothes, everywhere they went they carried their gun with them.

We learned the reason. Prepared for attack at all times. It made us keenly aware that we were in a war zone.

Unable to sleep, we started looking for a place to make a phone call or an internet connection. We went to the USO but it was for active duty only.

We went to the MWR. We were met at the door by Ugandan armed security guards. We weren't allowed in because we didn't have proper authorization.

Why Ugandan security guards with so many US military with guns? Money. It is cheaper to pay the Ugandans than to staff security with US military personnel. Outsourcing security on a Forward Operating Base in Iraq. What's next?

Nearly sleepwalking, we made our way back to our trailers.

Outside our little camp, I noticed a slab of concrete with an Anaconda painted on it. That's when it hit me. This was Camp Anaconda. This was where Pete had spent so much time when he was first assigned to Taji.

We were walking where he walked. Breathing the same air. Eating at the tables. Now I know where he emailed us from. Where he called us to say how boring it was in Taji, and how I reminded him that boring was good.

We crawled into those beds and fell asleep for a couple of hours before the next adventure began.

Friday, April 17, 2009

To Iraq: Day One

We land at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany.

Our military launches all kinds of aircraft from there for all kinds of missions to support Iraq and Afghanistan and the rest of the world.

To see these huge planes on the flight line you can't help but be proud of the USA. We own the sky.

And to see this operation being handled by young men and women is phenomenal.

After a night in the Air Force Inn (which is a nice place for soldiers in transit and visitors to the base), we reboard the American plane and head for Kuwait City.

On the way, we dropped some passengers in Bahrain. Amazing skyline on this tiny island. Oil money is amazing. It builds skyscrapers that look like Dr. Seuss designs in the middle of sand.

We land in Kuwait City. We are met by sheiks in full dress. This flight made alot of noise in that part of the world. It had never happened before.

After our greeting and lots of photos, the crew began to unload 20 tons of care packages, school supplies 6500 pairs of Crocs shoes that were donated for Iraqi kids.

We began to mingle with the soldiers that work there. Lots of freight comes and goes into Iraq thru this spot. Army, Marine, Air Force, Navy. All were represented. All were glad to see us.

We received our body armor and helmets and a briefing on when and how to wear it. Meet your new 60 pound friend that you will be carrying everywhere you go.

We had heard in Germany about the five soldiers that were killed in Mosul the day before we arrived. Killed by a terrorist bomb. Those five sweet young bodies had arrived at this location in Kuwait City about an hour before we landed.

There is a team whose assignment it is to care for those bodies by unloading them and holding them until the plane that will take them to Dover arrives.

A Marine chaplain was with us. He had spoken with the team and they were shaken. Five at once is alot.

He asked if I would be willing to speak to them. I was only to happy to do it. I told them thank you for taking care of their brother soldiers. I told them thank you on behalf of all Gold Star families. We thank them for their service to our family members.

They were astonished. They had never met a Gold Star family member before. They receive little thanks, acknowledgement or support for their awful responsibility. All of our military is wounded everyday. They are a family and they hurt just like a family when one of their own falls.

After a few hours, our C17 arrived. What a machine. And what a machine the crew that operates the plane is.

They landed, dropped the rear door, and loaded tons of our supplies and about 50 of us on the plane so fast it made your head swim.

Here we are. Sitting along the walls of the plane. Full body armor and helmets. Ear plugs for protection from the powerful noise of the engines. Strapped in just like thousands of other soldiers that have been flown into Iraq.

Holy crap. This was for real. There was no turning back. The collective fear and puckering was so real on the faces of our fellow civilians. Imagine being 18 and knowing when you land, you aren't leaving for 15 months.

We are off like a rocket. The power of the plane was unbelievable. The crew looks like kids you've taught in Sunday school. Except they are wearing Air Force jump suits, pistols in shoulder holsters and talking amongst themselves on headsets as they guide this behemoth north into Iraq.

As we entered Iraqi airspace, the interior lights were switched to an eerie red to reduce visibility to the outside. More puckering.

In 40 minutes, we were approaching Joint Base Balad. Formerly known as Camp Anaconda. Now that we are transitioning control to the Iraqis, Joint Base Balad.

We land in the dark. Not a gentle descent, but a steep one. Apparently the locals outside the camp just love to lob grenades at the air strip. It happens almost everyday.

As soon as the plane stops, the back door is down. A swarm of young hardbodied Air Force crewmen pull conveyors up to the plane. At least 10 tons of supplies are unloaded before the 17 passengers that were designated to spend time in Balad can get off. Amazing.

As soon as we reach the tarmac, F16s roar off right behind us. Two by two. So fast you can't believe it. Disappear before your eyes into the night. And the C17 is gone for another mission.

The military folks in Iraq have a greeting for newbies. "Welcome to the suck." It doesn't do much to calm jittery nerves.

We are loaded quickly onto a bus and taken to our quarters. Air conditioned trailers. Behind walls of blast proof concrete. Before we can go to bed, we are shown where the blast bunker is out front in case the siren goes off to warn of incoming.

Exhausted and scared, we shuttle off to get some sleep. Or at least try.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

There is no place like home

Home. Safe.

Hard to believe 36 hours ago Zac and I were in a war zone.

We have it so good here. We so take it for granted.

Kiss a veteran and hug a soldier every chance you get.

Iraq is an incredibly harsh place. Vietnam, Korea, and the World Wars are impossible to fathom in terms of what soldiers lived thru.

"We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm", wrote George Orwell.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Welcome to the suck

Blogging on a computer terminal from one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces. One of about 14.

Skipped the tour today of several of his more lavish places. Don't care to see that crap. Zac and I went to see a Stryker unit instead.

Very surreal. Very odd. Very off key.

The United States has a huuuuuuuggge amount of money, infrastructure, equipment and people in this place. All covered with the infamous layer of red dust. Including this computer terminal. It is everywhere. And so are our people and our money.

There are soldiers dying here. Five in Mosul on Friday. Three in Balad yesterday where we were. One in Baghdad today. All by "IED". From what I can tell, they are Iranian made EFMP's, like the ones that got Pete.

Our military leaders on the ground are pleased with the progress made in stabilizing the country. They are very concerned about the deadline for pulling out. From the folks we have met, there is no confidence that the Iraqi government will be ready.

So much going on it is hard to comprehend. This will take weeks to make sense to me, if it ever does.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Holy crap, we're going in

75 folks on the plane.

Military veterans.

Entertainers, some who have been into war zones before, some for the first time.

American Airlines career employees.

We got briefed tonight.

So much information it makes your head hurt.

Do I shake with my left hand or right hand?

What do I do if someone offers me coffee?

What if a woman looks at me?

Imagine you are 18 years old. Leaving home for the first time. Have never been shot at before. Or shot at anyone.

And you are supposed to understand the rules of engagement and how to dismantle your gun in a sandstorm. And how to make a call home on a new Iraqi cellphone and some newfangled card. And how not to embarass an Iraqi and cause a firefight.

Oh, and all the ranks of the military, even though each branch uses different terminology. Even different divisions of the Army use different terminology. Cavalry and Infantry don't speak the same language.

Godspeed young men and women. You amaze me constantly. I could not do what you do.

The Patriot Guard Riders

They welcomed our group in Dallas.

They sent us off on our mission.

They greeted the plane in Kansas City.

We were escorted to the hotel, and back again to the airport today.

They stood the flag line for hours this morning in honor of this mission.

Working men and women. Vets of Vietnam, Desert Storm, OIF, and Korea. Some Blue Star and Gold Star families. All patriots. All having shared the sacrifice.

They were the first folks to call us after the D.O.D. informed us that Pete was dead. They are in all 50 states and exist to support the families of fallen soldiers.

The proudest moments of my life have been spent with these men and women. I have had the honor of joining them as a PGR in Texas and now in California. Selfless. Standing for those that have stood for us.

God bless the PGR.

You don't have to ride a Harley to join. All it takes is the willingness to stand for our country. You will meet the best of people and make new friends. That is a guarantee.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


So I'm getting ready to travel to Iraq for 8 days.

We unloaded 5066 pounds on American Airlines this morning of school suppies, soccer balls, care packages for soldiers, and love. Me and three other meatheads that I love.

Today I realize I don't have my reflux pills. Not sure what I will be eating in the next week, but it probably won't agree with my stomach.

I go to Target. They inform me there is an insurance issue because I live in California and I'm trying to get it filled in Texas. I tell the nice lady thanks for trying.

As I am headed out of the store, she comes and finds me and says the pharmacist has found a way to give me 5 pills if that will help. They had no idea what I was doing. Out of heaven, 5 pills showed up.

While I thought I was out of options and headed for a week of unpleasant sleep, I called a friend who is a pharmacist.

He just delivered me 5 more. At my house.

Bill has been a second father to Zac. His son John and Zac have been best friends since freshman year of high school. He hugged Zac and told him he loved him.

There are angels.

They come in all shapes and sizes.

Some are in red Target shirts.

Some come looking like your neighbors.

Monday, April 6, 2009

What an army can do

We are prepping for the trip to Iraq.

This morning, we unloaded a truckload of supplies that needed packing.

We then spent the day traveling around town picking up additional supplies from strangers who contacted us and asked if they could help.

At four this afternoon, the driveway was full. Snacks for soldiers, soccer balls and school supplies for Iraqi children, and hours worth of work. It all had to be boxed, labeled and loaded back on the truck.

I wanted to cry. Tired from the day's work and overwhelmed by the goodness of people.

Then an army of volunteers showed up. Neihgbors. Friends. Family. Total strangers who came out of the blue.

Under the careful supervision of Ali, the most organized woman in the world, each one was put to work. Age 15 to 75.

Within two hours, everything was packed, labeled and loaded. A miracle.

This army is tired but satisfied. We will have it all in Iraq by the end of the week thanks to American Airlines.

We will than turn it over to the real Army. Hope this little effort will refresh them as much as the 30 or so folks in the driveway refreshed us today.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

A call to war

The U.S. Constitution called for an all voluntary military.

At the time, that probably made practical and political sense. We were new Americans then. Had the new nation been threatened, there was no concern that men in droves would not show up to fight whoever might threaten the nation.

So, many people view consciption, or draft, or mandatory military service, to be unconstitutional.

The first U.S. draft occurred during the Civil War; thereafter, the only major conflict Washington fought without compulsory military service was the Spanish American War. In 1940 Congress approved the first peacetime draft, and conscription continued, with one brief break, until 1973. At that time President Richard Nixon inaugurated the All-Volunteer Force (AVF), in part to help dissipate social conflict over the Vietnam War.

Which means, for years America had mandatory military service. Nixon started the all voluntary force because the Vietnam War was so controversial at home.

When the all voluntary military idea was written into the Constitution it was assumed that those folks would fight a war that everyone would sign up for.

We have had two wars where there was not a clear mission that involved the citizens of America.

Vietnam. And, the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sadly, the American military has had a saying and a feeling in these wars that, "The military is at war. America is at the mall."

We cannot allow the Commander at Chief to put the military at war at his/her own will.

Our military is our sons and daughters.

They deserve to know if the country is behind them.

Today, they don't.

We have never had a clear mission in Iraq.

We don't have a clear mission in Afghanistan.

Our President, who is the Commander in Chief, needs to come to the American public and make the case.

Presidents Bush and Obama have not done that.

President Obama, our military needs the country to be totally supportive.

Either call us to war, or bring them home.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

18 year old first graders

Have you noticed you many parents are deciding to start their kid's schooling at a later age?

Nine year olds in second grade? 20 year old quarterbacks in high school?

Maybe they are on to something.

Maybe we have life all screwed up.

Maybe we should have our retirement years when we are young.

Let's make it a law that you can't start school until you are 18.

Then you would finish high school when you are 30. Think about the quality of high school sports!!! And it would be free!

We all know you don't know crap until you are at least 35, so that would be perfect for the freshly minted college grads.

Eighteen years to play. When you are at the peak of physical shape. Peak mental curiousity. Peak sexuality.

Go to work at 35 and work till you die. We are living longer and being much more productive in later years. Let's let the old folks start pulling their weight. And this way, you wouldn't have 28 year old asshole investment analysts running the business world.

Think of the changes. Daytime TV would be a mash of MTV, Family Guy and Top Model. No more Social Security issues. In fact, we could change it to Social Ingenuity and give every kid $500 a month from age 10 to 18. Talk about a stimulus package.

Kids would be available to do all kinds of errands so people can really focus on work.

And since people are working till they croak, no more worries about nursing homes. You just get the call one day that pops has fallen over on his desk. "Can you pick him up by 5 so we can reset the office for his replacement?"

Wish I had thought of this much earlier. I would love to redo first grade at 18.

When I did it at 6, Cheryl Smith hadn't yet turned into the bomb. At 18, wocka wocka.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A fool for April

Azaleas and dogwoods.

Pete's birthday.

Rabbits and chicks and egghunts.

Invitation only golf at Augusta.

Laura's birthday.

Final Four.

Our wedding anniversary.

Opening day for baseball.

Love is in the air.