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Traveling, the Middle East, and the Zac Brown Band, Day 6

Thursday, May 13, 2010
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I slept like a log. It rained all night. By 8 a.m. I got up and met a few people who wanted breakfast. I’d been thinking a piece of toast would suffice, but I end up with two plates of pretty much every breakfast food you can name. I picked at it. They serve up your food, and they have giant spoons and dip them twice. If you ask for scrambled eggs, you get a dozen eggs’ worth. No kidding. We can’t seem to get less on our plates. You tell the server behind the cafeteria line, “I’d like one scoop of eggs, please,” and they look at you straight in the eye while they put the second one on, like it was a challenge. They did this everywhere, as though there is basic training where they learn it. I only wanted one piece of bacon, but I found myself staring at ten pieces on my plate. Eventually you give up and take what they give you.

It’s Sunday, and four of us went to Chapel. I love a worship band that plays with firearms strapped to their thighs or hanging on a shoulder strap. The chaplain did a great sermon out of Luke, dissecting and making pertinent the story of the children coming to Jesus, and how that type of faith is relevant to our lives. There were 30 people at that service. He’s an Anglican priest, and this was his dressed-down, casual service. Then he does a more formal liturgical service for those who prefer that. It was his last day; he is going home like so many soldiers in Iraq. Many of them, however, will go to Afghanistan after a rest.

Like all the other places, we made friends at this camp. A detail is assigned to us at each camp or base, and by the time we leave we’ve been taken care of by them, so we sort of hate to leave them. As usual, they hung with us till we were on our plane.

Not only do we make friends here, but I’m making friends with those I’m traveling with. It’s now day six and the “bro” factor is riding high. I’ve coalesced with the group and have gotten to know everyone pretty well. I’m being viewed as the guy with the experience in achieving life’s dreams. People are asking me how I did it, and want to hear stories about Taylor Guitars. They still outrank me when it comes to group banter — I’ll never medal in that sport, and I marvel at their ability to fill time with fun conversation. Plus, they are killer musicians, photographers and videographers. It’s amazing for me to watch their creativity.

I’ve gotten to know Bernie, who is Zac’s manager. He’s got a good sense of things, works hard to keep the business fires burning, and is a great guy to converse with. I count him as a new friend with whom I’ll probably have some fruitful business discussions over the years to come.

We flew today to Joint Base Balad, or what they call JBB. This place is huge, like the size of LAX.

You might think of Iraq as a desert, and much of it is. But if you’re logical in your thinking, you’ll realize a place like Baghdad would never have been settled, and wouldn’t have Biblical history dating back to Abraham, if it wasn’t productive. It is a fertile crescent with lots of farming. JBB is an air base that was Saddam’s, which we took over within days of invading,  and he took it out of some of the most fertile ground there is. People are still mad about it here, and they don’t like anyone there, let alone us. Now, before you go all negative, please understand that most Iraqis like us here. Come and see for yourself is the only way I can say it. I know you can’t, but I’m just saying.

This base receives attacks and mortar fire from the insurgents and from people who are still mad that the airbase even exists there. I don’t know what they’re trying to accomplish with their mortar fire. They’re kind of out-manned and out-gunned. This is a powerful base.

We got a tour of the medical center. This is a full-blown hospital that can handle trauma from incoming wounded soldiers all the way to local Iraqis. They also treat the locals and have made quite a difference in saving many lives. They’re proud of their hospital, and they should be. We got the full tour and were amazed.

Tonight we played in Saddam’s soccer stadium.  I heard terrible things about what happened to players in that stadium who didn’t perform up to expectations. I won’t repeat them in writing because I have been unable to solidly verify the stories, but my research did point to a lot of truth in what I heard. The stadium was the size of a nice high school football field, the type they have in the Midwest where it’s very popular. Not overly large, but certainly large enough.

I think probably 3,000 people attended the concert in the stadium. It was a rockin’ show. There’s no alcohol of any kind at our bases in Iraq, because those are the rules of the Muslim culture. If you’re a band that even mentions having a beer in one of your songs, you’ve just made about 3,000 fans! And, well, Zac mentions beer a lot. Heck, I could probably sit up there and just say “beer” and have 3,000 fans. But Zac does it better, and they love him. These guys want to go home and have a beer on a Friday night with their buddies.

John Hopkins

The level of hospitality at JBB was humbling. The general who’s in charge came to greet us and introduce the band to the audience. This is the man who is in charge of every Air Force activity in all of Iraq. He did a fine job getting Zac and the band out on stage, and the audience was generous with their love. It was a great concert and the last one of the tour. A big signing at the end took an hour, and we realized things were ending for this trip.

There are some things that make you go, “huh?” and one of them is why we should be at the flight terminal three hours before our flight to Kuwait. I mean, the terminal is small, it’s military, there’s no processing of passengers, and our rooms are five minutes away. But for our 6 a.m. flight we had to arrive at 3 a.m., and we’re not arguing the point.

So, why even go to bed? We didn’t. Instead, we got a killer tour of the flight line. We had an in-depth look at an F-16 squadron. It’s amazing — both the equipment and the personnel. Over-the-top amazing. We also got to look up close at the Predator unmanned planes. Get this: They take them off locally, right at the airport, and 10 minutes later switch control to someone in Las Vegas. Probably an 11-year-old kid who’s good with an X-Box. They fly a four- to seven-hour mission and return to base, and just before landing they return control to someone at the actual base. The cameras on these can look at you like your mom. They see everything.

Morning came, the sun rose, and we took off for Kuwait. There, we checked into our hotel for a half day, checking out at 7:30 p.m. for an 11:40 flight back to Washington, D.C. That’s a 15-hour flight, my friends.

I slept that day away, simply crashing in my hotel room all day long, like six hours of straight-up REM sleep. With a little help, I slept most of the flight back to the U.S. as well.

We all said goodbye at Dulles International Airport.

My little GS made the entire trip. It was my constant companion, often in the case, often out of the case. Easy to take along, and nice to have when I wanted it. It was a good little experience, taking that guitar with me.

I made friends on this trip. And I’ve offered to keep those friendships alive and take some to the next level. I like all the people I went with. I started calling Zac “little brother” because he’s a lot like me in his outlook on life and work and contribution. He cares about other people and wants to make things happen, and he wants those things to be good things. He wants to put people to work, be a good influence. He’s got a good start, and I’m proud to be his friend.

Bernie and I had some great conversations, and I look forward to many more. What a great guy.

Peter lives up the street from me and has an interesting story. He’s a pro surfer, a great photographer, and you can’t help but like him and wish you were him a little. We’ll be in touch.

Coy and Clay, both guitar players in the band, are incredible musicians. They’re coming out to the factory so I can help fit them into guitars that help them express themselves. I have the stuff. I had good conversations with each of them. One night, we were eating dinner, all of us, in a separate room that our hosts had set aside for us. Clay stood up and asked me to tell what I thought was a story of a turning point for me and my company. I told the story — it’s not all that sexy as a story goes — but it’s the answer to that question. It was only when I was finished that I realized everyone was hanging on every word. I was able to inspire them all that night, and it felt good since I’d received my ample share of inspiration from them all.

Clay plays and sings. I think he can play anything. I’m blown away by his musical ability.

Coy and I shared a room one night, and he showed me a children’s book he’s writing. It’s very ambitious, yet simple at the same time. We had a great time together. I look forward to more. Coy is an unlikely guitar hero. He doesn’t look the part of a guitar god. But he plays the coolest stuff on his guitar. He reminds me of what Don Felder did for the Eagles.

Chris is their drummer. They call him “Sweets.” I don’t know why, actually, but he smiles all the time. If you hear any one of them talk to someone else, you hear a cordial, polite person from the South with manners. Chris is always smiling, and when I see him he just makes me feel better instantly. Heck, even the photographers were mentioning that they have a hard time getting a serious drummer photo of him because he won’t quit smiling. He plays like nobody’s business and was a very inspiring person to me on this trip.

James plays the violin and sings harmony, and adds flavor to every song.  They play a lot of fast-paced, real hillbilly/bluegrass/mountain music. From the beautiful ballads or the introduction to “Free” to “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” James has it under control. He’s quiet, at least around me, but I like him a lot.

John plays bass. He’s got a bass voice and a bass attitude. You might not think he’s all that interested in talking at first, but then you find out what a genuine guy he is. We went to church together that Sunday, and we had a bunch of good talks.

To this band, I give all my best wishes. It’s fun to see you guys reach your dreams and have success. Your songs are incredible and incredibly performed.

Jeremy, the USO tour leader, is quiet; he’s the guy who makes it all happen. He’s tolerant of everyone’s personalities, and he has a way of being by himself and yet being a part of the group at the same time. I’m impressed. He rides on planes, takes the good with the bad, schleps stuff all over the world in order to bring the USO’s programs to individuals. It was a pleasure to meet him.

 

Brian, the USO road manager, is back in Argentina now. What a great guy. He took care of business, getting all the nitty gritty done each day. He wasn’t looking for any glory and didn’t really get any, but the show was set up and happened each day because of him.

Eric Anderson is a killer photographer for the USO. Such a nice guy, and we had a lot of fun working together.

Jake, Eric and Mike: Zac’s crew. Each one of you guys does a fantastic job. You work tirelessly, whatever time of day it’s needed. You get it done, and I was honored to watch it all happen.

Darren Doane, you have a eye for film and creativity. Your outlook is really good, and you add a lot to the group. I think you could provide the spark for any assembly of people anywhere, anytime. Hearing your outlook on faith, what you believe and why, was one of the highlights of the whole trip for me.

Till we all meet again, and I’m sure we will.

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