Traveling, the Middle East, and the Zac Brown Band, Day 4

Thursday, May 13, 2010

We got up for breakfast at 8:00 and went around the water to tour the big palace. Saddam evidently believed that the law could not pass over water. Consequently, he liked to put his den of iniquity in the middle of water so that he and his sons and their posse could do whatever they pleased. This place was giant, and one of 86 palaces in the Baghdad area. He only visited it six times. Still, at each of the 86 palaces dinner was to be prepared and set on the table every night in case he showed up. The place is falling apart because the construction was pretty poor. Lots of marble, but it’s falling off already and exposing sort of a hollow interior.

They informed us that he hired immigrants from the Philippines to build it. The story goes that he told them he’d pay them once they were finished. Until then he’d feed and house them. When it was done he deported them all without pay. Not so nice! We had a good tour and learned a thing or two. It’s weird being there, seeing the places and hearing the stories. It’s just that most of it was pretty depressing.

When I read the online guitar forums and see what people think Taylor Guitars might be up to, I am always taken with how they know some of the story but not all of it. They guess at why we do things and what we will do next. They speculate back and forth about the condition of our company or our methods of quality control. I often wish they could spend a day at our factory and see for themselves what the real story is.

Our news here at home about the war in Iraq is like a big forum. You watch people talk about it, back and forth. If it were a forum, they’d say you were lurking. But you take in the opinions about the good and the bad of the war, the effectiveness, the righteousness, the length of stay, the reasons why we’re there, and the skill of our troops or their leadership. Mostly I hear it’s going poorly. I only hear about how how the Iraqis resent us being there.

In just a few days of actually being in Iraq I’ve been able to talk to soldiers and their leaders. I can tell you that if you fly into a camp on a military plane, wearing body armor, and are received by your countrymen and made safe in their presence, you’re going to start being more open-minded.

I’ll tell you about a conversation I had with just one person, and I had dozens like this. Now, understand, this is just a soldier I walked up to during the course of the day. It could have been anyone. I said, “So how long have you been here?” and he said, “Two months.”

“Is this your first time?”

“Oh, nooo, no, no, no,” he said, like a rock skipping across the lake. “This is my third tour. I was here in the beginning of all this, and then in the middle, and now I’m here again.”

“Well, what’s the difference?”

“It’s way better now,” he said. “I mean, way better. I’ve been shot, I’ve had IEDs explode at me, I’ve run into all kinds of stuff, and it’s not like that now. Sure, there’s an insurgency still, but people forget that there was that in Germany for 15 years after World War ll. I wish people would remember that. But it’s getting better. The other day we flew the city, and I looked down and saw a blow-up castle that kids play on — there was some kind of family party happening. I see people out living their lives. They’re shopping, driving, yelling at each other while stuck in traffic. The place is returning to a real place to live. It’s kind of nice to be back here now, this time, even though it’s boring, but it’s boring because things are getting better.

“We have been focused on the election, which just occurred, and they asked us to help guard the polls,” he continued. “Over 65 percent of the people turned out to vote. They have some issues still to solve as to who is appointed to run some things, and it could get dicey, but it’s better, and I’m here to see it myself after having been here from the beginning. I’m glad to see that because it helps me know that what we did is working.”

He elaborated further, and I thought to myself that he’s not the first person who has given me the same message. There was another guy, not quite so eloquent. He had a wad of tobacco in his cheek. I asked when he will go home. “Maybe May, maybe sooner, maybe later,” he replied. “Hell, I don’t give a hoot; at least I ain’t gettin’ shot at every day like before. Ain’t no one ever shoots at me no more. Ya know, you can get yourself used to being shot at every day. It’s good now. I’ll stay here long as they want me too, like this.”

Note to self: Avoid chewing tobacco.

I have talked to several soldiers who’ve been here three times over the past several years; each tour being a year or longer. These guys know what the deal is. They see the tremendous progress that has been made, and I was privy to their point of view. I mentioned that we don’t hear too much of that back home on the news, and they all said they realized that. What amazed me was that none of them had any bitterness about the fact that the news doesn’t share their story. They all came across as super professional in their attitudes.

The other thing is that the drawdown is actually happening. Lots of soldiers are going home. We’re drawing down from 90,000 troops to 50,000 by December 11.

We loaded up in our C-130 along with a truck-load of troops and flew to Mosul. This is way in the north, near Syria, and there’s definitely a war going on there, but again, much less than before. The Iraqi army is coming together and doing a great job. The insurgents are focusing on making it deadly for Iraqis to join the Iraqi army, the police, or the security force. The U.S. army and air force are focusing on making it safe to do so. Lots of people want to join, and they are. We’re winning this. The insurgents like to toss mortars on our camps too, but it’s getting fewer and farther between, and only occasionally do they detonate.

It was from here that Zac and the band got on a Blackhawk helicopter and flew to an FOB (forward operating base) for the first time on the trip. There’s limited seating, so some of us couldn’t go, including me, but the story goes something like this:

Out on the front line is a little FOB with less than a hundred soldiers. They carve out a camp in the middle of nowhere, with no running water, and set up operations where they stay for at least 90 days. It’s lonely and the work is constant. They receive fire from the enemy, and they work to upset the enemy’s position and to protect the Iraqi citizens. As you can imagine, it was a real treat to have Zac and the boys come sing. Even these guys know who he is, remote as they are. It’s a smaller, acoustic show, fast in, fast out. The guys at this base were still in a funk when Zac arrived because they’d just lost one of their own the week before from an IED bomb. They needed cheering up, and the visit really helped.

It makes one feel good to go minister in that way. Zac and the guys came back feeling like they’d made a difference.

They arrived back at the base, we ate a little dinner, and then they put on an incredible show. The troops are primed for something fun like this. Zac’s got the right stuff to relate to them.  They just want to have some fun and forget where they are for a moment. In every place we’ve gone, the leadership of the camp and the USO leadership tell us that Zac has given more to these men and women than anyone who has ever come. I don’t doubt it. He’s giving the love, and giving a lot of himself, and so is everyone in our group. It’s noticed and appreciated.

Still, we try to convey that we are getting more from it than we’re giving. Which is the tattoo on Zac’s arm. It simply says, “You get what you give.”

Tomorrow I get a turn to fly on a Blackhawk to an FOB and am excited about it.