Traveling, the Middle East, and the Zac Brown Band, Day 5

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Hurry up and wait is a way of life out here with the military. To say it nicer, one might say, “Maintain readiness.” And we agree that we can’t keep planes waiting because one of us isn’t ready. I had a friend once who said, “If you can’t get there on time, get there early.” So, we get ready hours early. It’s all good. Well, it sucks, really, but we have a good attitude.

Military pilots get it on! They go UP, they go where they need to go, and then they come DOWN. In some places they need to stay high, and also zig-zag to stay safe. When they turn, they TURN. It’s a big plane and they fly it like a sports car. I enjoy it and try to keep my lunch down.

We left Mosul and arrived in Kirkuk, where the wind was blowing slightly. As we got off the plane, we were introduced to those assigned to care for us and then ushered into a tent, where there was food, again. Imagine that. By now I’d pretty much lapped myself in the food department; I was probably a whole day ahead of where I should be. But the yogurt looked good anyway. Hadn’t had any of that yet. We were in for a good day, it appeared.

I got choked up a few times today, and I wasn’t the only one. We got to our camp early enough in the afternoon and again were greeted like heroes. We were also fed like we might be starving or something. They tell you to eat because you don’t know when you’re going to eat again. That’s a lie, as it turns out; you’re eating again in a couple hours, without fail.

I was thinking about what it means to be countrymen. Americans have carved out a place in Iraq where we arrive and feel at home. These are our people on these bases, we love each other, and we have everything in common, even though at home we might not seem to. But put us all on foreign soil and it’s different. We get in a car, and Jake starts chatting up the guys driving us. He’s awfully friendly and soon finds out they’re from Alabama. “Roll-TIDE!” he says, and they’re like family in an instant. They all hate the same things and love the same things, at least for now, and that’s what matters right now.

I’ve seen it the other way around, when I’m the stranger. I’ve been in Arab countries, camping, driving and navigating through rough sand and weather, with an Arab guide riding along. I’ve seen him howdy up to his army’s soldiers, get hugged and taken in like a long lost uncle, while we wait in the vehicles. Then he comes out and announces that the army is going to let us stay in a safe place that night because he is one of theirs. We’re step-children on that night, but not here, today.

So, I’ve seen it both ways. I wonder if there will ever come a day when it happens for everyone everywhere. I doubt it, but fun to contemplate. And it’s fun to be on the side of the people who are there when you arrive, as it was for us on this trip.

I’ll get to the choked-up part, but first, I’ll tell you about our sand storm. I’ve been in them plenty of times, being a fan of camping in the desert. I’ve driven my Land Cruiser in the States and also in the Sahara when the wind comes. It comes now and without warning. This time was different because I’d never been in a Blackhawk helicopter when it happened. We were a few miles out from a little camp where we were going to play an acoustic set when a wall of sand 2,000 feet high formed right in front of us and was heading our way. Thunderstorms had already formed all around, and the approaching brown wall forced us to abort and fly back to base.

But before we got on that Blackhawk, we had some time in camp while they made a preliminary helicopter ride out to a little camp to deliver instruments, crew and a small PA. While we were waiting our turn to fly, an army sergeant who’d befriended me due to being a Taylor fan announced that we’d be hearing some explosions but not to worry, that they were doing EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) training, setting off some charges. Then he asked me if I wanted to pull the trigger. Um, yeah! I love blowing stuff up, and soon Zac and I were driving toward the location.

Upon arrival, we joined the EOD team, (ala “Hurt Locker”) which was training their Iraqi counterparts. This was my first close-up glimpse of the Iraqi police and army that is being trained. You might have a vision at home about these guys, but I saw super-professional, serious, clean-cut young men in uniform, learning to do a very important job. This war is becoming an IED war. It’s one way the enemy can win, and they do it as often as they can.

Zac and I learned how they wire an explosive. Just a simple one, in its simplest form, but it was interesting. Okay, I confess they let us wire them ourselves and blow them off. Um, that was fun. It’s a guy thing.

While we were there, they told us that they had a memorial service scheduled for 16 of their fallen EOD brethren. It was to be at 5 p.m. and they asked Zac if he’d come sing the National Anthem for the service. Zac agreed to do it if we got back from the FOB hop in time.

We did make it back in time, since it was aborted due to weather. The sand blew in, it was a big gale, and the rain followed. By now they were talking about having us do an acoustic set in the dining hall, albeit a large hall. We encouraged them to go for the real concert, outside, if the rain and wind subsided at all. They did, enough to make it happen. There is a center bazaar with a covered stage. Soon the convoy arrived with our gear, and a tent cover was set up for the mixing gear out front.

Five o’clock came, and we went down to the memorial. This is their own memorial, it’s not base-wide, just the EOD folks, and you begin to get the idea that each little unit takes care of its own needs. Seated were about 20 men, six of them Iraqi, and one young lady. A podium, a mic, and a poster of 16 fallen EOD specialists was the setup outside, facing a steel work building bay. Zac and his guys went up and sang a powerful and moving four-part-harmony arrangement of the National Anthem. It rained, the wind howled, and I cried along with a bunch of soldiers and folks from our group. It got really personal at that moment.

The service was short, heartfelt, and bookended in prayer, and it left soldiers with tears in their eyes, some of them unable to say much as they thanked us for coming. They didn’t have to verbalize a lot for us to know it meant something for us to be there with their team that day. During the service, they talked about a soldier’s mission, purpose, and pride. They also mentioned how, in this line of work, a soldier puts his or her life at mortal risk to serve and save people they do not know. In normal combat, a soldier is often fighting for the one to the left and to the right of himself. Not with IEDs. They realize each time that they might not make it, and these 16 did not. They were not all from this base, but from as far off as Afghanistan, plus one serving in the U.K. But the brotherhood was evident and touching.

Eventually our concert was ready to start, and at this base they quieted down for the color guard to present the flag. People cleared back from the stage as the color guard came through, and what impressed me was the respect paid to the Iraqi flag. Their national anthem played. It’s quite beautiful. Then our flag, our anthem. Again I was choked up. It all seems to mean so much. Afterward, the space between the people and the stage filled in like someone opened a floodgate. People’s chests were touching the stage, their cameras out and smiles on. Zac and the band walked out to another excited crowd. It was good. It was raining lightly, but nobody seemed to care in the least.

Zac is good at talking, telling stories, and connecting with the crowd. He tells them he’d rather be here than at home for the ACM Awards, where he’s nominated in three categories. He means it, and they receive it. Near the end of the show they sing “America” and then transition to “Chicken Fried,” and it’s touching. Touching to watch the audience, touching to hear the sentiment of the entire song, and touching to see each individual escape and be taken away, if you please, to a very happy place for that night. As soon as the concert was over it started to rain hard. It held off just long enough.

After 300 autographs, some of us went to have a bite to eat. They have ice cream in those mess halls. And everything else you might want. I wanted ice cream.