One hour until we head out and start the long voyage home. Probably much less until my laptop battery dies however, I managed to remember everything on my checklist for 8 days but somehow still left my international electrical adapter at Camp Basra this morning. I have a much lighter load going back as we distributed a few hundred custom Marlins t-shirts along with a few thousand bracelets, pins, autograph cards and other items throughout the week. I am still heading back with an entire duffle bag full of gear that I traded out with various troops, commemorative coins, plaques and certificates that were given to us by several base commanders, and souvenir t-shirts and collectibles. I am looking forward to showing and displaying ALL of these items to everyone back home, as each one represents a story and a special moment in time on this trip.
As I reflect back on the last 8 days, I am thankful for so many things. I am thankful for each and every day that we were here, as they all were unique and special in their own way. I am thankful for each and every solider who we encountered and the few minutes that we were able to connect and spend with each. I am thankful for Fredi Gonzalez, Larry Beinfest, Chris Coghlan, John Baker, Carin, Christina, Steff and Natalie for making the trip – each of the them made the most of this opportunity and we will always have this experience to share with each other. I am thankful for the USO building at Camp Basra being open 24 hours a day so I could check my e-mail and update this blog each night – Beverly, Travis and Scott are the best!
Thank you to Colonel Ed Shock for organizing this trip on behalf of Armed Forces Entertainment and making this all possible, David Samson and Sean Flynn for allowing me to use one of the 10 available spots on this trip, Jimmy and Emma for everything that you set up for us on the busy daily itineraries and being a part of every experience, Brad and Dave for the constant security and making us feel safe, Markus, Clayton and Will for driving us everywhere and being so accommodating, Ruben for the MRAP rollover, the K-9 Unit at Camp Basra, our Blackhawk pilots, our C-130 pilots, Mercy and the Kuwait Little League, the Navy Seals who took us out to the range and let us use all of their ammo, Jamie with AFE for setting up our flights, Jennifer for helping out with all of the PR efforts prior to and during the trip, Bill Beck for coordinating travel plans on our end (wish you could have made it Boomer!), and to all of the troops that we met over the last 8 days who changed our lives for the better..thank you for spending your time with us this week, you make us proud to be Americans and you will be in my thoughts every day. We love you, we support you and we hope you come back soon!
I am have so many more things to be thankful for and so many others to mention, but the laptop battery is almost completely gone, so I’ll check in when we get back to the states tomorrow!
Stop one, At Camp Sa’ad we met 1st Lt. Sion Brannan a former teacher from San Diego that taught math in San Jose, California. Brannan worked for four years in a high school teaching math and when OIF started he figured he should do something about. After the school year he notified his principal, enlisted in the Army and completed all the necessary training to enter the Army as an Officer and a Ranger. It is people like him that are the true Patriots. I also met specialist Lyon (strongest guy in base) and I traded him my Marlins Strength and Conditioning shirt for his army boony with his specialist patch illegally sewn on. The guy was a serious monster and seemed to have spent few hours in their tent weight room. We met the division general that worked on base and had tea with him which was weird. From what we were we told you usually don’t make it out of an Iraqi General’s office if you are not in the ally Military. On a sad note, I met an infantrymen that lost his baseball career to an IED in Iraq during the first part of OIF. He told us that we were living his dream. This trip has been very rewarding, but it is really tough to hear stuff like that.
We jumped back into our Black Hawk and headed to the southern most point of Iraq, the Naval Base of Umm Qasr. This was definitely the most diverse base we had been to as far as the international make-up of the population. We met soldiers from the Royal Navy and Royal Marine Corps as well as IA and Americans. While we were delayed waiting for our helicopters, I got in a workout at their out door gym. I got to test my rope climbing skills and scaled the 25 feet pretty quickly. Luckily, they taught me how to safely descend. We met a Captain from Minnesota, and even a Navy Admiral! We learned about the different Naval Ranks and how they compared to the other branches of the military. From what I was told, the Navy is structured like Star Trek. I also shared my first “near-beer” and was forever linked with the men of Umm Qasr. We took a tour of the base and saw an old Iraqi spy boat, as well as the border of Iraq and Kuwait. Instead of taking our normal transport (two Black Hawk Helos) we had to convoy it to Bucca, our next stop. I will say that the ground convoy was definitely the scariest part of this trip. It is one thing to hover over the ground with machine gun armed guards and watch the desert zoom by below, and another to actually drive out into the desert in a slow moving MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) Truck. The MRAP has a diamond shape to it that deflects the force of any mine blast from below. instead of having a flat bottom that absorbs all of the explosion, the shape causes the vehicle to roll instead of blow up. We are sealed in with automatic doors, so if we were blown up from below and ambushed from the side, all parties enclosed in the vehicle would be okay. Having to get into that big “truck” for thirty minutes of tense, bumpy travel was scary. Thankfully, we arrived safely at forward operating base Bucca!
Named after a fire fighter that died in the twin towers in 9/11, FOB Bucca has the best DFAC we ate in. Because of the weather delays, we only had a small amount of time to meet the troops and sign. We met the Marine Colonel in command of Bucca and he told us about the history of the base and how since the Marines were so much better than every other branch, they only needed one stationed there to make sure everything ran smoothly! He issued us a challenge coin and certificate of appreciation. It is amazing how grateful all of our troops have been throughout this trip. It’s seems that our attendance is the most important thing about us. After a long day, we Black Hawked it back to Basra for a nights sleep in our hard shelled wet chu. (Hard shelled means it is IDF safe. Wet means it has a self-contained bathroom and shower. CHU stands for container housing unit.)
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I woke up to Cogs complaining about the temperature. Now don’t get me wrong, I like it cold, but in the 40’s is a bit cold for me so I could see his point. Our rooms are individual bunkers that protect us from any IEDs that may be lobbed over the wall and into the camp. Where we are staying looks like a bunch of shipping crates stacked on one and other. I’ve been told that Iraqi and Iranian culture fight much differently than we do, they would prefer to put a gun on a tripod and fire it from a remote control instead of dealing with people face to face. They are scared of the American Soldiers in any one on one, eye to eye situation. Due to this factor, the biggest problem the camp at Basra faces is this kind of faceless threat, Therefore most of the living quarters here are well protected from anything lobbed over the wall.
After breakfast, while we were walking over to the flight line to board a Blackhawk helicopter and fly to Camp Shaiba, we met a large group of Army Infantrymen about to head out on a patrol of the surrounding areas in Humveees and MRAVs. Humvees are the ones that everyone back home associates with the Army. We learned that all vehicles here have this wooden hot box that sits on a metal pole and extends out about ten feet in front of the vehicle. The box emits the same amount of heat as the engine. They have these on there to combat against little charges that are hidden throughout the desert that are set off by engine heat. By putting the box out in front of the vehicle, if one goes off, it will blow up the box, and not the Humvee or the troops. We took a bunch of hardcore looking photos, with guns up on top of the vehicles and talked with a bunch of the guys.
We then hitched a ride to the flight line and boarded a Blackhawk Helicopter for a trip up to Camp Shaiba. The helicopter ride was awesome, although we only flew in a straight line. I don’t think they wanted to show us any tactical maneuvers, so our trip was really cool, but quick.
Camp Shaiba is a FOB (forward operating base) where we train the IA (Iraqi Army). The main goal at Camp Shaiba is to teach the new Iraqi army how to stand on it’s own. American Soldiers teach members of the IA everything from logistics to explosives, hand to hand combat to basic communication skills. At Shaiba, we did another autograph/meet & greet session and met a bunch more people. I was amazed at the good spirits in this base and the effort and attention to detail shown while dealing with people that were recently sworn enemies of our country. We partook in a Medal Ceremony because the men and women were getting ready (thank God!!!) to return home. It was an inspiring moment helping pin medals on brave men and women being recognized by the Army for their commitment to our country. We also met our first Marine, and they are a different breed. The Marine Captain wanted to know where we were headed next because he was separated from his battalion (which was in Wessam, our next stop) and wanted his mail from them. He explained that when you are away from home you count down the days in between mail deliveries and they had had his stuff for two weeks! He gave us some cigars as a bribe.
Our next stop on the Blackhawk tour of southern Iraq was Wessam, the smallest FOB we had been too at this point. I think that this is the kind of place I was expecting to see more of on this trip. As we were walking in from the landing zone, we ran into General Aziz of the IA. According to the US Military members that were walking us into the base, he is one bad dude, not to be messed with. They seemed to show him a lot of respect, so we did too. The highlight of this stop was the first Fredi Gonzalez birthday celebration. After we were done eating, we got to watch a Marilyn Monroe like version of “Happy Birthday” by a midriff baring male soldier dressed in a Chase Utley jersey. It was definitely something special, and I’ll leave it at that. I talked for a long time with a soldier from Odessa, Texas. I spent a year an a half in the Permian basin myself (playing baseball for the Midland Rockhounds) and we discussed what we liked and disliked about that area. Our final stop was next, little did we know that the short chopper ride would take us to a remote and intense place.
Camp Minden sits right on the Iran/Iraq border and some of the soldiers there will stand directly face to face with their Iranian counterparts for hours at a time. I learned a lot more about the local culture and practices. It seems the more I learn, the less I understand. I know that sounds ignorant, but it is the truth. Camp Minden is run by a young Army Captain from upstate New York, he seemed wise beyond his years, and his professionalism was a direct result of his Army training. Minden is hands down, the smallest base we have seen. There are no women stationed there, so the Mermaids were in high demand. This was the most rewarding base to visit as the guys here were so grateful and surprised that we would show up to their tiny little FOB on the border. They operate small cameras that were on balloons in order to protect Iraq from the possibility of Iranian invasion. We then hopped back on the blackhawk and took it to our home base, Basra.
We has one final surprise when we got home, an Apache Helicopter. This is a 30 Million Dollar weapon that the army considers it’s most lethal piece of equipment. It takes a year of training to pilot one and it has all different kinds of crazy weapons systems. 30 MM rounds that can be fired as pressures bombs!
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Where do I begin, by far this has been the best experience of my life and the most memorable! Coming here has been a blessing and so life changing! We have been to so many bases meeting all the troops and learning about their everyday routine. So far I have been the cluts of this trip! Getting to the hotel I blew up the lights of my room, my camera got stepped on and completely broke. Also at one of the bases I was stuck inside a bathroom the handles on both sides broke but I’ve had a lot fun!
I’ve done so many adventurous things here that I will never forget, like riding in a helicopter and on a convoy! Overall I love it here and can not wait to get home and show everyone all the photos and videos.
Where do I start?! Hey Marlins fans, the group and I are just about done with our day here in Iraq, and I have to say I am very happy to be here! There are no words to explain the feelings we get as we see the smiles on the troops’ faces. It is truly an honor to be able to visit all the different bases and share this great experience with amazing people. Each and every base has been special and unique in its own way. Our days here have been filled with interesting stories, adventurous helicopter and truck rides, and of course, BIG HEARTS! :)
Today we got to ride in a Convoy truck! It was definently the real deal and something we will never forget! The first base we visited today was also an unforgettable experience because we got to speak with the Iraqi Commander of the Iraqi troops at Camp Sa’ad. He gave an amazing speech that touched our hearts and made us feel very welcome.
Without a doubt, today all of us realized what a life changing experience this trip has been. We love being here and feel so privelaged to get to learn so much in so little time. I really feel like I have made a difference for these soldiers, and got to reach out to them even if it was for five minutes in their day. Everything has been absolutely AMAZING.
We’re just about done with our tour of Iraq and i have been nothing but greatful and so thankful for being able to have such an amazing oppurtunity! I came here not really knowing what to expect, and the only thing i could imagine are the kind of things i see in movies. But once i got to speaking with the troops and getting to know people more on a personal level i have so much more respect for them and what they go through on a day to day basis. I’ve been able to do so many wonderful things that i probably won’t ever get to do again, like riding in “black hawks,” C130’s, and M-RAPs. I’m so happy i can make a difference in some of these soldiers’ lives, and i know for a fact i will be leaving with so much more than i could have ever imagined; words cannot even express it!
Question of the Day from Marlins.com for January 29th:
Name: Freddy Galvan
Question for Natalie P:
Well I am actually a soldier here in Iraq, we transported you all to Camp Bucca Iraq. I just wanted to ask u if u enjoyed the trip and pics u took with the guys that are originally from Bravo Co. 3/141 Infantry?
Yes! I had a lot of fun, and even though we were only there for a short time, I got to connect with most of the soliders. Thanks for the ride and I wish you all the best..you guys are GREAT!
Question of the Day from Marlins.com for January 28th:
Name: Julio Mendoza
Question for John Baker:
My question for you is, what book did you take with you on the trip if any? If you didn’t take a book, then what did you do on the flight over there!?!
Question of the Day from Marlins.com for January 27th:
Name: Zack Lovas
Question for Larry Beinfest:
How does it feel to be the first MLB club to visit stationed troops in the Middle East?
Question of the Day from Marlins.com for January 26th:
Name: Juan Roman
Question for Chris Coghlan:
As a former corporal of the Marines Corps have you ever thought when you were younger of being in the Marines like your brother and how is the food over in Iraq? What do you feel when you visit our troops? And how do you think they are doing? If you weren’t a baseball player would you consider on being in our troops?