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?
Question of the Day from Marlins.com for January 25th:
Name: Timberly Price
Question for John Baker:
What do you feel when you visit our troops? And how do you think their doing? If you weren’t a baseball player would you consider on being in our troops?
When I visit our troops, the main thing I feel is gratitude. The men and women over here make a big sacrifice so that our lives in the US are safe. I would hope that I could have the courage to, if I didn’t play baseball, join a branch of our military and help protect our Country.
It was quite a relief to feel like we could sleep in a bit as we weren’t scheduled to check out of the hotel until 12:30. I woke up and got a double espresso at the executive lounge in the hotel, then went to the gym (I picked up a sugar free red bull along the way) with Chris Coghlan. Caffeine is a helluva drug. As messed up as my hours are, I have become dependent on energy drinks and double espressos to get me through the day. The problem with all the caffeine is that it becomes harder to sleep, my night sucks, and I need MORE caffeine the next day.
I actually felt great at the gym, I got in a 45 minute total body workout and felt ready to attack the day afterward. Once we checked out of the hotel, we got in the Suburbans and drove up to “The Rock” – Ali Al Salem.
The Rock is made up of basically two bases, one is an Air Force Base that ships troops up to Iraq and Afghanistan, the second is the Army Base which is also known as the LSA. The LSA at Ali Al Salem processes the soldiers that are either returning home, or entering the theater in either Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
The Air Force base was an absolute blast, because of Fredi’s late arrival, we had to stay longer in the Country of Kuwait, so visiting this base was not on the original itinerary. We played a little shuffle board (Coghlan won..weird, I know…just like hitting) and then we met the Air Force Fireman. The guys were really cool. I spoke with one of the men from Oklahoma City for a while and told him my story about his city. It was around midnight in Oklahoma City in July of 2008 when I got called up by the Marlins to the big leagues. We shared more stories and then sat down to sign autographs and meet other service members. The Air Force is really doing something right, Col. Shock, our AFE (Armed Forces Entertainment) rep is really fun to be around, and all the members of the Air Force Fire Crew were positive, upbeat, and in excellent spirits. They seemed to make the best out of their situation and had smiles on their faces the entire time. After we signed and took some awesome photos, we went up to their Fire Station and played some catch with one member of the crew. The the other twenty-five guys helped the mermaids put on the flame-repellant fire suits, I wonder where their minds were!! I brought my Rawling’s catcher’s glove that I used last season, and the glove never made it off the base. I gave it to my friend from Oklahoma City, and he in turn gave us a patch and an Air Force hat to put it on. I hope he likes the glove, because I think that I got the better end of that deal. My hat and patch are something that will forever remind me of the people that I met today.
Our next stop was the Army Base on Ali Al Salem, and it definitely had a different vibe. This is where everyone processes that is either coming to the Middle East to entire a hostile environment, or leaving a place where they spent months fighting a faceless enemy. One solder told us a devestating story. He was an Army Infantry Men who had seen his fair share of battle on the front lines of Afghanistan. When he came to the table to get his autographed baseball card, something in the way he looked at us let us know that he had seen some terrible things firsthand. Coghlan and I both sensed this immediately and we are two pretty clueless guys. He told us that he was just processing back into Afghanistan from a fifteen day leave. He had spent his off time at home with his wife and small daughter.
—”I was in 7-11, with my wife and little kid,” he said. “And a lady approached me and asked me what I did for a living. I told her that I was an Army infantryman and that I had just returned from Afghanistan. She obviously didn’t support me or our fighting over here because the only thing she said to me was, ‘I hope that YOU get killed over there’. What do I even say to that?” —
Cogs and I both looked at him with a blank stare, and then in our own ways intimated that WE appreciate him and everything he does for us and the United States of America. I think sometimes that people back home get so caught up in the politics that they forget about the actual people. Despite what you think about our nation’s motives for being in these conflicts, remember that real people actually put their life on the line so that you can rest your head each night in safety.
I am currently typing these words in a safe bunker in Basra, Iraq. I had never realized how many things I have taken for granted until I came here and met the people willing to die for my freedom.
After the LSA, we got back into the Suburbans and drove to the Military side of Kuwait International Airport. This is when stuff really got real. Part of our processing required that we try on our helmets and bullet proof vests. The moment we put those two pieces of equipment on, the mood changed. This lasted for a few minutes, until Coghlan informed us that he thought it would be cool to get shot by a rubber bullet while wearing his body armor…Larry Beinfest didn’t think that joke was very funny. After the mood had lightened, we boarded a C-130 and flew to Basra, Iraq. This part of out trip was also amazing (I think that thought and feeling has been a recurring theme on these entries). Cogs and I sat in the Cockpit the entire flight and were on the headphones talking with the crew members. The C-130 is an older Vietnam War era plane, it has two large propellers under each wing and seems pretty maneuverable. While we were flying, we got to use night vision goggles to look out of the planes windshield at Iraq, which was straight ahead, and Iran which was directly to our three o’clock (that means to our right in cool person speak). We also got to experience a tactical approach into Basra which was totally crazy and gave me a feeling like one I’ve never experienced. We the force of twice our body weight pressing us into our seat during this maneuver, and Christina the Mermaid almost puked. That is pretty funny.
Once in Iraq, we drove to our little bunkered in rooms and crashed…hard.
Blackhawk takes off at 8:45 AM tomorrow.