Monday, February 06, 2006

DAY SEVEN Iraq Super Bowl Diary

DAY #7 - Super Bowl Sunday

Desert bliss: Thousands of miles from home we are up at 2:15 am eating mini pizzas and drinking non-alcoholic beer with 175 of our Army and Marine comrades at Speicher base’s large movie theater. At halftime, Bryan, Keith, Christian and I take questions; we think Seattle has blown their chance by missing two key scoring opportunities in the first half and going away from Shaun Alexander. And Tight end Stevens needs to be thrown to more (and not drop the ball!! - I also think Mike Holmgren’s wife being 7,000 miles away in Africa didn’t help). We get no sleep – but our mission is clear: to connect with as many troops as we can! A surprising number of Chiefs fans, by the way. The moment of truth came for two teams = and one was simply hungrier. Could this be an analogy for American and Iraq to ponder?

I wake up wanting to write a letter to the Iraq people challenging them to put together their own winning, unselfish team. The spirit of optimism is hard to miss. They all want to thank us – still. And the totally focused, committed five of us loving every minute of meeting these usually quiet heroes. The command center director at Speicher educated me on the real threat - about the gruesome recent discovery of horribly mutilated locals sympathetic to the Americans. The idea is to get psyched up to an attitude and level not common for Americans. Blackhawks to Camp Taji (can’t help thinking of the danger each time we rise straight up in the open, windy air, and at the same time how the adrenaline of the trip more than makes up for the noise and the limited but real danger) Big crowd – word must be getting out! - then Baghdad’s Camp Prosperity and Saddam’s wifes’ palace where I meet "Dollar Bill" Price who after years in charge of safety there is getting out soon. In the bottom of Saddams wife’s partially destroyed palace, we meet Jennifer Adams (Ca), Sara Harper (Fla), Anne Miles (IA), Danielle Bell – (Va,) and Show and Showanda Amerson (MS) next to the weightroom. . A racially diverse group effortlessly comfortable with each other (they work in intelligence and chemical analysis). A tour of Saddam’s command palace where we meet General Peter William Corelli, commander of land forces for Iraq. He and his colleague Colonel Turner see the 29 attacks today, including 15 IED’s.

On my radio show, Corelli talks about his beloved Mike Holmgren and their not so Super Day’s disappointing loss by the Seahawks (besides, he says, Shaun Alexander had 95 yards, so perhaps they didn’t go away from the game plan as much as we thought). He talks about 60% election turnouts signaling more passion for the process than America. The need for cultural and language training to expand communication between the Iraqi police & army and our own force so hope can take over, about how training requires drilling but also the confidence they are part of something larger than themselves, and safe enough to begin to network the community as things stabilize.

Corelli sees the need more clearly than ever for bringing hope to Iraqis by conveying an ease with their cultural charisma. We take the last of the Blackhawk rides (both morning and evening two sets of two helicopters mistakenly arrive simultaneously – we are a popular group apparently!) – and a sea of majors and colonels escorting us through these enormous palaces. We are so glad we did this. More players should! Bryan says he’d would not trade the memory of this for his Super Bowl Ring. While I wish I had a ring as well, but in the final analysis it’s the comradery that we share – the long exposure to pressure, to routine, and to the notion we are spending, as Teddy Roosevelt might say, ourselves in a worthy cause.

Tomorrow –last day in Iraq and thoughts from our team of brothers and sister on survival, competition, and diving into history this week.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

DAY SIX Iraq Super Bowl Diary

DAY #6

Abraham’s shadow looms large – the Oasis where he would repair on his long odysseys is right here in the middle of Al Asad air base, next to a crude stone cemetery for Iraqi victims of the Iran-Iraq war, not far from Saddam’s burned-out Russian Migs strewn in the desert randomly. We all joke about getting up in the middle of the night to make the long, gravelly walk from our barracks to the men’s latrine, unaccompanied by Dave and Chris, our erstwhile ‘body guards’ on the trip. 3 Marine Jet F-18 pilots join me at breakfast (its not called the "Mess" anymore!), Phil Williams, (Steelers fan), Mark Bartnem (Steelers) and Julian Jones (Seahawks – still 2-1) bet drinks on their next R&R on the game. They are 3 of 30 pilots that are constantly in the air 2-4 hours a day each, manning 12 planes at 30,000 feet at close to 1.3 mac (about 1000 miles an hour) working with their friends on the ground and even night vision to see the bad people trying to do bad things in the streets below. 160 Marines, mostly ages 19-22, work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to keep up the planes. We meet others who maintain radar, jamming systems, some ejection seats, some ordinance, some electrical. The pilots emphasize the improving trend in Iraq – that contrary to reports, helicopters are rarely attacked anymore, that more people voted in the last election than in the United States' last several elections.

Fog prevents us from going to Asharif base, so we instead head to the base at Remagen, and Brian Cox, Christian and Keith try their luck at 50 millimeter guns at the shooting range, while I try a sniper scope rifle. Bryan destroys a target (and almost our ears - the sharp concussion hits one’s spine thirty feet away) on his eighth shot. A feisty officer challenges Cox for leaving the Bears for Miami, bating the enormous and cantankerous Cox into a one-on-one improvised, gauntlet "Oklahoma (tackling) drill" with the 40 year old Shaun Alexander-look alike Command Sergeant Major (the boss), who pretends to juke Brian to his left so he runs him unwittingly into a blind side block from the same spunky officer from South Carolina, who succeeds in shocking Cox. I am proud to know my Army buddies are thinking strategically at all times!

We go on the Speicher base (pronounced "Spiker"), in northern Tikrit, and have our largest session, two hours, with soldiers who are again so thrilled we have come. And yet we are thinking that we are more honored to meet them. Near where we have dinner, adjacent to the meeting rooms, are framed pictures of 16 soldiers, all but one killed on patrol in Bayji nearby. I guess as I go to nap for thirty minutes before the 2:30 am Super Bowl Game, that I know that several hundred brothers and a few sisters in arms will be there too, ready to stay up all night just to have a large bite of home Super Bowl football cooking, just to melt away the thousands of miles and cultural distance that separates them from loved ones and very warm, familiar traditions.

DAY FIVE Iraq Super Bowl Diary

DAY # 5

One literally inhales history here –on the edge of the base, we visit the 4000 year old, 70 foot tall temple of Ziggurat at Ur, next to the site of the actual home of Abraham (mentioned in the Book of Genesis). How ironic that the man who embodies the dividing point of Muslim and Christian should have roots in this place. The Blackhawk helicopters, armed with gunners on each side - take us on a 3-hour scenic journey at 350 feet over enormous swamps and horizons of mud, to growing fertile lands to the north, then west back into endless hard clay dessert; black covered Muslim women and their children stare up from below, and shepherds attempt to control their goats, sheep, horses and even camels as they scatter from the pounding chop of the Blackhawks. Just as we all begin to fall asleep after the first refueling, we are shocked back to life by the churning, cold blooded buzz of automatic 249 Saw guns. Just our luck to get shot at while we are here, but we find out later our gunners were just practicing! Two refuelings in Baghdad and Al Asad air bases, up to enormous Hidithah dam, where we are greeted by Marines.

The Can-Do esprit de corps is very much there for the contingent that is isolated from women for 7 months at a time, guarding a large portion of the electricity for Iraq. A small Azerbadjian force is there as well. Almost daily IED (‘Improvised explosive device’) attacks on the streets nearby keep them vigilant. We fly back on Marine helicopter to Al Asad, not far from the Syrian border) and spend the twilight hours signing for and joking with mechanics in the darkness (the electricity here is a little hit and miss) who work on the helicopters and jets, and again with the many soldiers at the recreation facility. All of them – Marines and Army alike -shake our hands; all of them virtually to a man, look us in the eye and say how much it means to them that we have come. Steelers fans still by about 2-1..

DAY FOUR Iraq Super Bowl Diary

Day #4

Two flag-draped coffins are slowly saluted and transferred to a 747 cargo plane for a final flight home sober us as we wait for the humongous C-130. It takes literally 5 seconds in these metal beasts and we are soaring into the air. Red nets (to hold onto – there isn’t much!) line the empty inner fuselage, as we clumsily don our heavy flack-jackets and helmets.

It’s raining - a lot – as we land in Talil – our first stop in Iraq. 6000 soldiers (as well as a contingent from Rumania) supplying the combat troops, through a sea of mud, sand, even the occasional stuck-in-the-mud Humvee. But NFL former All Pros Christian Okoye, Bryan Cox, Keith Byers, and myself along with cheerleader Model/actress Bonnie Joe Laflin gladly sit and greet the many soldiers, men and women, some from Georgia, from North Carolina, from Montana, 40 alone from the Navajo reservation (some actual descendents of the famous Code talkers) in the middle of the superior workout facility that helps sustain morale in this bleak, swampy SE corner of Iraq. So far its 3 to 1 Steelers fans.

DAY THREE Iraq Super Bowl Diary

DAY #3

Its 1:15 am in Kuwait City. Were staying ín our first and last hotel for a while – the Suisse Inn, in Kuwait city, a wealthy and somewhat Americanized Arab town of several million on the southeast border of Iraq (the one that Saddam invaded back in 1990). We leave by C-130 transport early tomorrow for an undisclosed "FOB"- or "Forward Operating Base", which will be our plan for each of the days from now on, accompanied by Chief Warrant Officer Chris Pace, a highly skilled helicopter pilot by training (1000 flights – this is his second and ‘last’ tour).
Concussions like Lafa Tatupu and Shaun Alexander’s are the all-too regular price of some NFL soldiers. Pace says after being in charge of 20 helicopter pilots he has seen how Post traumatic distress disorder was very real for some. We’re all excited and a little nervous, the emotional bluntness punctuated regularly by former Miami and New England linebacker Bryan Cox, who says he’s not nervous (I am, a little); that none of his siblings have ever served – only his Step Dad - and now we have a chance to see for ourselves, as Keith Byers calls it "unfiltered," the true heroes who lay their lives on the line. "Whether you believe in the war or not, you got to support the troops". Someone remarks that the troops here can both be committed to doing their duty and also have their moments of doubt. Ever read ‘The Red Badge of Courage’?!

Our guide, Chris Pace, says that several weeks ago Carly Goodwin (an up and coming country singer) met a young Iraqi girl in an American hospital who had been shot in the legs by insurgents who threw her in front of an oncoming American military vehicle in hopes that the Americans would get out to help her and expose themselves to an ambush in the process. Needless to say, she left Iraq with a new sense of passion for the people suffering here.

Bonnie Jill Laflin, our all-universe cheerleader/model/actress (who are we kidding who is going to be the most popular one on this mission?!) is back for another trip after visiting the troops in Bosnia and Kosovo, and says that she gets so much more out of it than the troops (we’ll poll the troops about that one this weekend!). Her Grandfather served in WW II and her Uncle in Vietnam (he still hears bombs going off from time to time). Like my Dad, (former Chiefs teammate and 1990 NFL rushing champion) Christian Okoye’s father fought in World War II; the proud Nigerian soldier fought alongside the British. Keith says "its about not taking freedom for granted" – so even though his Mom is not excited about it (none of ours is! lol), and even after his Bosnia trip with the troops last year when he was told to stay on the pavement as the "soft spots" might be some of the seven million (?!) land mines still left over from the war, and even though Bryan’s kids cried for two days and his brothers wouldn’t take his calls when they heard he was going, they both are honored to be here. We all are.
Iraq – twice the size of Idaho, 25 million strong, with an average age of 19 (only 3% over 64) - waits. The Super Bowl is three days away – our starts in five hours!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

DAY TWO Iraq Super Bowl Diary

Traveling to Iraq
DAY #2

Christian Okoye, the Nigerian Nightmare, and I talk about how we are looking forward to meeting the soldiers and seeing how they deal with their day to day pressures. I wonder how close the character the great warriors in sport have to those who truly put it all on the line, anonymously, ten thousand miles from home, with no instant replay available. Do they visualize in vivid, rich detail ‘the game’ before it happens – is it at all similar to their own personal, life or death ‘Super Bowl in Iraq? I wonder if the soldiers in Iraq will say that witnessing a Jerome Bettis, Troy Palamalu or a Ben Rothlisberger, a Shaun Alexander, Matt Hasselback or a Lofa Tatupu come through in these big games comforts them as they get ready for their own confrontation with the unknown, and with the universal opponent, fear.
I was a kicker – with lots of time to think about how things might play out - about that moment of truth - how will I be in that moment? Can I see that game winning kick just like Adam Vanatieri - over and over again, can I see the leather so clearly that it all slows down, and I know I am meant to be there? Can I see myself reacting calmly if there is a time out, or an "ambush" to my own expectations of how things will play out in the game? Can I ‘turn it on’?
The soldiers we will be meeting must prepare for anything. The training we share is to be able to sense something about to happen – or at least to know how to react. Now that’s real courage: To see the dust, the noise, the insects, the streets, the civilians on the ‘battle field’, the children, to smell the wind – to come through when no script will ever match the game.

DAY ONE Iraq Super Bowl Diary

Published in USA Today
DAY #1 - Washington, DC Jan 31

Getting ready to fly out tomorrow from Dulles Airport, (minutes from Joe Gibbs and the Redskins practice facility) for Frankfurt, Germany, and from there 5-6 hours more to Kuwait and then into Iraq by C-130 Transport. People will ask why we are doing it - why are four former NFL All-Pro's, Christian Okoye, Bryan Cox, Keith Byars and myself = and an All-Pro Cheerleader, Bonnie Jill Laflin, = heading to Iraq, the most dangerous place on earth right now, some might say?
Its an easy answer for all of us, I think - because a couple hundred thousand people are laying their lives on the line, 10,000 miles from home, and we sure as heck can take one week of our lives to share with them and help them feel a little more appreciated, a little less forgotten, a little more loved.
The Super Bowl, the Mother of all football games, greets the world this week with its particular "Shock and Awe" PR Blitz, while our little team of five travels to Iraq with a simpler goal:
1) KEEP OUR HEADS DOWN (according to Hazel Lowery, my Mom) and
Sport is the silvery thread that effortlessly weaves us together - it gives continuity, normalcy, a sense of stability in the midst of chaos and change, and most of all, Sport gives hope. Hope that things will get better. Hope that there are better things to look forward to. That life goes on.
We will go to honor the spirit of ABC's Bob Woodruff, Doug Vogt and those others who didn't have to go, but who wouldn't have it any other way. We've been honored on the playing field many times. How little it seems to honor those who know not what rules the game is played by, except a code of sacrifice and duty. My father Sidney flew reconnissance in a tiny Piper Cub at 1500 feet over northern Germany near the end of World War II - this is the least I can do.
Our guest on Headgames Radio today, former Colts all-Pro Defensive end Joe Ehrmann, said that more than as the minister he is to a congregation of 4000, as a football coach at the Gilman School in Baltimore, he has the chance to teach the two most important lessons in life: first, to learn how to love and to be loved, and second, to surrender to a cause larger than oneself - Christian, Keith, Bryan, Bonnie Jill and I are going to Iraq to witness these two lessons taught every day by thousands of our own countrymen whose Super Bowl is won and lost each and every day, one hour, sometimes, one minute at a time.
During the next few days, we'll search for Steeler and Seahawk fans from the other side of the world, and share some of these Iraq true life All Pros'stories. Ya'll come along for the ride. (end)
Nick Lowery is a 7-time NFL All-Pro and Hall of Fame nominee. Currently, Lowery hosts "HeadGames", a national radio show which focuses on how to perform at your best when it matters most. The show airs daily @ 1 pm EST on Sirius Satellite Channel 122 and is available via podcast through .