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.


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