Great story found on Yahoo Sports: A war story
Until this past month, I thought I had seen or done just about everything. Then I went on a 10-day military tour through Afghanistan and Qatar, and all that changed.
For me, the trip was everything. It was difficult, enjoyable, challenging, insightful and somber.
The trip began Feb. 26 with an 11 hour, 37 minute flight to Doha, Qatar. Joining me were fellow NASCAR drivers Randy Lajoie and Jeff Fuller, as well as drag racer Hillary Will. The four of us were part of a goodwill mission organized by Pro Sports MVP.
Qatar is a tiny nation bordering Saudi Arabia. To me, it resembled Arizona and Nevada. But with the Persian Gulf only two miles away, it had the salty-air smell of Daytona Beach.
It was here where I received my first exposure to a U.S military base – Camp As Sayliyah. Nicknamed “Club Med” for its “plush” accommodations, it doubles as an R&R camp for the troops.
For them, a typical break lasts four days. They try to relax by playing pool, bowling or eating at one of the many restaurants. Morale here is good.
Before I go any further, I should point out that prior to the trip, the only perspective I had regarding the war was what I’d seen on television and what I’d read. The media coverage of Afghanistan did little to prepare me for the trip. In fact, seeing it with my own eyes gave me a new appreciation for the mission of our troops.
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It turned out the pilots are NASCAR fans. One of them was even sporting a Dale Earnhardt Jr. hat, and they had christened their airplane “Shake & Bake” after the characters in the movie “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.”
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The next morning we had breakfast with two sergeants – Batista and Queen. It was an inspiring conversation. The two men gave their perspectives on why it is important for them to be supported in this war. Both displayed terrific attitudes and carried leadership qualities into each and every hour of every day.
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I understood the reason for this contrast better as I received an education on their role in the Afghanistan war. The Special Forces are an elite unit of the Army with specific tasks, often covert and classified. Based on the videos we watched, they are exposed to some very intense action requiring advanced military skills and training.
Day 6 took us to F.O.B. Salerno.
Although this base appeared no different than the others we had seen, it was at Salerno that the trip changed for all of us.
Each camp had brought us closer to the Pakistani border, and Salerno is the last outpost. The day before our arrival, Afghanistan posed little threat to us. But this is a hot spot, a known refuge for the Taliban and al-Qaida.
That afternoon, while touring the helicopter maintenance hangar, we received a Level Two Alert, which we quickly learned meant the donning of flak jackets and helmets and the seeking the shelter of a bunker.
Medivacs filled the sky, repeatedly shuttling in casualties. The nearly empty hospital we visited two hours earlier soon became filled with activity. It was an intense time and the only moment on the trip when I realized where I truly was: in a war zone.
I asked a sergeant stationed at the camp, who had informed us they had recently received enemy fire, where this was on the scale. He replied that it was as intense as he had ever seen.
A few hours later, the alert was lifted and we walked from our barracks with Sgt. Bradley Schmidt to a simulated training center on the other side of the base. We were under full blackout conditions, where no light of any kind was being used. It was an uncomfortable part of the trip, but I thought at the time it would be selfish of me to have any complaints, considering I’d only be in the camp for 24 hours while the soldiers would be here for months.
Our return to Bagram was a somber one as we toured the hospital there, visiting with injured soldiers, some a result of the previous night’s action. It wasn’t the first hospital we visited on our trip, but it was the first time I witnessed the results of the war firsthand.
I thought how difficult it must be for these young men and women to not only endure serious injuries, but to not have family with them during such difficult times. Several doctors we met had left behind successful practices, not for money or prestige, but in order to serve their country and feel that they had made a difference.
Later that night we were to have a gathering to sign autographs and answer questions. But before we did, we joined the entire camp for a fallen comrade ceremony recognizing two soldiers who had died. The street was lined with enlisted men and women. As the vehicles passed with the bodies inside, each soldier saluted the fallen heroes. It was like nothing else we had experienced on the trip and only further cemented the realty of where we were and the risks associated with being there.
The next morning we traveled back to Qatar and then back home to the United States. I had plenty of time on the flight home to reflect on how this incredible trip had impacted me. I brought back a new perspective of our military, the dedication of our soldiers serving in Afghanistan and what we, as Americans, can do to support them.
I saw only a small portion of it, but the might of the United States armed forces is amazing. There is an astounding number of aircraft and armored vehicles. The amount of shipping and distribution of necessary food and supplies is beyond imagination. I had never before considered what a comprehensive operation this war is and how many people are involved.
The attitude and moral of those serving in Afghanistan was remarkably higher than I expected. Most soldiers I met made it clear how much they missed their home and their families. They’ve sacrificed time from their families, personal comfort and have exposed themselves to risk and hardship, all in an effort to preserve what we, so often, take for granted: freedom and safety.
I must admit, I supported the invasion of Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks on our country. For months, patriotism was a visible ideal in America. I hung the American flag, as did nearly all of my neighbors in the weeks following the cowardly actions of the terrorists. Since then, the flags have slowly disappeared, including my own, and the vocal support here at home has diminished.
Today, I have a new appreciation for our soldiers’ efforts. I appreciate more than ever before what the men and women serving in Afghanistan over the past five years have done for all of us. I witnessed firsthand their commitment to “Operation Enduring Freedom,” and I respect that.
Never again will I take them for granted, and from now on you will always see the American flag waving proudly outside the Craven home.