“Dog Tag Comedy Tour”
Afghanistan March 18th – April 1st, 2008
Afghanistan March 18th – April 1st ’08Rob Brackenridge and Richard Villa
At 5pm on Tuesday, March 18th I was sitting in the LAX Airport waiting to board a United Airlines flight to Frankfurt, Germany, when my phone rang. It was Mike Burton, the tour coordinator, and he informed me that the other comedian, Richard Villa, had forgotten his passport and was trying to zoom home and get it and come back within an hour. During rush hour in Los Angeles. Yeah right, THAT’S gonna happen. This was the exact way my last Afghanistan tour started, only that time the other comedian made it with five minutes to spare. Richard was not so lucky. As I settled into my seat getting ready for the eleven-hour flight my phone rang again. “How much time can you do?” Mike asked. Apparently there was a chance I would have to do this tour on my own. I’ve filled in for other comics before so I knew I had the time, so I wasn’t too worried – I can always pull out what I call my “Wedding Set” – something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue… a lot of the blue stuff. It just wouldn’t be as fun.
As it turned out, Richard caught a flight the next day and after sampling the wienerschnitzle and beer, we caught a c-something from Ramstein Airbase nonstop to Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan which took seven hours. Two soldiers we came to know as AppleJacks and Reggie met us at 1am. They were both short in stature but made up for it in personality. They were constantly cutting each other down for being short. AppleJacks proudly boasted being one quarter inch taller. After sleeping four hours in the B hut (a plywood shack where all the entertainers stay) we were loaded onto a huge heavily armored bus called a “Rhino”. Everyone had full armor on and was armed to the teeth. We were given the “comics armor” which consisted of an old vest and a helmet with no chinstrap. “Just go John Wayne style,” they told me.
The 45 min. ride seemed a lot longer as we bounced along the semi-paved 2-lane road from Bagram to Kabul. We passed colorful Jingle trucks and flocks of goats and camels, catching glimpses of the weathered faces of the native people, some waving, some angry, and all the while the same thought kept racing through my mind: “What the hell am I doing here?”. At one point we hit a big bump and a soldier’s sidearm flew out of its holster and landed on the floor pointing at me. I’m not gonna lie… a little pee came out. We made it to Camp Eggers in Kabul, and were met by Capt. Mack and shown to our quarters. We hit the jackpot and got a VIP room with TV and internet, very close to the bathroom.
We flipped a coin and Richard was the headliner for the first show, I would headline the next, and so on. The show was at the clam shell and it was packed. After the show the General gave us a commemorative coin and we chatted with some of the soldiers. One guy told us about going out on missions through the city and dealing with suicide bombers. Just recently he had a literal run-in with one who was determined to blow up his convoy. The soldier remembered making eye contact with the crazed bomber as he passed, and he turned his vehicle into him pushing him over and causing him to crash through the windshield before he could detonate the bomb. A buddy of the bomber who was video taping the incident, pushed the mangled body off the hood and drove the car bomb away. We played Texas Hold’em with these guys until 2am.
The next day we had an armed escort across the street to the Camp Q . We had to put on our vests and helmets (Sgt. Dooley got a chin strap for me) and walked the 100 or so yards through a concrete corridor passing through two checkpoints. It was Easter and coincidently the birthday of both Richard and me. The camp went all out with egg tossing, and Easter egg hunts and baskets of chocolate rabbits, which so aptly remind us of the suffering and death of our savior. The Afghan Nationals who worked at the Camp just stared and shook their heads as the tossed eggs exploded. Maybe their mothers told them not to play with their food. During the day we were taken on a tour in a normal SUV of some of the reconstruction projects that were going on in Kabul. It was danger level 4 out of 7 and Trina, our guide and work overseer, did the driving with our bodyguard in the front passenger seat. People drive with reckless abandon in the city, with no dividing lines or traffic signs it was survival of the gutsiest. An occasional lone traffic cop stood in some intersections in a futile effort at order. It made LA rush hour look civilized. Trina said her upbringing in Brooklyn helped a lot, and it must have been because she barreled and jostled with the best of ‘em. She showed us the schools and other public buildings going up, and it was nice to see first hand some of the good that we are doing in the country. We did a show that night at the gym to a very receptive and appreciative crowd before being escorted back across the street.
The next day we were met by four Navy personnel in a two Humvee convoys to take us to camp Blackhorse, a twenty-minute drive from Eggers. We armored up and halfway there they asked us if we’d like to drive. Of course we said yes, and they took us to an isolated gravel road and we got in and took off. The Hummers were heavy lumbering vehicles that absorbed the deepest potholes with ease. We went to a clearing that they use for target practice and we shot a few clips at some insurgent water bottles with their rifles and visited some friendly national guys who lived in shacks at the top of the hill. When we got to Camp Blackhorse we quickly realized why we took our time getting there. There was nothing to do. It was one of those isolated camps where more than one soldier would get so bored that they “were almost gonna read a book!”.
We did a show at the mess hall and that was the best crowd of the tour. It is nice to be appreciated. The next day we used the same convoy to go to camp Kia, about 20 min. drive. Kia was an international camp and the rules were not as strict as they are in the American camps. We ate at a Thai restaurant and did the show in a very informal outdoor setting with no sound system, or a Capella, as Richard called it. The crowd really enjoyed the show and afterward we went to a plywood bar with a pool table and actual beer and wine. The only service people not allowed to imbibe were the American and the Dutch. We had a few beers and some stogies and had a few laughs with the Turks and Swedish soldiers until the mandatory 10pm closing.
The next day was Wednesday March, 26th marking one week since we left LA. We had an 8pm show at Camp Phoenix, which was about 10 Kilometers away, but a very dangerous 10 K. They decided it would be safest to fly from base to base, so we went to the airfield and found ourselves looking at a ’93 Russian MI-17 helicopter. This was the same copter that some the soldiers had been making fun of the night before. Apparently a few of these airships were left behind when the Russians were ousted and the Afghans had kept them running somehow. A lot of them were held together with rope and duct tape and they shook so violently during flight that on a mission you would lose a few pounds of unwanted fat. The one we got on was owned and maintained by Americans who have slightly higher standards and was perfectly safe. Really, Mom, it was. The briefing took 15 minutes and we were instructed not to photograph the crew because, "they didn’t exist". The flight itself took all of 5 minutes and was fun and uneventful.
We were met by Sgt. McLoud who showed us to our rooms (yes separate rooms for the first time) and when we saw the bare mattress and no pillows we asked if we could get some linens. “I’ll see what I can do” he said. The next day after prodding we got a sheet and a thin blanket and a sleeping bag. The show was not advertised at all and it was in a huge meeting room. It was sparsely attended and our voices bounced off the cavernous walls and off into space. The few who came seemed to enjoy it but it was hard to tell.
We spent two nights at camp Phoenix, and were told to be ready to fly out at 4am Friday morning. It came and went and at 7am an excited Sgt. McLoud banged on our doors telling us to hustle up and catch a convoy or we will be stuck there another day. Apparently we missed our flight to Bagram and a convoy was just about to leave. No time for breakfast, we just got in and took off. This two-Hummer convoy had gunners in the turrets. They joked with me that I would be riding up in the turret. That’s the last time I call shotgun. It was an even bumpier route from Kabul to Bagram than we had taken with the rhino a week earlier. There were lots of huge holes where IEDs had exploded and we were told that there was a suicide bomber in a blue Toyota with license plate starting with 17 that we should be on the lookout for. One of the guys in my humvee told me that a sniper had hit the gunner on his vehicle on the same road the week before. At one point our lead vehicle smashed the rearview mirror off an unfortunate Jingle Truck that had strayed too close to the center as we passed it. My first thought was “shouldn’t we stop and exchange insurance info?” There’s no stopping for any reason once the convoy starts. And those boys drive fast.
We got to Bagram and found out we had no show that night. We were supposed to be in Kandahar. Someone dropped the ball and those guys in Kandahar would not get a show this tour. The next day we flew a fixed wing plane to Camp Jahalabad. This was a 45 min flight and Jbad was extremely hot. Our tent had AC so it was nice and Sgt. J took us to the Bazaar and showed us how to haggle for 15 minutes and get 2 bucks off a piece of crap we didn’t want anyway. The show was in the mess hall and Sgt. J did a great job with sound and lights and we had another packed and fun show. The next day we were loaded into a huge C-something plane and flew back to Bagram landing at 6pm. We did our 7th and final show at 8pm Sunday, March 30th, at the Clamshell theatre for a good-sized crowd who were very appreciative. Now we had to figure out how to get home.
In order to get home we had to fly from Bagram to Rammstein air base in Germany, then catch a noon flight on April 1st from Frankfurt to Los Angeles. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds. There were few, if any, non-stop flights to Ramstein. Most flights went through Manas, Kyrgyzstan, which was the main hub and almost impossible to leave. The last comedian got stuck there for a week before finally catching a flight to Germany. Applejacks did some research and found one iffy flight that left at 2am on April 1st. It was a Medivac mission designed to transport two very wounded soldiers to the better medical facilities in Germany. We were told that due to the serious nature of the mission, they rarely took on passengers but he would see what he could do. The next flight was in 5 days and was full. We went to the airfield at 9:30 pm and spent an uneasy 4 hours in a secluded room waiting to hear something. At 1:30am I went out to see what the status was and a guy said “Are you the comedians? Get your bags and meet me outside.” Just like that we were on! It was a huge C-17 transport plane and we watched as they loaded the two wounded soldiers with their team of doctors and nurses. Then we boarded with about 6 other passengers. There were all of a dozen people aboard a huge plane that could seat hundreds.
The flight was seven and a half hours and when we got to Ramstein no one was there to meet us. It was 8am and we had to get to the Frankfurt airport which was 2 hrs away. We called Corby and he had not been informed that we got a flight out. In fact he was told we probably wouldn’t make it so he cancelled our flight to LA. We decided to try to go standby and we zoomed to Frankfurt on the autobahn as Corby took his Mercedes up past 120mph. We made it to the airport, and at the ticket counter they told us they had a seat for me but Richard’s was cancelled. He got a standby pass and we made it to the gate with a full 20 min to spare. Richard got his seating assignment, then realized he left his camera bag at the security gate. He ran all the way there and back, got his bag and had just enough time to call his ride in LA. Talk about close, but we made it. I didn’t mind that I was squished in the middle seat in the middle row for 11 hours, the time just flew - literally! We were back in LA at 2:30pm April 1st after 14 days, 6 flights, 4 convoys, and seven shows. Just another day at the office.
© 1999-2011 Rob Brackenridge
website design courtesy of Five Horizons
08/02/2011 05:17 PM