Becoming an American in Iraq

Baghdad, Iraq– “Man, if I was born in the U.S. I never would have seen this!” exclaims PFC Andres Martinez after posing with the mural of Saddam Hussein on Camp Slayer in the Victory Base Complex. The story of PFC Martinez and his four fellow soldiers Edelberto Elias, Seguei Maspoch and Andrew Russell of the US ARMY 4th Division, 3rd Brigade 1/8 infantry begins on a dusty flight line on June 30 in Southern Iraq, while waiting on a Blackhawk helicopter where SSG Andrew Russell is sponsoring his three men.  The men are all traveling to Baghdad for a grandiose ceremony in Al Faw Palace on July 4th, the headquarters of the United States Forces-Iraq, where they will be naturalized as United States citizens.

All four soldiers serve on Forward Operating Base GarryOwen which defines the term “middle of nowhere” and this trip to the Victory Base Complex (VBC) was more then just becoming well deserved American citizens in a lavish ceremony with the top brass in the theater.  It was a chance to relax and enjoy the benefits of being on a very large and well appointed base like the VBC. The USO Baghdad met these men on that dusty flight line in Southern Iraq and decided that it was ‘mission critical’ to help these men make the most of their time up here in the capital city of Iraq.

SSG Andrew Russell points out the Ba’ath Party Convention Center to PFC Elias, SPC Maspoch, and PFC Martinez during their trip to Baghdad for a U.S. naturalization ceremony. (USO photo)

Upon arrival in Baghdad on Sather Air Base, the simple task of giving them a ride across the VBC to their temporary housing turned into a 3 hour venture that included a pizza lunch and stops at the major landmarks of the former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, like the Victory Over America Palace and the Ba’ath Party Convention Center. Tired from the flight and stuffed on pizza and Monsters, the men were dropped off at their housing and rested for another day of their Baghdad adventure.

Second night in Baghdad, the USO Staff treated the men to a local Turkish restaurant that also shows World Cup soccer projected on the wall. We figured the fellas would appreciate the break from the routine meals served at the dining facility on GerryOwen, as they only just recently got a dining facility on their base.  These guys have been eating ARMY issued MREs for months now, but on that night they were sitting under clear skies eating Chicken Tikka and wondering if they were still in the same country!  The best part of the evening was enjoying some comforts of home and enjoying the drubbing of Mexico by Argentina. Into every life a little rain must fall, though, and it was tough going on the third night when SPC Martinez’ home nation of Chile took a epic beating at the hands of neighboring Brazil in the World Cup.

(l-r) SSG Andrew Russell sponsored PFC Andres Martinez, SPC Seguei Maspoch and PFC Edelberto Elias for citizenship. All enjoyed the amenities of USO Baghdad days before the ceremony. (USO photo)

It was quickly back to business during the week leading up to the ceremony, which occured on Independence Day.  The men had their citizenship interviews to prepare for and make sure their paperwork is all in good order, but when their meetings ended, the USO has some more fun and games planned for them. As it happens, the Sather Air Base USAF Civil Engineering Squadron was planning a farewell cookout at the only pool on the VBC on Saturday afternoon and gladly extended invites to the USO and our visitors. The location of the pool and cookout used to be the getaway for the upper echelon of Saddam’s Ba’ath party and now the area is open to every service member of the coalition forces.

Altogether, Al Faw Palace hosted 156 servicemembers who earned their U.S. citizenship - on Independence Day, no less - through service to the nation. (USO photo)

Big day arrives and Seguei, Edelberto & Andres stand with 173 others and raise their right hand once again for this nation and when the hands come down they now belong to American Citizens. Years in wait and weeks to prepare for this event and it was over rather quick, all 3 of the fellas were happy but they admitted to feeling a lot more emotional then they thought they were going to. Edelberto likened it to getting married in that respect. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Dr. Jill Biden were on hand to be apart of the ceremony that was run by USF-I commander Gen Ray Ordierno.

It was a life defining moment for the 3 soldiers but they also have work to do here and buddies to support on GarryOwen.  All too soon they gathered at Sather Air Base for their flight back to Tallil.  The USO Baghdad says “goodbye and good luck” to our good friends…and fellow U.S. Citizens

Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, congratulate a service member on becoming a U.S. citizen on the 4th of July, 2010. (USO photo)

Yep, Your Care Packages Made it to Iraq

You probably already know all about Operation USO Care Package, and that we’ve donated over 1.5 million packages to Troops serving around the world.  You can always make a donation to the program, or – if you’re in the DC Metro area – volunteer at a USO Care Package stuffing party.  Our care packages are handed out at airports, in USO Centers, and other places to whomever wants one.

Other groups give you the opportunity to send a care box to specific individuals.  Additionally, a service member can register directly with these groups and the receive one or many boxes.  All of these care packages augment Operation USO Care Package and ensure that Troops have a variety of the comforts of home to choose from.  Our USO staff in Iraq just wanted to let you know, “Yep, your care packages made it to Iraq,” and to thank all those who contributed!  Read more…

Baghdad, Iraq – Three separate patriotic organizations have made their mark out here in Iraq with donated care packages that directly benefit the Servicemen downrange. Small, easy-to-carry hygiene products along with practical sundries can go along way to those people in the middle of a week long transit or in the middle of a cross country convoy. Trips to the base store are infrequent for these servicemen and the gesture of kindness that comes with these donated items lets these guys and gals folks back home are looking out for them.

The Raleigh Regional Association of Realtors put together a drive to send these care packages directly to Sather Air Base and the driving force with this fine organization is Terry Benson, the former Center Manager of the USO here in Baghdad. Terry has the first hand knowledge of what items are the most useful and put together very thoughtful items for the traveler in need.

Adopt a Platoon strives to provide a better deployment quality of life by sending cards, letters and care packages to lift the morale of Troops as they serve far from home and assist military families. These members of the 702d Brigade Support Battalion loaded up their MRAPs with the boxes for the next mission.

The fine folks at Operation Gratitude send care packages that contain food, hygiene products, entertainment items and personal letters of appreciation, all wrapped with good wishes of love and support.  Through collection drives, letter writing campaigns and donations of funds for shipping expenses, Operation Gratitude provides civilians anywhere in America a way to express their respect and appreciation to the men and women of the U.S. Military in an active, hands-on manner.

News & Notes from Around the World: Memorial Day Edition

Sather Air Base is a memorial itself, named for Scott Sather who was the first Airman to be killed in action in OIF. The Scott Sather memorial was dedicated last year and this was the first Memorial Day to further honor him and everyone else who has served with the same distinction as Scott Sather.

Baghdad, Iraq – While millions of Americans take a day of from work to reflect and enjoy each others company, the aerial port of Baghdad and the USO, that serves the 1000 passengers a day, were working at full speed. “Mission Critical” is when important work takes priority above all else, but the meaning of this day is too important to over look.

USO Duty Manager, Courtney Haueter, lead the National Moment of Remembrance and the entire aerial port staff, passengers and visitors paused for a full minute at 3:00pm local time. USO customers ceased all calls, IMs, games and movies while the military crew of Sather Air Base paused operations during that time.

Commanding Officer of the 447th, Col Bruce Taylor USAF, led the Memorial Day ceremony and spoke of heroes gone and not forgotten.  Honor Guard for both the Air Force and Army took part in the remembrance and did outstanding work in saluting their brothers in arms.

An essay by Theater of War‘s Bryan Doerries in today’s Washington Post – After a reading of Sophocles’ “Ajax” and “Philoctetes” for members of the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Stewart, Ga., a soldier approached me. His hands were trembling and he was fighting back tears.

“For a while now, I have been separated from my unit, the guys I fought alongside downrange. Being separated from your unit is like being stripped of your humanity. I think Sophocles wrote these plays to bring soldiers together to restore their humanity.” He leaned closer, his eyes locking with mine. “Without our humanity, none of this means anything.”

I held the soldier’s gaze and shook his hand, thanking him for his comment, which I promised to share with military audiences at performances throughout the United States…

Watching the soldier at Fort Stewart exit the auditorium last month, it suddenly seemed un-coincidental to me that the ancient plays that we were performing for the U.S. military during the ninth year of the war in Afghanistan and so many years into Iraq depicted what happened to the Greek armed forces during the ninth year of the Trojan War. Brig. Gen. Loree Sutton, the visionary leader who made our project possible, has said repeatedly of today’s armed forces: “Never has so great a burden been placed upon the shoulders of so few on behalf of so many for so long.”

We are not a nation at war. We are a nation with a volunteer army at war… Click here to read the full essay.

From Snag Film’s Rick Allen – “For 99% of Americans, Memorial Day is a chance to circle a barbeque grill; for us, it’s about gathering together in a cemetery.” Probably nothing captures the enormous gulf between how veterans and civilians treat Monday’s national holiday than that quick but pointed reminder I heard Wednesday from Paul Rieckhoff.  Paul is the charismatic founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and author of the acclaimed book Chasing Ghosts, about his tour of duty in Iraq.  As most of us celebrate the “official” start of summer this weekend, hopefully the words of Paul Rieckhoff, or the roar of Rolling Thunder, or the quiet comfort that the USO brings every day to service families, will break through our routine.

My generation was the first beneficiary of our modern volunteer armed service, in the sense that no longer would all able-bodied men be expected to spend time in uniform.  The ability to outsource our service keeps us personally untouched by combat, but raises societal issues and comes with countervailing personal trade-offs. Sebastian Junger’s new book War and his companion film Restrepo vividly detail the depth of camaraderie that come from absolute commitment to the safety of your fellow squad members.  Those of us around our family barbeques can instinctively appreciate how common mortal danger binds brothers and sisters-in-arms; our challenge now is to find better ways to hold our veterans close to the whole community and to demonstrate our appreciation for what they’ve given for our freedoms.

IAVA joins many other governmental and non-profit organizations in working on the full range of issues facing today’s returning warriors. At a time when our economy struggles to produce new jobs, an estimated 30% of veterans of our current conflicts are out of work.  The Veterans Administration is more invigorated under Secretary Shinseki than it has been in many decades – but a huge number of vets, particularly the young ones, will never willingly walk into a VA hospital or ask for government help, despite what may be significant need.

Many organizations are hard at work to bridge these gaps. The USO assists service members and their families around the world. IAVA has created an incredible online community of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan operations, and advocates for federal action on jobs, health, education and other pressing vet issues. There are various levels of government that deliver services as well as recreational opportunities to active duty warriors and their families, and veterans.  But more is needed, from our society collectively and each of us individually.

Leon Cooper will be on CNN Monday morning. Leon is 90, a WWII vet living in Los Angeles and working with a consistency and energy of someone in his 20s. That’s how old he was at Tarawa, one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history. Leon returned to that atoll when he learned that the beach that held the bones of his fallen comrades was now a garbage dump for islanders without arable land for alternatives.  His final campaign is captured in the film Return to Tarawa, which you can watch here.  Thanks to Leon’s indomitability, the power of the film, and the tools of SnagFilms, Congress last year directed the Department of Defense to identify the remains on Red Beach and bring them home.  In two months, the DOD teams will wing west to begin a task of memory and responsibility we have deferred for nearly 7 decades.

Kyle Maynard spends significant time working with wounded warriors.  An exceptional athlete honored with an ESPY and a shelf of other awards, best-selling author and motivational speaker, Kyle was born without complete limbs.  His motto, “No Excuses”, completely encapsulates how he lives his life. (A new film about Kyle will air on ESPN in November and you can learn more here.) Not long ago, I spent an afternoon at Ft. Myer, Virginia, with Kyle and a group of Iraq and Afghanistan vets with serious physical injuries resulting from their service.  We gathered around an exercise mat, and Kyle put the six men and one woman through a daunting workout – but from my fly-on-the-wall vantage point, the greatest outcome of the day came from the conversation among the participants.  The service members joining Kyle knew he only had a civilian’s perspective … but they also knew that his physical challenges had been life-long. They had in common much more than what they lacked; each was working every minute to turn loss into motivation, not cause for withdrawal.

We too need to make an effort, each in our own way. Memorial Day provides many such opportunities.  At the very least, it provides the chance for reflection and appreciation. Our founder, Ted Leonsis, coined the term “filmanthropy” to combine the communication power of film with the interactivity of the web, and allow an engaged audience new ways to start a conversation or take an action. We’ve pulled 11 films together from different conflicts and perspectives for Memorial Day – you can watch them from the widget below, or at http://bit.ly/SnagMemorialDay .  Enjoy them alone or with others. And make your Memorial Day into something to remember.

Mother’s Day Across the Miles

The good folks at Baghdad USO have forged a great relationship with Operation Write Home, a volunteer organization that has approximately 2,500 talented crafters across the USA making unique greeting cards for the service members at Sather Air Base in Baghdad.  OWH supplies cards for every occasion, whether Birthday, Anniversary, Miss You – or holidays including Easter, Mother’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day.  Sather AB has received over 600 Valentine’s Day cards and every single one was used!  They were also very fortunate to have one of their volunteers, who happens to be a master woodworker, make a beautiful card rack to display the cards in the reception area.

To commemorate Mother’s Day, Operation Write Home asked Baghdad USO to take pictures of our wonderful troops for their website.  They hope to ensure that all Mothers will receive a card from their service members who are passing through Sather AB.  USO Baghdad recently provided photos that are included in Operation Write Home’s video tribute to Moms everywhere, shown below.

Happy (early) Mother’s Day…we hope you enjoy!

News & Notes from Around the World

On 29 April, 2010 the CASF USO hosted nine cartoonist from the National Cartoonist Society.  Approximately  50 patients and CASF staff members joined in the fun by having their caricatures drawn as well as their favorite cartoon characters.  The evening was sweetened by a variety desserts.  A great time was had by all.

A servicemember has his likeness done in caricature by one of the visiting cartoonists.

At USO Hawaii, Marines and a Corpsman from the Wounded Warrior Detachment, Kaneohe Marine Corps Base Hawaii were treated to chartered deep sea fishing through USO’s Operation Enduring Care program on Friday April 3.  The sport fishing charter left the Marine Corps Community Service Outdoor Recreation marina promptly at 7 a.m. for the six-hour excursion.  The Wounded Warriors spent the day casting and reeling.  The charter’s captain and his crew were available to assist with the warriors’ catch of the day.

It was a good day for fishing with (left to right) HM2 David Provost, LCpl Perry Crawford, LCpl Blaze Cox, LCpl Jason Grivas, Cpl Beau Parra, Sgt Jacob Cash, and members of the boat's crew.

Sather AB recently hosted a ping-pong tournament.  It was a hard-fought competition taken very seriously by all the 16 finalists.  Sponsored by the USO, the three winners received AAFES gift cards and they must have needed to buy something very special at the PX because they fought long and hard for these prizes!

A1C Josep (l) came in third and MSG Smith (r) came in second. We can't even see the ball!

And finally, here’s a special shoutout all the way from Afghanistan to the USO for our support of the upcoming Warrior Games in Colorado.  Hoo-rah!

more about “DVIDS Warrior Games Group“, posted with vodpod

We Offer Up Delicious Dishes and Bowling Parties!

We’ve been busy around the world – as usual! – and a few events seem to be particularly popular, no matter where in the world our Troops and their families are enjoying a USO Center.

Case in point: bowling.  Who knew it was just as popular in Iraq as it in in Italy?

Baghdad Duty Manager Courtney Haueter was talking to a group of soldiers who told her they’d been stuck here for 2 days using the USO computers, phones, Play Station 3 games and had each drunk a gallon of coffee. They had run out of things to do, so Courtney suggested they all go bowling. At first they thought she was joking because they had just come in from a small FOB and there was definitely no bowling center there. So Courtney loaded them up since the next chance at a flight was still 16 hours away. Off to Club Baghdad they went!

After waiting two days for a plane to take them on R & R, these Troops combat boredom with bowling. Looks like they did pretty well!

USO Vicenza thanked its volunteers by throwing a bowling party for them in honor of National Volunteer Appreciation Week on Thursday, April 23.  Two of USO Vicenza’s Core volunteers and one of USO Vicenza’s Special Events volunteers were present to celebrate.  U.S. Army Garrison Vicenza’s Arena sponsored two bowling lanes and shoe rentals for the USO to use. Pizza, soda, and a great time were had by all!

A volunteer at USO Vicenza waits her turn to hit the lane during a bowling outing in celebration of National Volunteer Week.

On that same day the USO Warrior Center hosted a BBQ sponsored by the Stuttgart’s Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers (BOSS).  Along with the good food, the BOSS volunteers brought warm smiles and great conversation. During the visit there was one wounded warrior who had not been able to get out of his hospital room. He was very thankful to have the opportunity to leave his hospital bed and eat a good meal around friendly faces. Wounded warriors attended – 115.

One hundred fifteen Wounded Warriors chowed down on hamburgers, hot dogs, brats, and sausages courtesy of Stuttgart's BOSS program.

On April 24, the USO Warrior Center hosted a Chicken Dinner sponsored by the Theta Rho International Chapter.  Along with the good food, the Theta Rho International Chapter served the warriors with smiling faces and kind words. One warrior commented that the chicken was so delicious he didn’t want to return home, he wanted to stay here if he could keep eating this type of wonderful food. Another warrior commented “I just had to try the sweet potatoes; they are out of this world.”

One hundred thirty Wounded Warriors enjoyed a delicious chicken dinner with all the fixin's - yum!