Archive for Tribute to the Troops

Any good freelancer knows the best remedy for a late night is an early crew call, and with the Tribute to the Troops scheduled for noon, we had to be in very early on Friday to make sure everything was ready. So, still sore from the night before on the roof, I dragged my hurting carcass out of bed, enjoyed cold yet invigorating shower, then some more delicious DFAC chow before reporting to the Production Tent.

Standing outside and waiting for the rest of the crew to freshen up, a soldier walked up to me. As we talked about the improvements to Humvee armor and flak jackets, I heard a loud but distant boom. I got ready to run into the nearest hardened structure, but when the solder didn’t react, I relaxed. Then – boom- I heard – boomthree loud – BOOMS – in rapid succession. I looked at the soldier who helpfully offered, “Don’t worry, those are probably controlled explosions.” He paused for a second then added, “But they usually announce those over the radio, and I didn’t hear anything, did you?”

Uhh, come to think of it, NO!

The booms ended, at least for then.

Even though we were close to ready, there are always a million or so more things to do. I was knee deep in oh-by-the-ways when SFC Marx walked in.

“Dude, remember where you guys dropped me off last night? They found a bomb twenty feet from there this morning!”

A what? He had to be kidding.

“The Explosive Ordinance Disposal guys are there now with a robot to disarm it.”

He wasn’t kidding. Wow. This place is still as crazy as ever.

After last year’s close call, I’ve learned this simple trick: don’t think about it. If you do, you’ll end up a whimpering mess huddled in a quivering heap on the floor. So rather than think of what could happen, I concentrated on what needed to happen to pull off the show.

The soldiers that helped us set up were back. They unloaded plastic barricades from a pickup truck. Each barricade that hit the ground outside the tent sounded like thunder. Needless to say, we were all a bit jumpy that morning. Marty even remarked, “Lots of booms today, dontcha think?” Maybe we were overly sensitive to it, maybe there really were a lot of explosions (and barricades hitting the ground!) Who can say for sure? Everyone was a bit on edge. What a terrible way to live.

With a few hours still to go before the show started, Abi and I took our long-standing animosity to the ring. The match, a no disqualification anything-goes all-out battle was for the International Heavy Lightweight Title, and it was a close contest.

Fearsome Frenchy demonstrates the Second Rope Death Drop on poor Muhammed Abi.

Due to sticky confidentiality and tricky liability legalities, I’m not at liberty to say who won the match, but suffice to say it was the first and possibly only French victory in Iraq, or in any battle for that matter.

Cameraman Sean Makes a Grand Entrance.

I told some of the late-arriving crew about SFC Marx’s early morning bomb story. They’d already heard about it. It turned out that the ‘bomb’ was, in fact, a discarded plastic PVC pipe. When I told SFC Marx about that morning’s bomb being a hoax, he immediately replied, “Which bomb?”

How sad is that?

Before we knew it, it was noon, and, just like that, the show started. If time takes on the quality of molasses in a cargo plane, it takes on the exact opposite quality during any live show. For the next two hours, as exhausted as everyone was, we entertained the troops the best way we knew how. I probably have said this every year, but I sincerely think this show was our best effort yet. And hopefully, we managed to distract the soldiers, at least for a few hours, from the place they currently have to call home.

As soon as it started, it seemed, it was over. The final fade to black was called, a round of thanks and congratulations went around, and then it was time to disassemble everything. In two hours we disconnected, unplugged, wrapped, packed up and palletized what took us two full days to build.

Before I knew it, we were back on the bus headed for the flight line. Of course, in accordance with our time zone, Military Daylight Wasting Time, we sat on that bus for two hours while they loaded our gear on the plane, but still, compared to years past – when we waited a full day to leave, we were ahead of schedule. Two hours behind? Right on time!

Our previously unbroken broken plane in Germany streak was finally broken. Maybe the pilots really wanted to get home too, maybe we were just lucky, but whatever the reason, for a nice change, we did zero damage to our aircraft. And possibly most important of all, I got to enjoy a nice, cold half gallon of beautiful German Bitburger beer, the next best thing to Guinness.

Nothing out of the routine happened for the rest of the trip. Time stood still as we were encapsulated in our flying steel tomb. Mercifully, I was unconscious for nearly the entire seventeen and a half hour flight home.

A tanker, freshly de-iced from whatever snowy base it came from met us, which meant no more stopping, no more wasting time. Unbelievably, we actually managed to land at Andrews Air Force Base two hours ahead of schedule. Buses were waiting for most of us to take us to commercial airports to get home – while a private jet awaited a lucky few – and as quickly as it started, the Tribute to the Troops show came to a safe and successful end.

As a personal post script, Frenchy’s First Law of Travel bit me once again, as somehow, amazingly, United Airlines managed to misplace the co-pilot for my flight home. Though the Air Force stepped up and got us back to the USA ahead of schedule, I still wasted seven hours waiting in Dulles for my flight home. Such is the price to pay for transitioning from Daylight Wasting Time to United’s Daylight Screw-You Time.

All of this aside, if there is a Tribute to the Troops VI next year, I will be there, unless of course I get fired for writing this blog. And just for the record, Patrick never did pay me that dollar!

The Tribute to the Troops show airs on the USA network Christmas Eve at 9 PM.

All photos in this report courtesy Jason Robinson, Patrick McManus, Cary Stedman, Scott Superka, Muhammed Abi and John Cone. Thanks!

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Dec
12

Back to Iraq Five – The Setup

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My First View of Iraq in 2007

Now the fun really begins. Most people, after a twenty-one hour flight would find the nearest stationary bed, but not us! We didn’t come to Iraq to sleep. Oh no. The WWE Corporate Retreat motto is; ‘You’ll get enough sleep when you’re dead.‘ So that meant, as always, get straight to work.

So we did. Our C-17 is quickly unloaded, the TV crew and WWE Superstars are separated into four groups, some of which will be donning helmets and flak jackets to visit forward operating bases in fun-sounding places like Taji, Tarmiyha, Balad, and Mosul, and some of which – for example my group, The Helmet-less Heroes – will be staying behind at Camp Speicher and transforming a dusty soccer field into a glamorous WWE arena.

Gear is Unloaded, Sorted, and Distributed.

Cameraman Marty Miller Remembers to Bring His Camera Along

But first, breakfast. Other than the to-go food in Germany, we’d lived on chicken wraps and beer for the past day. The Setup group headed to the DFAC (Dining Facility) for some chow. The DFAC at Camp Speicher is incredible, short order cooks will make omelets to order, and the food is always fresh and delicious. No MRE’s here! At the entrance, next to the poster for our show, I found evidence that some soldiers at Camp Speicher were pretty bored. A scale model of an attack helicopter was on display – made almost entirely from duct tape!

90% Duct Tape + 100% Boredom = Cool Model Helicopter

Seating For Thousands

At the back of the dining hall was a place setting for two, surrounded by pictures, a somber tribute to fallen soldiers.

After breakfast, we were escorted to our quarters. Normally, our home away from home has been a 30 man tent, but this year we were in for a real treat.

2006 – Home Sweet Hell

2006 – Interior of Home Sweet Hell

2007 – Yeah Baby! Swwwankytown!

With a cheer, our bus drove past Tent City, and stopped at what looked like college dorms. I honestly couldn’t believe my eyes. What an upgrade! There had to be some mistake. Our Five Star accommodations used to be the Iraqi pilot’s quarters. Apparently, the Iraqi pilots used to live pretty well, at least comparatively speaking. Our building had five rooms that would house four people each. Our own toilet and shower, just for us! Best of all, no nightly snoring symphony to endure. So far, this trip was turning into the best one yet!

Inside Swwwankytown – Doesn’t Get Better Than This! Hooooo-ahh!

Properly fed and checked in, it was time to start the real work. By 9 AM we made our way to the makeshift arena. We had two short days to prepare for the show, scheduled for Friday at noon. Soldiers assigned to help with setup began unloading our pallets. Their leader barked, “Remember, do not put big things on top of small things! Do not put heavy things on top of light things! Use your common knowledge!” I had to laugh.

Instant Production Tent – Just Add Gear.

The tent that would become our production ‘truck’ was already in place, though that place turned out to be wrong. A problem? Not at all. Twenty soldiers lined up, grabbed an end, and moved the tent to the right spot. No bitching, no whining, just action.

While Groups One, Two and Three flew off in Black Hawk helicopters to visit with the troops in various Forward Operating Bases, the Helmet-less Setup Group snapped into action. Road cases were placed and opened, and the Production Tent jigsaw puzzle began to take shape. Cables snaked between cases, patch cords were patched, more wires were run, monitors and audio consoles were placed, and everything took shape.

Dave, Patrick and I set up the Time Lapse Cameras, the Second Most Important Thing on the Show, After Everything Else.

Unbelievably, we had some old friends drop by. Sergeant Marx, one of the soldiers that helped us set up in Afghanistan two years ago just happened to be based at Camp Speicher. It was a little strange to see a familiar face considering where we were, and how many soldiers there are in the Middle East, but then, maybe this Tribute really is becoming routine?

SFC Marx Joins The Team – Once Again

Later in the day, we managed to sneak away to the PX, a sort of military Wal-Mart. Patrick spent more money in that store than he was getting paid for the show I think. I bought a few little things, including a floppy camouflage hat embroidered with ‘Frenchy’ in both English and Arabic.

I’m still not sure of my feelings about buying swag for a war, but the coffee at the Green Bean – a Starbucks knock-off – was good, and if Burger King or Subway was open, I probably would have enjoyed some bad American fast food with no problem at all.

That’s Right – Burger King and Subway, in Tikrit, Iraq!

After we returned, a soldier approached me as I stood outside the tent. Pointing at the rapidly setting sun, he said, “The most beautiful thing about this place, in fact the only beautiful thing about this place, is the sunset.” We both stood there for about ten minutes and watched as the sky transformed from pale pink to vibrant orange and red then to purple, and finally got back to work as it faded to black.

He was right; the sunset was beautiful, though it happened quickly. Once the sun set, the temperature also dropped quickly. We were soon at a point where we could call it a day (or, more correctly, a night.) Exhausted beyond belief, yet satisfied, we retired to our upscale living quarters. I was unconscious in less than two minutes.

The next day was spent much like the first. Connections were tested, signals flowed, problems, both minor and major were tackled. While we tackled technical problems, the helpful soldiers tackled each other in an impromptu military match in the ring, complete with referees!

During the afternoon, howling winds kicked up a fierce dust storm, which was eventually settled down by some light rain. The rain turns the desert sand into the consistency of oatmeal, which clumps around and weighs shoes down like cement. Just checking the PA feeds was difficult enough, I can’t imagine having to fight a battle with cement shoes on.

Abi, Can You Hear Me Under There?!?

WWE.com’s Michael Cole had lined up a little field trip for the afternoon and evening. They were going out to do a report on ‘test firing’ a .50 caliber machine gun on a range off the base. Cole invited us along, but we couldn’t spare the time.

Shame, because their little trip, going off base, firing machine guns at target tanks, complete with helicopters swooping in to illuminate the targets – sounded like a lot of fun. Maybe next year – if there is a Tribute to the Troops show that is…

Patrick asked Marty, our head engineer, how he was feeling about our setup progress. “Partially happy with occasional smiles,” was the reply.

Around 9 PM, Marty was as happy as he was going to be, and we were as ready for the next day’s Tribute show as we were going to be. The only problem was, our bus was missing. We waited for about a half hour, but no bus showed up. None of us had any idea how to walk to our barracks, and they were a few miles away at that. Sgt. Marx managed to convince some security guards to give us a lift back to Swwankytown. Saying goodnight, we dropped him off along the way.

That night, on the roof of our building, we had a rare crew party. It’s not rare that this crew parties, that happens almost nightly. It’s just rare, I think, for anyone to say they partied on a rooftop in the middle of Iraq and lived to tell the tale.

Tomorrow, the Tribute to the Troops, then the long ride home.

That post can be found here.

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Dec
11

Back to Iraq Five – The Travel

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Five. A perfect number of fingers per hand, nearly the optimal number of Guinness pints to consume in an hour, a good number of times to be WCW World Champion, but I never in my wildest dreams imagined that it would be the number of times I would get on a cargo plane and be freight shipped to the Middle East for the WWE’s Tribute to the Troops show.

The first year, when the invitation came to participate in a Tribute to the Troops show, I was nervous. No, nervous isn’t exactly the right word, I was frightened. Me? Going to Baghdad? A war zone? ME? I was sure that the second we stepped off the plane, we’d be blown to bits. Well, that didn’t happen. Actually, last year the setup crew came pretty close to being obliterated, when a mortar round exploded about three hundred yards away, but other than that little bit of excitement, the Tribute to the Troops shows have been as safe as any show in the states.

2006 – Michael Cole Contemplates the Close Call.

That first year, we had a big crew meeting where various contingencies were discussed. Assurances were given that if something bad happened to us, our families would be taken care of. Not to sound overly dramatic, but we were heading into the great unknown. In 2004, when the Tribute to the Troops show was in Tikrit for the first time, we had a shorter meeting, which basically said the same thing as the first meeting. That time, having pulled off a successful Tribute the previous year, we had a bit of an idea what we were in for. The third year we tried something different, and went to Afghanistan. Our meeting that year was over headsets just before the beginning of RAW. Had we become complacent, or was the Tribute to the Troops show becoming routine? A bit of both I think.

Last year, there was no meeting at all. The crew for the Tribute show received an email saying something to the effect of ‘You have been selected for the 2006 Tribute to the Troops show. Please remember to pack warm clothes.’This year was even less ceremonious. A solitary email reminding the crew to book flights home after the trip from the Washington DC area after five PM on Saturday was about it. The Tribute to the Troops show, the ridiculously long travel in a cargo plane, the war zone and all that had become ‘just another show.’

I’m not trying to say that the show isn’t important. On the contrary, I think the Tribute shows are probably the most meaningful shows the WWE puts on. Imagine being stuck in a dusty, hot, awful country five thousand miles away from families, friends and Burger King. For a few hours our show helps soldiers forget where they are, and have a good time. For me, that is a good enough reason to keep going back.

Monday Night RAW finished at 11:08, the usual time, but then the real fun began. The biggest problem with preparing for a Tribute to the Troops show is we have to bring it all with us, anything forgotten or left behind is a real problem. Mic flags, music players, specialty cables and a hundred other things need to be packed and come with us. We rush and scurry around, collecting a bunch of last minute things, hoping not to forget anything. It’s controlled chaos, the perfect thing after working fifteen hours.

Then, in the most rock star-like thing I’ve ever done, the police escort our buses to the North Charleston Air Base. There we officially change time zones, to Military Daylight Wasting Time. The normal routine is: get to the air base, wait, sit, wait, and just for good measure, have a safety briefing.

2007’s fun-filled briefing included the following wonderful information: “The groups going out to the Forward Operating Bases will be issued flak jackets and helmets. The setup crew (my crew) will not be getting helmets. We haven’t had any indirect fire at Camp Speicher in a few weeks, so everything should be fine there. If something should happen, get to a hardened structure or bunker… blah blah blah.” What did this guy think, that we’re rookies or something? We know. This stuff is old news now.

After the briefing, we usually sit and wait. And wait. I am convinced that the military uses a twenty-four hour clock because it takes them twice as long as it should to get things done. It was on one of these overseas trips that I first developed what I call Frenchy’s First Law of Travel. It states: “There are more things that can go wrong than things that will go right.” For example, last year we sat for six hours on the C-17 cargo plane, waiting for maintenance to fix the navigational systems. We didn’t leave until the next day.

2006 – This Can’t be Good.

Then there was the time we landed in Germany and blew out a tire. That was fun.

2004 – Uhh… Hello? AAA? I Have a Flat, and it’s a Big One!

And who can forget the first ever Tribute to the Troops, way back in 2003, when we had to change planes in Germany from the tanker to the much better armored C-17.

2003 – The Ramstein Changeover Crew Moves Tons of WWE Gear From Plane To Plane.

And Tell Us What They Really Think of Us

But sometimes we take off without a hitch – like this year. We were loaded on buses right after the briefing, and got on the C-17, curiously named ‘The Spirit of Middle Georgia.’

No Assigned Seats, Just Like Southwest Airlines.

Unlike Southwest Airlines, Passengers Are Allowed on the Flight Deck. And Pilots Are Armed.

 

Dave, Abi and I Try to Contain Our Excitement.

Rookies Patrick and Cary Prepare For the Ride of Their Lives!

 

No Safety Briefing Is Complete Without Demonstrating Proper Smoke Hood Procedures.

Cary Demonstrated A Better Way to Deal With Safety Briefings.

Marty Demonstrates the Polish Way of Handling Danger.

For a switch, the hitch unhitched after we were airborne. The tanker that was tasked to meet us for in-air refueling was grounded due to bad weather in Pittsburgh.Burning nearly 20,000 pounds of fuel per hour, we’d fall into the Atlantic about two hours before reaching Germany without refueling. Nobody wanted to make that swim, so we diverted to Stevensville Air Base in Newfoundland to fill up with hundreds of thousands of gallons of fresh high test.

Fill ‘Er Up!

They Said It Was Cold Out. They Were Right!

Umaga Proves it’s Never Too Cold to Pose.

True to Frenchy’s First Law of Travel, anything that could go wrong did. No, we didn’t have a flat tire on landing like we did two years ago. Worse. While refueling in the sub zero temperatures, a blizzard hit, grounding us for four hours. Of course.

Oh, the Weather Outside is Frightful…

On the bright side, this delay would mean five less hours to duck indirect fire. And I have to say, ‘indirect fire‘ sounds much more pleasant than ‘carpet bombing‘ or ‘shelling‘ does.

Sleep comes in fits and starts, the metal benches we sit on designed from maximum discomfort. Some of the lucky ones that manage to fall asleep soon fall prey to the bored, as the pranks begin. Someone – I’m not saying who – prowled the plane, red plastic cup in hand and ‘anointed’ those that were sleeping, claiming to have raised them from the dead.

I Avoid Being Anointed By Staying Awake.

But this year’s flight to Germany wasn’t nearly as bad as previous trips. Everyone seemed calmer and more laid back, or maybe they were just tired from a full year of traveling and working the whole world. I only got hit on the head by a handful of pistachios, and one beer can, and the can was only half full at that – a definite improvement!

It’s fascinating to me how time takes on a different quality when the everyday routine is removed.Take away all outside stimulus, take away the sun or moon, and it could really be any time at all. We sit in this cold, dry, noisy tube, and minutes, hours or weeks could be going by. Trapped inside the plane, there is really no way to tell if we’re going up or down, or just where the hell we are.

Passing the Time

To make up for the delay in Newfoundland, the decision was made that when we landed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany we’d remain on the plane in an effort to save time.That took away two of the things I was looking forward to most, a nice, cold Bitburger beer in Germany – a five year old tradition it would be a shame to break, and getting off the plane and away from the increasingly foul smelling noxious clouds of processed protein bars poisoning the air in the tightly enclosed flying metal tube.

I want to know one thing. Who thought serving a Mexican buffet for dinner before this flight was a good idea?

Landing in Germany,I made a $1 bet with new director Patrick McManus. The bet? Though we’d been told the layover would be two hours, I bet it would be much longer. He said it would be less than three. Poor Patrick. I had an unfair advantage. I know Frenchy’s First Law of Travel, in fact I live it almost every week. Ramstein hasn’t exactly been a lucky place for us, in the last five trips, we’ve broken three planes in Germany.

Almost on cue, Frenchy’s First Law was proved once again. As we sat on the plane, the rumor soon circulated that there was an engine problem. What a shock! Something to do with the reverse thruster pins in the engines or something like that. In any case the engine was broken and we weren’t going anywhere until it was fixed. I went outside to see the issue first hand.

Some of the talent left the plane for what we assumed to be a ‘Meet and Greet’, but what actually turned out to be an ‘Eat Some Meat.’ There was a buffet set up, but for some reason we weren’t all allowed to go in and eat. Fortunately someone grabbed a bunch of to-go boxes, packed the feast up and brought it back to the poor trapped technical crew.

Three and a half hours later, the reverse thruster pins were fixed, and we were finally on our way to Tikrit. I won the bet, but come to think of it, Patrick never paid up!

Hey Patrick! You Owe Me a Dollar!

Seven hours later, we entered Iraqi airspace. The interior lights changed from green to red, indicating we’d entered a ‘hostile’ zone.

Suddenly we were thrown forwards as the massive thrusters roared, proving, I suppose, the thruster pin repair at Rammstein was successful. The giant cargo plane spiraled down and down, in a maneuver designed to confuse enemy fire known as ‘The Corkscrew.’ Finally, we landed at Camp Speicher, twenty one and a half hours after leaving North Charleston.

Time to go to work!

The setup post for the Tribute to the Troops show can be found here.

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