Racing Heroes Tour -- Iraq (Day 1-3)
By: Arie Luyendyk Jr.
Day 1: Arrival into Kuwait.
Going into this 11 day tour of Kuwait and Iraq I find myself not knowing at all what to expect. I like many others in our country only see the news broadcasts and read the stories that fill the paper, now this is my chance to experience the war in Iraq and to thank the many soldiers that are taking a stand in the Middle East. I set off on my trip and found many soldiers shared my commercial flight out of Washington D.C., camouflage backpacks filled the overhead spaces, a reminder that we are still at war and that troops are being sent everyday.
We landed in Kuwait at 6pm or (18:00--may have to get used to that) and I was surprised to see how large the city was, it looked like any other major city in the U.S. The first order of business was to get to our camp. Followed by an escort we hurried down the large highway with the escort in our draft, he was not going to let anyone in-between us. The only thing that seemed unusual on our ride over was that there were hundreds of tents lining the highway lit up with florescent light poles. I asked the soldier driving us and he said that the people have a tradition here of camping in the desert and in the winter months families will have a tent in the desert to go to during the weekends for family gatherings.
On arrival to the camp, I was taken back with all the lights run off of generators and the size of the camp. The camp spans 6 by 4.5 miles and has many buildings and more hummers than I've ever seen. We arrived to our building and I was surprised to see that the camp had a football field, basketball courts, a grocery store, a Subway and even a Taco Bell! After a regrettable decision to eat the Taco Bell I saw one of the other drivers on the tour Geoff Bodine (who was just telling me he only eats organic and here I am with my Taco Bell) and we sat and watched as the troops played Football on a dirt field. Jet lag eventually set in and I returned to my room wondering what tomorrow had in store.
My eyes opened up after what felt like a great sleep to find out it was only 3:30 in the morning. After a few attempts to read then fall back asleep I was up and ready to try out the gym at the camp. I was not expecting to see many people at the gym at 4am but to my surprise it was full of soldiers. It was an amazing facility with an in-door basketball court and plenty of machines and cardio equipment, the Amy in serious about their gyms.
After a quick breakfast it was off to another base 2 hours north near the Iraq border. The troops there greeted us and informed us about the Kuwait and American agreement dating back to 1991 that allowed America to use their land for military activity. Some interesting facts about the small country of Kuwait is that a gallon of gas here cost .38 cents and almost everyone that is originally from Kuwait is related in some way to each other. America uses the land and in return the Army protects Kuwait and offers their Kuwaiti soldiers modern training.
We toured the base and got to check out their living conditions, almost all the troops here are in transit so they only stay for 8-12 days before heading off to Iraq. The tents the troops sleep in are in no way private as they pack in 30-70 troops on cots for their short stay. We said our goodbye's after dinner and headed to our second base of the day.
On our way back we stopped at a Camp Virginia where the troops come to on their way back from Iraq before heading home to the U.S. The mood way definitely upbeat and there was a few die-hard race fans, which was cool. The troops that met us there were from Hawaii, a far cry from the Middle East! We stayed for a short time signing autographs and then we had to say aloha. On our way back to camp we got the news that we would be heading out to Iraq at 2:00 AM
Day 3- Arrival into Iraq
Day three was filled with action. The 2AM call time downstairs was alarming, we had to drive down to an air base a couple hours away to deploy to Iraq. The drive went by quickly and we grabbed a coffee before our debrief and flight plan was given out. With a busload of soldiers we drove to the C-130 plane that was waiting for us. The plane was completely bare inside and we sat in small seats as we leaned on nets in the noisy propeller engine plane. The 2-hour flight went by quickly and then we were at our first base in Iraq. The stay was not long as we said hello and goodbye quickly as we needed to board a Blackhawk to the next base. Seated directly next to the gunners on the side of the helicopter is when it set in, that we were in a war zone and they were ready for whatever came at us.
We landed at a small base and toured the facility. This smaller base was fully self-sustained and was in place for patrols along a ten-mile radius. They didn't have plumbing and things were far harder out there in the desert compared to Kuwait. The troops showed us some artillery and I was able to climb in an out of a lot of the tactical vehicles they used in combat, the soldiers were really excited to show off how everything worked and what their roles were at the base.
The third base of the day was a great experience, we were at another small camp and the soldiers were a real great group of younger guys. After the photo opts and the signing I asked if I cold drive one of the Hummers and they said "of coarse!" One thing led to another and after the Hummer experience Geoff Bodine and I took our turns at the Bradley, which is a smaller tank, it was a blast to drive (not fast but drove over anything!) I handed out some candy bars and passed around my helmet then it was time to go again as we could hear the Blackhawk approaching. We were the first people to visit them on their tour, I think they had as much fun as us.
The next ride was one to remember. We entered Baghdad before sundown and circled the "green zone" flying over bombed Palaces and troops in training. It was a bit nerve racking flying so low to the ground but it gave me a respect for the helicopters patrolling the area, the gunners looked cautiously at anything suspicious on the ground below. We landed and headed off to the US Embassy. The Amy took control of one of Sadam's former Palaces and turned it into the US Embassy. The inside is very elaborate, walls made of marble and a lot of gold plating on the doors. The ceilings were painted with beautiful scenery of horses and battle symbols. It's amazing to think of what it once looked like. After meeting more troops here we were all exhausted from the long day, it seemed so long I had to look back at the pictures to remember all the places we went, until tomorrow!