“Hey Lang do you want to go to Afghan…” “YES!” Debbie Praver, a fellow comic, didn’t even finish the sentence and I was all for it. You’re probably asking “Out of all the places in the world why would you want to go to a war-zone?” Simply….to entertain our troops. Legally. I’m a standup comic. And when opportunity knocks you take it or kick yourself later because you didn’t make it happen, for one reason or another. I follow a new motto lately, which is… “Look, whatever religion you are that’s great but I’m not coming back and I want to experience as much as possible in this life time.” So that’s what I’m doing. Experiencing as much as I can.
A little background on myself: I would say Google me because I hate talking about myself, even though I’m in the business of promoting myself, but In a nut shell – 1st season of Last Comic Standing, over two dozen national commercials, The Ellen Degeneres Show. I’ve entertained our troops before in South Korea and Japan. But this was going to be a different kind of tour. This was in a war zone.
I talked with other comics that have been to Afghanistan to see what I was getting myself into. Most said “It’s a life changing experience.” While other remarks were “They (meaning military) are the best audience, very appreciative.” And, “It will be the best and worst experience of your life.”
There were many reasons that I wanted to take this trip. (not necessarily in this order) 1. To be one of the few that actually can say “I’ve entertained our troops just like Bob Hope.” 2. I love to travel and have never been to the Middle East. 3. Following that new motto of mine, I wanted to see how big my ovaries were when it came down to really going. 4. To be surrounded by military men…sign me up! I’ve always been attracted to dudes who look like they could beat the crap out of me. Hell, maybe I could find the first husband over there. (You’ll get my humor sooner or later, just go with it)
So I packed my bags, got a dog sitter, and off I went. 18 1/2 hr flight. THAT was going to be the hard part. I am a person that can’t sit in a 2.5 hr movie without wiggling constantly in her seat because her back hurts. Never been able to sleep sitting up. Ever. Left LA at 6:20pm and kept chasing the sunset. Arrived in Istanbul Turkey 13.5 hrs later around 4:30pm. Got on another plane to Kyrgyzstan for 5 hrs. Arrived there around 2am. Went to our quarters and passed out! Flat out! It was good to be horizontal.
The trip was a “hit the ground running” experience. We got to hang out with the K-9 unit and one attacked my arm…yes I was wearing a sleeve. That bitch grabbed a hold of my arm and did not let go. Saw a demonstration of the dogs jumping into a car to attack a bad guy. THAT was cool. Too bad that dog wasn’t around when my Ex left while taking my album collection. Got the low down on the EOD unit. You remember the movie The Hurt Locker? I got to talk to those guys. The men and women that walk up to bombs in an 80lb outfit. I put it on and did 8 pushups. Not an easy task. And yes I am bragging. How many people can say they did that?
All the military people that I met…the K-9 unit & EOD unit…everyone was so friendly. Not that they should be mean but they were so interested in telling us how things worked and so genuine. Maybe I’m jaded from being in LA, but it was so cool to be around folks who were excited about their jobs and wanted to share. Maybe it was just refreshing for them to talk to us because we weren’t in the military.
Within two days we did a lot. Got to see a C-17- huge plane that carries cargo/soldiers. Just awesome. HUGE! You could park a few trucks in one of them.
I got to sit in the cockpit.
After hanging out in a C-17 we got to see a KC Airplane that fuels planes in mid flight. We got to see the pole that refuels another plane and the mechanics of it all. Man that sounds so phallic. I’m a chick brought up by three older brothers…that’s my excuse.
After that we were fitted for combat. Helmet and a vest that has plates in them. Ceramic plates. If you drop them before sliding them in the pockets on the vest they shatter and you owe $600. Let me say that again….if you drop them they shatter. Ceramic. THIS is what is going to slow down a bullet if it hits you!? Something just ain’t right here folks. But they swear by it. Maybe I should of gone to Myth Busters before this trip. I didn’t know Pottery Barn was invested in the war or so expensive. And the color was way off. Should of been Fuchsia. If we’re at war we could go in style for Pete’s sake!
Now I think this is when I had my first “Shit is getting real” moment. Not an Oprah “Aha” moment but a holy shit moment. This isn’t Black Hawk Down or Saving Private Ryan, this is real. And if I got shot, this vest and helmet were going to be my best friends.
We got our things together and boarded a C-17 from Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan, heading to Camp Leatherneck, a Marine base. It was at night…around 10pm. The plane was filled with about 200 marines that were heading over for a deployment. Cargo consisted of huge crates filled with their gear.
My military friend gave me advice before I left for this trip. “Stay hydrated, pack snacks, bring a scarf to protect you from dirt/sand when you get on the planes, sunglasses with foam around the lenses so they keep out dust/dirt, do not touch any part of your body without using sanitizer lotion first, don’t drink the water out of the tap only bottled water including when brushing your teeth, long sleeves to protect yourself from the sun, hiking boots for the rock you will constantly walk on and let me repeat…STAY hydrated.” I took every one of these things to heart and went to the surplus store. One other thing my military friend said was “When you get on the C-17 sit your ass down on the side seats.” So that is exactly what I did. I plopped myself down in a side seat and a very good looking Marine sat next to me. What are the odds?! I don’t think I saw an ugly one. We ended up talking for the 2.5 hr flight to Camp Leatherneck. Yes, I grabbed his leg 4 times…3 times because of odd noises in the plane and the 4th time because I felt like it. And it was fantastic. Since no sex or alcohol are allowed I don’t think he really minded.
Our Guide met us at the airport on the base and took us to our living quarters (which were like trailers). No indoor plumbing fyi. Bathrooms and showers were outside about 500 yards away. It was like summer camp…but with bombs in the background. I got to bed around 2am with the time change. I was sleeping soundly when I was awoken but the sound of sheeeewwww! sheeewwww! at 5 a.m. MY eyes lit up like a Christmas tree. The sound of flying missiles. Within a few minutes I heard gun fire in the back ground. (Shit got real moment #2) My heart rate kicked up a notch as I tried to keep my composure. More gun fire. I wondered if this would be the end? What the hell was going on? I’m not one to lose it…I’ve been in a few major car accidents (one that left the driver with a split head that I put a tourniquet on). I can usually keep my cool. My heart was racing and then I heard my fathers voice say “OK! You need to start using your noggin.” As I was listening to the gunfire I noticed that it was always in the distance. It never got closer so that was a good sign. I felt calmer. I passed out.
I Woke up an hour later and had a little talk with my guide. “WHAT the hell was the sheeewwww sheeewwww this am?” I asked. “Oh yea, forgot to tell you,” he said. “Those were rockets called high mars. When we see a bad guy placing IED’s in the ground we give them [the planes] the coordinates and the rocket lands right on him. So when you hear them it’s actually a good thing.” I piped up and said “And the gunfire in the back ground is the shooting range?” “Yes ma’am.” Thanks for telling me!
The next few days I couldn’t sleep. Every noise woke me. If I didn’t start getting it together I was going to get sick. I told myself, “Look if you’re going to die you’re going to die, there’s nothing you can do.” And then I passed out.
To describe Camp Leatherneck…you can’t, I mean you can but YOU have to experience it to believe it. It’s like walking on the moon. There is no plant life. Not even dead plants. Its just dust, rock, dirt, dust and more dust. (Shit got real moment #3) I wondered how the fuck anyone could live here. I know I’m an Artist and like colorful things but this was like a death camp! You’re reading this from a person whose kitchen is canary yellow.
We, the comics, did a bunch of shows on Camp Leatherneck including one for the Special Forces. They invited us over to their area at Camp Leatherneck for a BBQ. Showed us some MaxxPro mraps trucks. Kinda like Tonka Trucks on steroids.
What I liked best about that show was we could do anything we wanted. No restrictions on “language”. That’s one thing I can’t stand. It’s not that I say “fuck” every other word but I like my freedom. I mean, that is my right isn’t it? Freedom of speech. AND not to mention these guys have seen it all and probably said it all so why usually the concern? Its called politically correct corporate supersize testosterone style…and there’s ALWAYS SOMEONE that will be offended.
We also performed at the Afghanistan Cultural Center. Oh and the Marine’s thigh that I grabbed on the plane ride over…he showed up. Thank god I didn’t eat it. Nothing worse than bombing (no pun intended) in front of someone you think is hot. We also performed for the Pedro Squad – they are the air medics. They couldn’t leave their area. They need to be ready to go on a second’s notice. I met a woman that sits on the helicopter behind a HUGE machine gun. She must of weighed maybe a buck five wet. Tiny, tiny woman but man, could she lock and load that massive gun. I would want her on my team.
At some point we got word that we would not be going to another camp for a show. I later found out that there was a “green on blue” attack. Yes I’m throwing you some lingo. It means that Green “cops” or soldiers (Afghans) killed ours “Blue”. We dedicated one of our shows to the soldiers (at the camp we couldn’t go to) and it was filmed for them to see it. My heart goes out to them and I plan on returning and going to the camp.
When we were at Camp Leatherneck we also got to do some activities. Shot a MG3 and Galil. To shoot one was weird. The kick it has! I was lying prone on the ground with the MG3 Machine gun and definitely had to dig in my feet to offset the recoil. This experience was so mind boggling. Here I was in Afghanistan shooting a MG3 that kills people. I was just enjoying aiming and shooting it. Not thinking about what it really was used for. I’ve always enjoyed shooting. Just for the pure sport of trying to get a bullet in the bulls-eye.
Our guide for the shooting was from Estonia. Thick accent and hysterical. “You careful cuz of oil that is on gun so don’t jam. Gets on your clothes. You aim. Boom-boom. That’s it. Questions?” My kind of guy…100% MAN. Cave man that is.
We did another show that was pretty much open for anyone to see. You know a show went well when the security was laughing. I love those moments. Everyone was on their A game on this trip. Suzy Nece, Debbie Praver and the token male comic Chris Valenti (usually its a token female comic). We all had our own style and no one was similar. Usually when a bunch of women comics get together there is always some kind of drama. I can’t begin to tell you the bullshit that happens behind closed doors with women and comedy. I’m happy to say that this time around there was none and it was very refreshing to do a show without the bullshit. I think it helped that we were in a war zone….kinda kept things in perspective. No time for drama. We had a show to do to take people’s minds off of the war and boost morale.
We then flew over to Bagram Air Force Base in East Afghanistan (used to be a Russian base). Met a 2 star General that was from Boston. He was very nice and informed us about exactly what the military are trying to do over there. Pretty cool sitting at a long table where I imagine a lot of important people have sat and had some very interesting conversations. (Shit got real moment #4) The door opened and all we saw was 20 TV screens with maps, surveillance cameras, plans, you name it. I swear it was like looking behind the curtain of Oz. It didn’t look real. It literally looked like a movie set.
We performed in front of the Russian Tower on a flat bed trailer with a band off on one end of it. It was such a Bob Hope moment. I remember getting a little misty saying to myself “This is it! I’m entertaining our troops in Afghanistan. Getting peoples mind off of the war and making them laugh.” Band off to the side. MC came out and did a little time out front and introduced us. Packed! Again everyone brought their A-game.
After the show we quickly went to the food hall and got dinner. We had just finished and were talking and laughing when the alarm went off…. “Incoming, incoming, incoming!” I looked at my Guide and we both hit the ground…close your eyes and open your mouth and wait for the big surprise. Oh great I get to live my 20’s all over again! Those are the rules. When you hear the alarm you hit the ground wherever you are, close your eyes, open your mouth and wait. You close your eyes for protection from debris and open your mouth so your ear drums don’t burst because of the impact/pressure.
As I was on the ground, I remember looking at my guide and saying “REALLY?! REALLY!? WE JUST ATE!” Cant the enemy wait. I just ate for Christ sake! My body kicked into survival mode and I was numb, the adrenaline was pumping so hard. I remember shaking, thinking when is that fucker going to hit and will it be on me or next to me? I actually had a tingling sensation going on, and not in the area I wanted it to! Right now as I’m typing this I’m getting scared because I remember how that felt at the time.
“If I die, I die…” I thought to myself again. “There is nothing I can do.” As I looked around the room, there were a lot of people that didn’t hit the ground like we did. I guess it just gets old after the 20th time and people give up and say “Whatever!” I can’t imagine getting to a point where this would be “normal” life. Being OK with being a target is not normal. Needless to say, after that I slept in my clothes. The girls laughed at me. But there was no way in hell that I was going to sleep in my scrubs and t-shirt after that.
We got up early the next day and off we went. Back to the original place we started. Kyrgyzstan. The transit base. Going to war or coming back, this is a place to decompress. We had one more show to do, but before we took the stage the soldiers presented us with a flag. It was flown on behalf of the 22d Expeditionary Air refueling squadron over the skies of Afghanistan on Sept 6th 2013. It flew onboard a KC-135 R Stratotanker during a combat refueling mission. During this mission 6 A-IV Thunderbolts and 2 F-16 Fighting Falcons were refueled with 43,800 pounds of fuel by dedicated members of the US Air Force, representing our commitment to ground and air forces supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. Well if that isn’t a time to well up with tears and try not to lose it moment I don’t know what is!! Geeezzz Louise!!! I never felt more patriotic in my life than right then.
Now we had to do a show! And I’m happy to say it was one of our best ones. Perfect stage, huge American Flag behind us, standing room only, every comics dream. So much fun! Everyone was so into it, laughing, cheering, clapping. Afterwards, we talked to so many men and women, signed autographs and pictures, hugged… There was lots of hugging. These people needed hugs. I had one man come up to me after the show, eyes all teared up who said “I have been here for 9 months and watching you on stage and hanging with you made it all worth while. Thank you so much.” I stood there, not quite sure what to say. I am the worst at taking a compliment…but I saw how sincere he was. I started to well up and we just hugged each other and I said “Thank you.” I’ll never forget that moment. He’s not even in his mid 20’s, not even really old enough to have lived and enjoyed the very freedom that he is fighting for along with so many of the other troops.
That night all of us comics just stayed up. We had to catch our plane to Istanbul Turkey at 1am. So there was no point in sleeping? Plus we all were so jacked up from performing and hanging out with these great men and women that we couldn’t have slept if we wanted to.
It was sad and humbling leaving. I thought about everything I had experienced, the dust I tasted in my mouth every day, the surge of adrenaline I felt when I heard a missile go off, the heat of a country that’s hotter than hell, the rumbling of the massive trucks that drive on the base, and just feeling the heaviness of war in the air. You take a little with you when you leave. I can’t really explain it but I know that I am forever changed by it.