Good Morning, Iraq

Originally published on February 9-10, 2005 | San Francisco Chronicle | written by Phil Bronstein

Longtime San Francisco resident, actor and comedian Robin Williams visited Iraq and Afghanistan in December to entertain U.S. troops. It was his second trip to Iraq, his third to Afghanistan. Williams, who won the prestigious Cecil B. DeMille Golden Globe for lifetime achievement in film last month, sat down with Chronicle Editor Phil Bronstein right before the Iraqi election. Williams talked about his trip, what he saw and what he experienced. His travels were part of a tour organized by the USO (United Service Organizations).

RW: "This was two years ago again. That's Baghdad. I was given actually the San Francisco camel helmet. This is a traditional macrame camel worn by basically only people in the Haight. 'Yeah, you're gonna get far with that.'"

Robin Williams: Some of the shows in Iraq were indoors. A lot were outdoors. It's weird when you're doing the shows, like in Iraq we do these shows and everyone's in full camo (camouflage) and we're not--so it's kinda like, "Woooow."
One time we did a show two years ago, it was in Iraq and the entire audience was all in helmets and camo except for a group of Australians sitting in this truck smoking. I thought it was a fuel truck, but they said later on it's a water truck. (Australian accent): "No, go ahead Robin," (makes sound of match and an explosion noise)...
It's weird to see all these different camouflages because in the coalition troops, the coalition of the willing, there's all types of camo. The Australians come with somewhat desert camo, we have desert camo and some guys come straight deployment and they have full green, which I'm going: "Doesn't work here. Nice desert." And then the Air Force has this new blue camouflage. Unless you're up against the sky, what is this s--? Blue, like big time. Even gay people are going, "Like: no. Quail egg, what is it? It's teal, it's teal and white, it's so fabulous!"
The shows, we would perform to 2,000 to 3,000 in some places... by the end, it got to be a good rhythm. It was first Leeann Tweeden, who had just got to be on the cover of what was that magazine? FX magazine or one of those... And she did one of those spreads that was, it was just close enough to go (in dramatic loud voice) "WHEW! Helloooo boys!" And the guys are going "YEAHHH!"

So, the structure was like an old Bob Hope show?
Oh, yeah, like a traditional Bob Hope show, kind of, except blue. You know, Bob Hope with a strap-on. The general (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard B. Myers) opened the show. He was like the hardcore. He sets the tone just to say, hey, thank you. He's very personal because he gets out and meets everyone. In the first year, we went with him. The first year we went alone. It was just USO shows, just me. We did the shows and most times we'd stay in the bases overnight. Like in Afghanistan, we'd stayed. Bagram, Kandahar, Jacobabad (Pakistan) and then a base in Afghanistan. You'd go visit all the bases. When you go with the general, it's in and out. The first time it was just me. Last year it was with the general again, which was fun. You travel on his nickel and you get in and get out. No waiting.

Was this the longest time you spent over there?
No, I think the first time was. Same amount of time as last year but more shows. It was like 13 shows. It was all what we used to call "one-night 'Stans." All these former Russian republics. Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, ending up in Pakistan.

You were at some secret bases--They couldn't say where you were?
They couldn't. You'd go, "Where were we?" (in Arab accent) "It's beautiful, I don't know." My favorite thing is when you go, especially in Afghanistan, and you see all the Special Forces--and the covert-op guys. You'd see these heavily bearded guys going "Who are the surfers?" Oh, and they're heavily armed, like heavily armed Amish. Hardcore stuff. Usually some beards. A lot of them have typical Afghan wear. Couple of times you'd see a guy in full Afghan clothes, except for a New York Yankees hat--which confuses the Afghans. Yankees caps are huge (in Arab accent): "Can you also get me Steelers, Oakland Raiders? Perfect?" The first year we went there were no restrictions... the shows were the shows. And it was just me. It was pretty wild and they just set up makeshift stages outside and that was pretty crazy--the first time, it was a really hot room, like 500 or 800 guys. It was like a sauna. But we had a blast. And afterwards, we'd sign pictures.

So did you get a sense this year the mood was different?
No, I think they're still kind of hanging in. Plus it's a volunteer army still, except for the National Guard. We played this one base which was like a staging base, what was it called? Camp Virginia (Kuwait)--that's where they come to stage and that was the only place, where you made the joke about Rumsfeld and the iron and we're trying to get you some iron and they went "Yeaaah." And we're like "Are you going to pimp your own irons?" And they're like "F--, yeah!"
Blake Clark was a Vietnam vet and a comic in Kuwait and he was edgy because for him it was cathartic because he said, "I never want you to go through what I went through. I want you to come back and not have people look at you like... (moans)." There are a lot of National Guard units going back, and re-equipping and going back--and it was a week after Rumsfeld and that's the only place you kind of got the sense of, "We need more s--, come on, you know."

In "Good Morning, Vietnam," you kind of had the movie sets of the same--
Yeah, and in a weird way, that would be your opening line, and just like Blake when he would come out would do his thing from--he had been in "The Waterboy," and he would do that, and they all knew the character so well. Because he had played a Cajun character in "Waterboy" you couldn't understand--and his opening line was: "The only movie you know me from, you can't understand a f-- word I said." The order was, Leann Tweeden would go out and would basically work it, and very sweet and but basically the T&A factor. And her family had been in the service for years and she's done a lot of these shows everywhere--so she goes out and then it was John Elway, who was great, who actually by the end started to get really funny.

And he's like shooting footballs out into the audience? No steroids?
None. (in Southern accent): "I'm just clean and happy." And he was throwing out footballs and then Blake went on and then kicked ass and then I'd go on so it was like more of a show than we ever had before. I would start off with "Good Morning whatever the name of the place was," and then riff, and go off from there.

I mean, the tension for you, you're on these Blackhawks and even with the armor--
As weird as it is, as weird as it seems, it isn't scary--it's like the only time. The first year we went, they had combat landings and takeoffs, which is kinda surreal--like a weird ride except you realize the consequence of the ride is if someone shoots at you that maybe you go down. But most of the time they spiral in and you're sitting up front. And the first time they land in Afghanistan, they say, "Mr. Williams, you want to stay up here," you start seeing the whole flight crew strapping in Kevlar and helmets and guys getting up by the doors. And you're going, "Shouldn't we...?" And then they spiral in and you land, and the moment you get off the plane, they say, "Please sir, stay on the path." "Why? What's on the other side?" "It's still mined." I went, "Thank you."

RW: "Oh this is Frank, GQ Frank (right). He's studly. He was always studly. He has tattoos that even hardcore Bowery are going, 'Not bad.' It's great when you arrive with GQ Frank because he's sitting in the car, he's got the (automatic weapon). So he's there looking out the door, he's like this all the time (Williams demonstrates--eyes furiously surveying the area) and he's still talking to us. He's going, 'Is everyone OK?' but he's looking backwards and sideways."

(Switches to Bob Hope voice) Yeah, it's crazy isn't it? The back nine is still mined. Yeah, I love it here. I'll keep my feet, thank you. Who's that? Stumpy? (in soft Arab accent) "I'm local mineworker."
But the one takeoff, out of Balad, at night. Totally blacked out. They're in all night-vision goggles and I was sitting in the back this time... And they just go whoooom and it's straight up, just like Space Mountain, and all you hear is like WHOA! And people who have done it are like, "Shut up. Is that your hand?" "Maybe." It's all C-130s, which are these old, the standard ones they've been using for years. They don't have the gunner anymore. The weird thing is with the crew on the C-130, everyone's looking for flashes, even with night vision. They're just looking for that. One time we took off out of Afghanistan, I was sitting in the cockpit. You hear: (robotic voice) "Missile launch, missile launch," and they pop flares but it can be a reflection off the ground. Any heat signature off the ground registers as a missile? "Is that OK?" And they say, "Yeah, that's nothing." Oh really? OK, thank you. (In robotic voice: Windshear, 500. Missile launch.) And they run the test on all of those things. (Robotic voice, shrill this time): "Warning: You're f--. Warning: Back up, move out." But there was never a sense of imminent danger, I mean, even though the week after we left, they hit that cafeteria, which we'd been in the year before.

How much did you travel on the ground?
You travel in between bases all over--we never went into to the cities. Like in Kandahar, it used to be like a minor equivalent of what La Guardia was. A little TWA-built, shot up, shot to s--, man, with all sorts of Farsi on the wall, "F-- you." And big blown-up buildings, especially when we went there the first time because it was right after the invasion... And that was the one thing about Afghanistan. You'd fly over it and realize, this is bleak, and then you land and you realize it's even bleaker. And they said at one point, that whole valley was the most fertile valley in Afghanistan. It was beautiful. And obviously for poppies--opium. And it's back, big. The good news for heroin addicts, the opium is back, big! And you saw the article in the paper, where they go, "We don't know if it will affect the election if we stop poppy growth." Livelihood: "Potatoes? Poppies? Your call." We found that nobody's freebasing French fries. "What are you, chasing the potato?"

You would wade into the crowd, I read.
You would do kind of a re-con, and find out what's happening at the base. In Afghanistan I kind of knew certain things about the place, the dust. The first time we landed in Afghanistan, it was at 3 p.m. in the afternoon. And the dust was so big it was like "Lawrence of Arabia," except played in Oklahoma. It was to the point the guys would say you would cough an adobe brick. And I transferred that, so, basically: "You can s-- your own buildings here." The second time we went was at night and we went and did a show in Kandahar and the Special Forces and all these guys were all up on the roof and they have their own compound because they're pretty much off reservation anyway--they're all up there with glow sticks, it's like Woodstock--they're like "F-- dude." They're all up there with glow sticks, which they use to mark landing zones.

RW: This was from two years ago. That's in Balad, when all the elves came up. Balad, which was a big staging base in Iraq. This is where all these girls came up as elves and reindeer and nurses, Which was so wonderful: Elves, reindeer and IVs."

Except they don't grab their own ordnance.
"What's that? Oww! F-- you, idiot! That's not a flare, dumb f--, C-4, f-- off!" The first time we landed, there was still a lot of coalition. The Australians were still there, the English, all these guys. The second time we came back there were fewer and fewer, Lithuanians, Latvians. I'd meet guys from Estonia: "What are you here for?"

So when you'd go into the crowds, would you--
Meet people, talk to them--and get re-con for what the show could be about. Like when we did this one major base in Qatar, the big one... I said, "You guys really have it hard," because they had a thing that said "day spa." I went, "ah, war is heck, isn't it?" And all these guys said: "Day spa? Ah, f-- off." "They got the day spa, you bastards." And then we did an aircraft carrier, which is pretty crazy. And a guy complained about the food and everybody went, "Shut the f-- up. Have an MRE (meal ready to eat) and shut up."

And when you'd go in to talk to them, what kinds of things did people say to you?
Most of the time, they'd say, thanks for coming, thanks for being here, thanks, it helps--because it's before Christmas. I think for them it's like, the show is pretty loose. Like last year, I do the full thing like on HBO and I'd look up and see the general and he's there laughing--kind of, I mean. He has to hold decorum and he's having a great time and I'd see his wife and I'm like "sorry!" and I'd be doing this really blue Viagra kind of string and spraying the audience and they're going nuts and--I'd look down and I'm like, "please."

So you could do anything you wanted?
Pretty much. This year they said, just back off a little because it's the general's final tour and they don't want him to take flak for bringing the little blue boy. But it was cool. I backed it up a little and it still worked.
There was one show where there were a lot of kids in the audience and that was pretty much like, (in Mr. Rogers accent) "Hi, boys and girls."

Kids? Like, actual kids?
Kids like kids. In Bahrain, there were a lot of families--they've since moved them out. They thought it was too dangerous--even in Bahrain--even this year there were more kids so that was the place I just (makes smooch sound) "hi boys and girls." When you talked to them, you'd meet people, a husband and wife either stationed at the same base, like a nurse and doctor--or nurse and her husband's a helicopter pilot. And I'd meet them and they'd ask if you'd go to the next base and try and say hi to so-and-so and we'd run into people like that. Or one time we got a box of cookies from this girl and the cookies were left behind because they got mixed up in some luggage, we changed planes but I still met the girl on the other end and said thanks for trying. I think it's the main object of just showing up and having a good time with them.
Did I get a sense that things are tougher? Yeah, you can pick up on that.
You get a sense that it's hardcore. We toured a hospital in Kandahar. The wounded there were a couple of helicopter pilots. I don't know if they'd been shot down or crashed but they were stable and conscious. The first time we went there we met these kids and that was pretty rough because there was a boy who had been wounded by a mine and his parents wanted nothing to do with it. He was pretty beaten up, I don't think he was going to make it. And you just saw the look in his eyes, like "What? why? why?" But there was also a little boy who they were going to adopt, who was part of a thing--remember that wedding party that got shot up because they got celebratory fire--well, there was this little boy who had survived that and his parents didn't and they were going to adopt him he was just riding around on hot wheels like, "What happened?" "Nothing."

You heard about this kid who got brought to Oakland, we did a big long series on him. He came across a mine. And the guys over there pulled him in and fixed him and Children's Hospital in Oakland said we'll take him and they sent him here with his father.
The mines are hideous. Plus now, the explosive damage, the only show where you saw a lot of wounded was in Ramstein (Germany), which is the main base. If you can make it to Ramstein, you're going to make it. They have a 24-7 constant hospital, and they say the problem is the body armor protects the core body. But limbs... I met a lot of guys, even when we did the challenged athletes, which is amputees and different things, there were a lot there this year--even a couple that were going back, who get a prosthesis and go back to Iraq to their unit. They want to go back and they'll have some function, like a driver, but they don't want to leave their unit.

What always struck me after being in combat and war zones for so long, was that "wounded" and "killed" never fully describe the kind of indignities the human body can go through.
No, you can't even think. I mean, there was a guy sitting in front and he'd obviously been burned, and they had him with that burn gel on and he was watching the show and his hands were in the blanket and at first everyone thought he'd lost his arms. He was still kind of shell shocked but he was OK and he was kind of laughing like this--you saw that he'd been pretty badly burned but they're reconstructing. But it wasn't like the hideous burns but he'd taken a major hit. A lot of those guys were there. But they didn't have the hardcore in the front. But it's still like you said, no one can explain this--especially the more brutal the weapons are.

Have you heard from people who saw you over there?
Yeah, we get all sorts of amazing letters. Yeah, you get letters from them, you get letters from their families, you get letters from spouses, you get letters saying thanks. I got this weird kind of bittersweet letter from this woman who said thank you for my son--saying he's having a really tough time but you performed and he had a really great day and he said it helped him so much. Sorry to say that he passed away, he was killed. That was last year.
Even Blake said, when he was in Vietnam sometimes the only things you can kind of get were those shows. The first time we went we got to see more people, and they actually would take you to all the different extremities of the base and you'd met the guys at the perimeter who were like, "What the f-- are you doing here, man?" And you'd see them and they'd come out dressed like mosquito men in the night-vision and go "Hey, Mr. Williams, how are you dude?" And they'd show you the stuff, which is pretty wild. I'd say put on the night-vision goggles. And one guy said one night he was looking out with the night-vision goggles in Afghanistan and saw an Afghan with a goat and he said, "I don't want to see that again." He was like: "That f-- me up for a week, Jack." (In calm, clinical accent) "What's he doing to the goat?" "Don't ask." A good goat'll do that.
But the shows themselves were pretty wild and great. In terms of a performance, it's some of the best audiences you'll ever get in your life.

Is it like a different energy?
It's like insane. You kind of wonder, do they tell them: (in very official command) "You must laugh at these people or we will hurt you." I think they just have a good time. They go nuts, and especially if you start playing with them, if you start f-- with the officers, or you start making fun, like. You start messing with different groups of people and you talk about the camo, going, "What were you thinking?" The thing you see that kind of gets you is how young, and there's this dedication and this kind of force and you go and you see this youth, and that's why you think "war--how insane." This youth, these people and this incredible energy and intelligence and dedication is getting chewed up.

RW: "This is where they're making a USO center in Afghanistan for the football player who died, Pat Tillman... That's the general, myself... I'm the only one without the hardhat, because I look like Mickey Mouse, I didn't want to pull a Dukakis. It's basically an audition for the Afghani Village People. These guys are basically Department of Defense, DoD. They're with the general. They're reservists, a lot of them are special forces, then there were cops."

You probably don't think about it at the moment, but 1,200 people killed and tens of thousands wounded... There is a scene in "Good Morning, Vietnam" when the convoy's stuck, you do the impromptu shtick and there is a moment clearly when your character realizes what this was all about.
And you will know, among these people, some of them won't come back, or be like you said, maimed. That's the thing of going and so you're here and you do this thing that gives them kind of a jolt, just a breakthrough. And a lot of the times, they'll say this, the constant stuff that they're going through on a daily basis. But you realize the one thing with all of this technology, it still comes down to people... It comes down to people wading into other people--and like when you do see the trucks, you'll see the hardcore Hummers and the Bradleys and all the other stuff but then you will see ones that are rigged like "Road Warrior" and you realize, "Don, Don, come on." They are sending units in and they need the best. And the body armor thing, and literally, everyone having the full kit.
We're also traveling with the Joint Chiefs of Staff so there's not going to be somebody coming up, going, "Sir, I've got one old helmet from World War I." But you do meet National Guards who've been there way beyond their tour of duty... These are guards who were called up and have been here two years--especially support guys and support units and they're not support anymore, they're doing frontline stuff. There's no such thing as a rear area.

Do they talk to you about that?
No, they didn't talk about it. You just know. We did this show in this place, I... Al Asad (air base), which was a base built by the Czechoslovakians for Hussein. They dug out an entire valley and they built it. And in that valley there is supposedly a pond or a little oasis where, was it Abraham?--it was actually spoken of in the Bible. It's called the Lion's Mouth--they call it the "Lion's a--hole." It's this f-- hole, where it's like a staging area. It's mainly Marines and mainly Marines that stage. And it's near all the cities that you'd be reading about. And you see these guys and they're like just hardcore.
But the show we did, we're in this room, this old theater, which looked like it was probably the old Iraqi movie theater. We're doing this show and all of sudden the sound cuts out and the lights cut out and so the only light we have is coming from two doors--and everyone's kind of like: "What do we do?" And we went, "F-- it," (then in Ethel Merman voice) "I went to Juilliard," so I'm like, "Buck up!" and they start laughing and you f-- around with them. It was wild but it was probably one of the best. And they're like laughing and I said, "Does this happen a lot?" And they're like, "F-- yeah, we're on the Iraqi grid... and we blew up the only power station." And we're like, "Hey, way to go."

Like "M*A*S*H." But you probably didn't do a lot of Bush stuff, or did you?
The first time we did and you could make fun of him not being the brightest bulb. We didn't do a lot of political stuff. We'd try and it would be kind of like "Hoooooo," and we'd go, "Hmmm, so: This is a red state." In one place we made fun of Rumsfeld, because it was--I kind of went off on Rumsfeld, that he kind of sounds like my dad after a couple of gin and tonics. And they would laugh about that. We didn't hardcore bash him. The first time you could get pretty close to the line. This time I didn't go after it so much. Elections were over, and it seemed like you're here. For me, personally, I kinda find it pretty hypocritical--(Bush) didn't show up for his unit, but they did for theirs. I find that kind of like, he was in the same National Guard unit as Big Foot and he couldn't show up for his physical but these guys did--and they're going back. I find that a little hypocritical. But did we do a lot of that stuff? No. Some politics, some. You can talk about the election a little bit, but I think mostly it was just riffing and, I don't know, I tried it a couple of times, and it seemed to be like, "Wooooooo, heeey, easy, (switches to military voice) 'Don't make fun of the MAN.'"

How was the general (Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff)?
He's great, I find him to be very personable. And he brings his wife, which is kinda wild. And they both kind of wade in to meet people, and she's very much about taking pictures with people. And visiting hospitals and doing all that.

He always seemed like the guy who, when he's at Rumsfeld's briefings, he's the tall one.
He's the tall one--good cop/bad cop. I think he has to do the cleanup after Rumsfeld... He loved having Blake (Blake Clark, a comic on the tour) there because Blake being a Vietnam vet. And he was in the air in Vietnam and Blake did a great routine about one time they ran into a tank and Blake called in for fire support and the guy said, "Is it friendly?" and he went, "I don't think so." And he said, "They don't have tanks." "They do. Either that or it's a very well-armed water buffalo." So he called in for an airstrike. And he gave them the coordinates and this guy all of a sudden came over. And the Phantom comes, and he said he launched a dumb bomb, and this is not a smart bomb, and the f-- thing nailed the tank and the pilot blew away and Blake's going, "You f-- got it, you f-- blew a tank away." And from the radio he heard (calm voice), "Uh roger that." And that was the one time the audience just went, "Yeoow." And anytime you f-- with the Air Force... especially with the new (blue) camouflage, it's like oh man, it's ridiculous. But you know, a lot of times we'd go to these Air Force bases, and they were like the day spa, but it doesn't mean the guys aren't, you know, they get shot at. But it's not like going to the Marine bases, where they guys are like going house to house--it's a different thing. But everybody's in it in a weird way. As of yet, I've never been to the city. The Red Zone...

Because the Green Zone is supposed to be protected in Baghdad.
I love the fact (Bush) is calling for elections: (Arab accent) "We have very few people to run." How can you have an election (Arab accent again) "um, when the polling booth is gone, the electoral officials have been killed? But if you'd like to have an election we can run one like yours online, and get results from Ohio, the 300 to 600 village." It's literally between a rock and a hard place. But do you see a big drop in people? No. We're doing shows with the Joint Chiefs of Staff but I don't think that they're like trying to jack it up to look like everything's good. You're doing a show to say, "Hey man, you're here, we came for you." And I'd go back because it's kind of a powerful experience. I don't think I want to be the Bob Hope of the year 2100, but then you realize, I got why he did it. But I also want to get other people to go, people in their 20s to go and perform for people in their 20s. Listen, I'm 53, I can kind of riff but if I could get someone their age to riff, it would be great, to riff with them and play with them.

RW: "This is this year, this is at that staging base in Iraq. There were a lot of guys wearing first cavalry hats. A guy came and handed me one (in John Wayne voice) 'Well, thank you, Morky.' This big guy came up with this huge first cavalry hat. I went (in John Wayne voice), 'Well, stay on the roads. Here we're goin' here.' They gave me a dozen roses (in Ethel Merman voice): 'Thank you. To be your homecoming queen is so wonderful.' This was a pretty wild place. This is the place we landed at the airport in Iraq. It's in Baghdad. It's a five-minute drive, but obviously they went: 'Not today.' They flew us in Black Hawks. We were in Black Hawks for a five-minute ride."

You weren't thinking 'Black Hawk Down'?
No, I was just thinking, 'Black Hawk up,' 'Blackhawk moving'... (American Indian voice) 'It is a good thing to fly with the great Black Hawk.'... Even being in the Black Hawks is pretty wild because you're thinking of that movie. Plus you see them, and they're all on headsets with the microphones, and you see them whispering, looking back, and you're going: 'What are they saying?' It's louder than s--. You get off there, and they still have standard twin 50s mounted on either side, but they're not being used. They're just kinda dangling. You go: 'Is that OK? Mind if I just pump off a few rounds?'"

You don't want to keep going back, and be the only one...
I want to get other people but it's a hard thing to say to people with your politics--you say, you want to go do this. In a war, that even though I go: I don't know why we're there, but I know they're there, so that's why you still go for them.

Do you get in political trouble for any of this?
No, not so far. Like "F-- you man, why are you doing this?" Bush, I don't support him. You go over there for them (the troops). I don't have to come up with a disclaimer (in official sounding voice): "These are not necessarily the opinions of the present administration." They know that. That's why I won't be at the inaugural ball.
But if you go, you also see the people. You see them. And it's men and women and boys and girls. I mean literally... Have things changed? And I kind of sensed in Afghanistan, that things seemed to be a little better, but you can't judge, it's like judging how's New York living in a precinct. You just see a slight, kind of maybe. But you read today, gradual withdrawal. That's what Kerry said, it's like Vietnamization. As soon as you have elections it's like: "That's it, everything's good. Bye, thank you."

When you're onstage doing the routine or when you're with the audience, there have to be moments where it kind of hits you. Or is it a profound experience period?
It hits you because it just hits you. You kind of look out and you see them. It's more when you're taking pictures--'cause that's when people will talk to you. There will be guys coming up saying stuff like "Thanks man. " A couple of guys said, "We saw you in Afghanistan," and now they're in Iraq. This old Chicano guy who was a helicopter maintenance guy in Afghanistan who must have been in his 60s. He said, "Man, I was in Vietnam," and I sensed that. He'd been there and is probably still there. I didn't see him this time. I had this weird illusion that if I went back each year I'd see the same people. But thank God not. So you can do some of the same stuff and they're going: "It's new." They're cycled out, which is great.

There are routines you did the first time that went over much better?
Yeah, it was like whew. It's like I should do new stuff (in a whisper) "These aren't the same folks: You don't have to worry." And you come back and it's all new commanding officers. The only guy we recognized as the same was in Kuwait or in Bahrain was this big tattooed gunnery sergeant. This guy has got tats everywhere. He's kind of crazy and he's built like a brick s--house. And, on the way to the airport this guy is driving a Toyota with a couple of Department of Defense security guards and pulls up next to the bus and goes (in booming voice), "GOOD DAY TO DIE!" He was a maniac. He normally drives his Harley in Bahrain. And he is this giant, he is like a lifer--kind of the ultimate--funny, weird. As I'm leaving, I say: "You take care of yourself, I'll come back." He said, "I hope so." The tat man. He was the only guy you can't help but recognize. He'll be there. He'll be the last guy out. If they ever leave, he'll be the one in a dinghy going, "F-- this."
But, yeah, it hits you when you see them and when you go to the hospitals. Sometimes it hits you. It hits you. But I haven't been to the hardcore hospitals. I've seen some of the guys in San Diego, but they're ready to go back. Which is weird. That's the kind of loyalty to their unit. Are you doing this for Bush? No.

I guess that's why you don't sense a lessening of enthusiasm--I mean how can you? If you're there, you're in it?
Your focus is that. And they are focused on that. They also know, when you talk to them... But you want to think of what you can do to help people but that's not the problem. The problem is what do you do to get things stable, and withdrawing won't be it. You will create something a million times worse.

But your responsibility while you're there...
Your responsibility is just to have a good time with them and to play and to riff. People say to you to be politically aware. I don't think they have time to be politically aware. But like you said, you could be working with somebody and the next day they're gone.

We look at some of these guys who do blogs from there.
That would be the only place you can really get what's going on. I don't think I can get at these because there's a general there. The first time we went, some guys would talk about things and what they were doing and the guys who lived in the safe house in Mazar-e-Sharif, those were the Special Forces guys. They'd go out during the day and at night withdraw to this compound. But I don't know, Afghanistan is the only place I felt maybe things are working a little bit, but I don't know--comparatively only in the sense that the heroin business is back so they're occupied and they're refunding with that--happy, at least, but nodding off more. Oh and when we were in Djibouti, there's that drug that's legal? Khat, and the general of the base said, "Look over there," and he said, "That's the khat train," and he said, "That's the only thing that delivers on time in this country." And all the trucks are waiting to deliver the khat to be taken to the dealers to be taken to the different points downtown. He said at 2 o'clock it hits the streets, by 5 everyone is kind of whacked and then they get very talky... It's legal there and Yemen. Djibouti is the horn of Africa, and that is the hottest inhabited place on earth. Heat-hottest. And Baghdad is the hottest place gunfire-hottest.

RW: "Here's the boy onstage. This is me... throwing out t-shirts. Or (in Bono accent) could be Bono after a very long weekend--Bono gets back, and that's the same photo again... Yeah. Well, I'm not Bob Hope... (In Bob Hope voice:) 'It's crazy, just one big sand trap, I'll tell ya. What about these things? The Hummer is a car. I didn't know that until I got here, formerly I thought it was an evening with Jill St. John. ... It's crazy. Where was this? God knows." (Camp Victory, Iraq)

Would you want to keep going back?
Yeah, I'd go back. I just want to find out the people that go--and get people more in the age bracket, some music or something that would be kind of kick-ass... There's a lot of people who go a lot. There's also other bases, people forget there's Bosnia, South Korea, other places to go, that's the hardcore. The times we've gone, I always come back going, "I'm glad I did it." The weirdest thing is, they give you unit coins, those alone, I'm going: "Thanks." Unit coins are basically the unit. Usually between officers, if you're at a bar, they hand them off. If you have your unit coin, you have to buy the round. Since I don't drink, I basically have a s-- load of unit coins.

Yeah, khat. That's all I need. "What'd you do the tour for?" "A bag of khat. Khat and two uniforms." (In hillbilly voice) "And I got some hats and T-shirts."

How's dealing with USO?
They're pretty mild--at first I was worried about censorship. Last year it was pretty blue--just this year they said, just tone it back a rat's ass because it's his last year, because it's (Gen. Myers') last tour. I guess after last year, it was really blue, they were like, "We got a few letters." It was like, "OK."... The bad news is, they're probably going to be there for a while.

Somewhere between one and 20 years.
That's the English. (In posh British accent) "If you're lucky, I'd imagine 50. If things fail, one of two things happens. Either they civilize and join you, or you go broke. Look at the English..." But I would go back. The weird thing is the connection was (Myers) and he's gone. He'll be gone in October, so I'll have to meet the new joint chief of staff. (In nerdy voice) "Hello, sir."

He'll be shorter.
They'll find a little guy. (In loud military command) "We need a small Marine."

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