I received my Christmas present early this year by going on a photography assignment to Iraq from Oct. 24 – Nov. 1. Having completed 35 Celebrity Tours with the USO in twelve years, I embarked on my first tour with a new organization, Stars for Stripes (www.starsforstripes.com), which was started by my good friend Judy Seale who I met on early USO tours. This tour was different!
Judy's charitable endeavors include soliciting artists to perform for the U.S. military based throughout the world. In the past ten years, Judy has escorted artists dedicated to entertaining our troops on more than 60 tours into war-torn areas. Stars for Stripes provides quality entertainment to internationally deployed U.S. military forces, promotes patriotism and civic pride among the troops, and educates the general public regarding various aspects of U. S. military history and engagement.
On this tour, I traveled with Stars for Stripes, a film crew, two country music artists and two soldiers previously wounded in Iraq as we visited military bases and hospitals in Iraq and German.
Musicians Craig Morgan (whose song "Bonfire" is No. 12 on the Billboard chart) and Chris Young who is currently celebrating his first No. 1 Billboard hit with "Gettin' You Home (The Black Dress Song)" played a series of acoustic concerts as we visited military and civilian facilities throughout the country. Wounded soldiers SFC Joe Bowser (US Army Retired) and SSGT Scott Lilley (USAF) were both injured overseas in the line of duty. Bowser is an amputee who was wounded in Iraq in 2004, while Lilley has undergone a remarkable recovery from a traumatic brain injury sustained in Baghdad in 2007. Both men were committed to returning to the Middle East to show their support for the troops stationed there today.
"My thoughts on returning to Iraq are more than I ever thought they would be. First, I never thought I would go back to Iraq after I was wounded, but now that I have the chance, I am so excited to go back to where it all started," said Lilley before the tour. "I'm a little nervous, but hey, I was nervous about going my first time. It's a time for some closure after being wounded there, and here it comes. I am so ready."
SFC Bowser added, "I was wounded in Balad, Iraq and I would like to walk out this time. I never felt like I finished my mission and in some way I feel like this trip may change that feeling. They say after you get bucked off, you have to get back in the saddle. Well, this is my saddle."
Most people will never have the opportunity to visit with soldiers in Iraq and see into their world.
I was pretty lucky to be asked to document this tour, along with High Five Entertainment who filmed the trip for a one-hour GAC television special, which airs in December. It was a privilege visiting with the brave men and women who are serving us so proudly and to be able to say thanks and bring a little bit of home to our troops. And, it was an honor traveling with and getting to know both Joe and Scott, our wounded hero's.
At each concert, Joe and Scott along with Scott's Dad would climb on stage and tell the stories of how they were injured and what it was like. Every member of the tour seemed to get sand in their eyes during this part of the show, and for me, it was just plain hard to focus my cameras.
We also met some of the doctors in Iraq and Germany that saved the lives of Joe and Scott. In Balad, we walked into the hospital where doctors and nurses lined up and applauded both of the injured soldiers.
It was an emotional rollercoaster ride like I haven't been on before. It really makes you think and be thankful for the freedom and good health we share in America. We enjoy freedom today because soldiers like my dad (WWII-USMC who fought in the Pacific), our friends and neighbors and other loved ones fought for it. It's easy to forget and take these things for granted. I have a better outlook on life after this tour.
In a recent e-mail from SFC Joe Bowser after returning home, he said the following:
I did this trip for a selfish reason and that was to bring closure for me and nothing else. It is a good thing that God sees things a lot larger than we do. I couldn't believe how our stories touched so many other warriors and encouraged them to keep going. Plus meeting all of you made my family a lot bigger. If there is ever anything you need please let me know and I will be there. When I say that, I'm not just blowing smoke you can count on me. AIRBOURNE!!!