Iraq USO Tour: the Ultimate Price of Freedom

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Looking over Mosul, Iraq on top of a former Saddam Hussein palace

I’ve always been the one to jump at an opportunity. If someone says, “come visit!” or “let’s plan a trip!”, I’ll be the one actually taking you up on that. It has always paid off. And it was the same, and then some, for my trip to Kuwait and Iraq.

When I told my mom and boyfriend I was selected to represent the Atlanta Falcons as a Cheerleader on a USO tour in Iraq, neither we’re thrilled. I got a bunch of, “why?!”. I was pumped because I saw it as a once in a lifetime opportunity. I don’t ever foresee myself leisurely traveling to Iraq. I’ve also always loved any event supporting our troops.

So, head Coach Dan Quinn, Falcons players Alex Mack, Ben Garland, Matt Bryant, Director of Community Relations Chris Millman, Video Guru Asutin Hittel, my Cheer teammate Alex Giannini, and myself jumped on 3 flights headed to Kuwait and then Iraq.

We overnighted in Kuwait and had a few hours to explore the culture. We walked around the souq, a perfect example of a traditional marketplace, and grabbed dinner. I’m still not exactly sure what all we ate but it was delicious. I mean, naan instead of dinner bread…yes, please. We even tried camel milk which tasted just like cow’s milk. Hey, when in Kuwait.

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The souq, Kuwait City

The next morning, we headed to Baghdad on a C-130. We toured the hospital at Baghdad Diplomatic Support Center and were able to thank and chat to the service men and women who save thousands of lives. The entire hospital was in a tent and/or trailer and is equipped for anything they might encounter. We then toured the base where we went inside the Glass House, which served as one of Saddam Hussein’s private airports. It can now be seen with an American Flag flying high above it.

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Glass House, former Saddam Hussein private airport

From there, we took a Chinook helicopter to Union III. Once boarding the Chinook, Alex and I we’re put in a safety harnesses. There I was thinking, dang this helicopter ride must be pretty dangerous. They’re really strapping down the girls. Nope! They had us walk to the open back edge of the chopper and sit with our legs swinging off the edge. As if a view couldn’t get better or cooler, cue the flares from the Black Hawk behind us.

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Flying over Baghdad, Iraq

Union III was home to the former Baath party headquarters. As we made our way to the top of what remains of the building, our Army guides pointed out where the USA made a few “skylights” for the Baath party. At the top, we took in the views of Baghdad. One of which was where Saddam Hussein was held for trial in 2004.

We met up with Army Lt. General Funk, the commander of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve. He briefed us on the war in Iraq, why we are still needed in Iraq and Syria, and spoke of heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice. We ended the night with a block party where I took a ton of pictures with service dogs, gave away Falcons prizes, swag and autographs, sang karaoke, ate and laughed with the men and women stationed on Union III.

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We stopped at four bases on Day 2. General Funk accompanied us to each one which resulted in the most amazing Black Hawk rides. Each full of wind blow hair in the hurricane seat and commentary of the Iraqi cities below us. We stopped in Camp Taji, Q-West, NOC-E and ended in Erbil Air base. At each stop we had the opportunity to give Falcons gear, autographs, photos, and chat with the service members of the U.S. and coalition partner countries.

The tour ended back in Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait thanking the service men and women there for all they do for us. It was jam-packed trip and the daytime weather was never below 110°F. But seeing and thanking as many service members as we could was our top priority.

This trip not only warmed my heart, but it also reminded me of why I’m so fortunate to be an American. When we flew over the city of Mosul, each of our faces went from excited smiles of being in a Black Hawk to shock and sadness. General Funk explained the battle that took place there in 2016-2017. The horror of ISIS using Iraqi women and children as body shields, seeing the wreckage of the war as their city lies in shambles was extremely sobering. It looked like a scene out of an apocalypse movie. The United States lead the international coalition of 60 nations aiding the Iraqi government in logistical and air support, intelligence and advice. They continue to provide aid in the war against ISIS in Syria and rebuilding the cities that were destroyed.

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City of Mosul, Iraq

While America is the nation leading the coalition, we were able to see and meet the many service members from nations all over our world. Britain, Canada, Italy, Germany, France, Australia, New Zealand, and many other nations are all working together to assist Iraq in fighting, protecting and rebuilding their country.

I have always been a huge supporter of our troops but in all honesty, I realized on this trip that I had become a bit desensitized to the war in Iraq. It’s been on the news the entirety of my adult life. Hearing about the war without politics or the opinion of whoever was talking on the news but rather, directly from General Funk, was eye opening. Seeing the many nations work together for a common cause, to create a better world and assist those in need, was a true statement of teamwork.

The service men and women were so excited to meet members of the Atlanta Falcons. But what many of us attempted to express to them, was that it was truly our pleasure to be there. We took 5 days out of our comfy lives to travel to Iraq. These men and women make the ultimate sacrifice day after day, 6 months, 9 months, years at a time to be there fighting for the world we are accustomed to. They are the epitome of team. Individual soldiers and entire units exude true leadership and heart. What they are doing there matters for each of us back home and for our neighbors in other countries. They are the ones people should be excited to see. They are the true heroes.

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Patching ceremony