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Bob Delaney's journal of his personal journey to Iraq

Here are excerpts from Delaney's journal about events that made an impact on his life and on the soldiers whose paths he crossed on his trip to Iraq last month.

JULY 10

Driving to Tampa International with my wife, Billie, a strange feeling of separation begins to sink in. I travel all over the country, grabbing flights at all hours to get to the next NBA city or make the next speaking engagement, but this suddenly feels very different. It hits me hard that I'm traveling into a war zone. It makes me realize how tough it is for the soldiers who leave their loved ones and know they may not make it back.

Only three weeks before, I stood on the stage at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., for the paperback launch of Covert, talking to members of the military and law enforcement about my experiences with PTSD. The widow of a Marine who had committed suicide after two tours in Iraq presented me with his military medallion. She asked me to wear it in his honor, and told me she only wished her late husband could have heard me talk about facing the pain of the past instead of bottling it up inside. I will never forget that moment, and that medallion serves as a reminder and a motivation.

Then came my testimony for the FBI at the mob trial, and the tension of being re-immersed in that world — an experience that I had dealt with and put away and the scab was being taken off that wound; having to face that criminal subculture again. I understood my obligation, no matter how unpleasant it may have been.

Now I'm starting a new experience that has my heart pounding, something I refer to as "quick blood" when talking to law enforcement officers. At Kennedy International, I meet up with broadcaster Ron Barr, free agent NFL wide receiver Tim Dwight and tour manager John Bullock, then board a flight to Kuwait. As we take off that evening, doubts begin to creep in: Did I make the right decision to join the tour? Will we be safe? Why I'm I putting my family through this? But I've faced fear and the unknown before in my life, and I remind myself these are natural reactions. My favorite quote from Hall of Fame college coach John Wooden comes to mind: "You cannot realize a full life until you do something for someone who will never be able to repay you."

JULY 11

Twelve hours later, we land in Kuwait, where people throw candy at arriving passengers — apparently a tradition here. A team picks us up and takes us to a huge military base called Camp Arifjan. The base is a city unto itself. There's even a Starbucks-style coffee shop. After dinner, the soldiers are playing the semifinals games in the men's and women's basketball tournament, so I put on my NBA refs uniform and throw the ball up for the ceremonial tip-off. The gym is packed — a real Saturday night out. When the game ends, the soldiers ask all kinds of NBA questions and pose for photos. So many of them thank us for being there. Many of them tell me they know about my past life from reading Covert or seeing the ESPN and HBO stories about me in recent years. But thanks to my publisher, Sterling/Union Square Press, many more will know the story because 1,000 free copies of the book will be given to the military. Back at the dorm building, I talk with soldiers heading to Iraq and others coming from there. I meet one young man, Juan, from Tampa. We talk half the night and he shares his family photos. I can't imagine how hard the separation must be for him and the wife and kids he left back home.

JULY 12

We drive through a sandstorm to Ali Al Salem Air Force Base for our flight. It feels like a snowstorm and I think, "There's no way we can fly in this." We arrive at the air base and the mood is serious, very serious, with hundreds of soldiers sitting in black easy chairs watching TV, sleeping, trying to relax before heading off to who knows what. Some are going to Baghdad, some to Mosul. I talk to a soldier who has been burned on his face, head and hands, getting ready for his third deployment. He was a man of few words, simply saying, "I have a job to do." I notice many wedding rings on the men and women in the hall and think of the ripple effect that war has on families. I can read the concern on the faces and in the body language of the soldiers — some starting a one-year tour of duty in Iraq, others returning from leave. We are all wearing a helmet and Kevlar body armor, making us sweat profusely in the hot desert air. Finally we pack into a C-130, sitting across from the soldiers going into battle. There's so much noise we have to wear ear plugs for the flight to Mosul. Tim Dwight preps me for the landing, because there's no flight attendant telling you to put your tray table up. The plane goes into a steep dive that I learn is a military-style landing used in combat zones — like nothing I've ever experienced before in 25 years of commercial flying.

Members of the 25th Infantry Division, CP North, Camp Marez are on hand to greet us at the air base. A vehicle follows bumpy dirt roads, taking us straight to the mess hall. After dinner, we enter a security-controlled, walled unit within the base to our housing units. Shortly after 9, we get a briefing from Gen. Bob Brown, one of the top U.S. commanders in Iraq. Back at the CHU (contained housing unit — two beds and a locker) by 10:30, my roommate Tim Dwight and I hear a bomb explode in the distance and both say at the same time, "Did you hear that?" I have a restless night's sleep, wondering what lies ahead.

JULY 13

I awake at 5 a.m. to the sound of a bomb blast — a common event in Mosul as we will learn. After working out in the CP North gym (think of the movie Rocky, just bare-bones) and breakfast, we learn that the explosion killed several Iraqi soldiers in the lead car of a convoy. A truck arrives to deliver cases of bottled water — dehydration is part of the life in the war zone.

I have my first ride in a Black Hawk chopper. When I fumble with the seat-belt straps, Col. Stephen Myers takes control and fastens me in, no different than the way I secure my grandkids in my own car. Somebody's always got your back. Our group flies in two "birds," accompanying Gen. Brown to Erbil, a Kurdish area some 40 miles outside of Mosul. We are greeted by members of the Kurdistan army. A convoy of 10 cars being led by a pickup truck with a 50-caliber machine gun and armed soldiers provide a wild ride. We arrive at a beautiful government building and meet Minister Sanjari, whose region reminds me of Europe. He and Gen. Brown discuss security for the upcoming elections and I present the minister with a copy of Covert and NBA T-shirt. After about 90 minutes, we leave that location and head to a Kurdish military base, where we meet with four generals, a Kurdish sports announcer and two former soccer players. Again, it underlines to me the bridge that sports play in bringing people from a variety of cultures together.

More copies of Covert and T-shirts are handed out, triggering their tradition of showing gratitude by kissing me on both cheeks. It was a long way from the single kiss on the cheek greeting I'd get from the Mob guys back in the '70s.

The tour leads to the Citadel, the oldest-known inhabited location in the world. I hear stories of how many of their soldiers' families were tortured and killed under the Saddam Hussein regime. It is heart-wrenching to hear those tales and see evidence of that torture — like one teen I saw with no arms. It reminds me of the sick-to-the-stomach feeling I would get when the mobsters would talk about the physical injury they had inflicted on their victims — underlining to me that bad guys are bad people no matter what part of the world you are in.

We go into a restaurant with U.S. and Kurd soldiers and I encounter a reaction I never expected. A Kurdish teen grilling kabobs sees me and starts yelling something in words I can't understand. Then he salutes me and blows kisses. I have no idea what he wants, but he's clearly excited and I suddenly understand the word "Lakers." The interpreter comes over and explains the teen is saying, "I see you referee Laker games. I love Lakers. You break up fight this year in Laker game. I see you all the time on Laker NBA games." He kisses me on both cheeks, while the Army personnel laughs. Even a world away, it shows you the popularity of the NBA and how small our world really is.

As the sun sets, we board the Black Hawks to return to base. The pilots decide to toy with the rookie on board — me. The chopper goes up and down and to the side and flies at every possible angle. The pilot sends a barf bag back to my seat. Through the headset, I tell them, "Even if you were getting me sick, I'd never let you know." A lesson from my days as Bobby Covert — never let them see you sweat.

Back at the base, we have a cake to celebrate Tim Dwight's birthday on the lanai with a mural of Hawaiian beaches painted on it — a place designed for R&R right in the middle of a war zone. Gen. Brown passes out cigars and several soldiers strum guitars. For that moment, the stress of war fades into the background.

JULY 14

As I write, there is gunfire in the distance — okay, now a bomb. We spent the day with Special Units — which includes K9, Unmanned Air Vehicles, tank units and IED Sweepers — and take part in Ron Barr's Sports Byline radio show in the mess hall from 5-7 p.m. The evening serves as a send-off party for a unit leaving the next day and there's a presentation of Bronze Stars to a pair of soldiers. I also get to give my first PTSD presentation before Gen. Robert Caslen and the troops. It begins with Gen. Brown asking me to explain calls and signals that I use in the NBA. That allows me to have some fun with the soldiers and gradually transition into a discussion of my life undercover and the pressures I faced. I speak for 45 minutes, telling the soldiers about the fear I felt as Bobby Covert. I share that cops and soldiers like to think of themselves as being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but we feel the same fears as anyone else. I explain how I would leave a meeting with the bad guys, then drive and have to pull off the side of the road to puke my guts out, or find the nearest gas station because I had diarrhea. Those are normal reactions to abnormal situations and there is no shame in it. These are things that must be talked about openly. I could see the soldiers listening closely to my words. We stay up half the night talking about the NBA, the Covert life and PTSD. Two soldiers share deep pain from their combat experience with me about their ongoing battle with post traumatic stress.

JULY 15

We spend the day visiting units at Camps Marez and Diamondback. They take us through the base hospital as if we had been injured, so we get a first-hand look at the process — the ER, operating rooms, ICU and the X-ray machines. I ask the medical staff "Who takes care of you?" They show me a garden that they care for. It has grass, plants, little waterfalls and benches. They explain it is a Zen-like world for them, an escape where they go to release stress.

At night, I give a formal presentation of my undercover experience and an HBO segment on my life is shown to the troops.

JULY 16

We travel by Black Hawks to the Syrian border and meet Army, Marine, Air Force and Navy troops. As we land, we can see soldiers wearing Iowa baseball caps in honor of Tim Dwight's alma mater. We are given a tour of COP Heider in Rabiyah, Iraq, the point of entry into Syria. Lt. Col. Richard Vinas presents us with a framed certificate of appreciation, commemorating our visit with his troops. This base had not had visitors in two years.

A few hours later, we're back on the choppers en route to the mansion of Sheik Abdullah, where we meet with his brothers, Sheik Shammar, and Sheik Faisel. Sheik Shammar wears full traditional garb for the meeting with the general. We are served tea, then have a lunch feast — lamb on both ends of a long table on beds of rice. At one point, Sheik Shammar flips through my book and sees a photo of me from my undercover days, a shot with my long hair in pin curlers, and says, "You look like al-Qaeda." I say, "Maybe I should infiltrate them, too." He smiles and says, "Please do."

Back at the base, we do another radio show and I referee a basketball game between teams of soldiers. After it ends, Gen. Brown and I play a game of HORSE in front of the crowd. They love it — and it doesn't hurt that the general beats me. He and I return to his office around 10 p.m. and a siren goes off. Gen. Brown looks at me and says, "That's not good" in a calm, matter-of-fact way. It was obvious to me I was with a veteran combat soldier. Then comes a recorded message blaring the words, "Incoming, incoming." He tells me to follow him to the bunker, where we can hear bombs exploding nearby for 15 minutes. After a half hour, we get the all-clear. Since this was our last night, I thank Gen. Brown for making sure we received the full experience on the frontline.

JULY 17

It is time to depart Iraq. We leave from Camp Marez on a C-130, destination Kuwait. By now, I know that flight times mean nothing. Hurry up and wait is a way of life. I feel a sense of separation from the troops I had spent so much time with, acutely aware that I am leaving them behind. It's hard to believe a week has passed. It seems more like a month. There have been so many relationships formed, connections made and memories that will stay with me always. I knew I would be meeting soldiers on this trip. But as I left, I realized I had made life-long friends.

JULY 18-20

After spending the night in a Kuwait hotel, it's time for the next leg of the journey — a flight to Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany. We arrive Saturday night and on Sunday, we spend a day in Heidelburg and I make the comment to Ron Barr that we've lived a compressed version of what real soldiers experience: we've been to war, and now we're on R&R. Heidelberg is a beautiful old city, approximately five hours by plane away from the war zone, yet those five hours make all the difference in how I feel. Being here, away from the constant awareness of potential danger, creates a sense of renewal and reflection. It underlines to me that this escape has been going on for soldiers in every war. We visit the Warrior Center Sunday night at the Landsthul Hospital. It's painful to see our soldiers hurting so badly from injuries sustained in battle. We visit with them, doing our best to offer words of encouragement — and do the same with the doctors, nurses and hospital staff. We do a radio show back at the Warrior Center for those who can attend, and I hand out NBA shirts and books.

JULY 21

On the trans-Atlantic flight home, my thoughts keep returning to the soldiers I met. I have gained a far greater awareness of the sacrifice they make for us. I think back to the gifts they have given me — the soldier who handed me the uniform he wore in 60 combat missions and who is currently dealing with PTSD; the flag given to me by SPC Mayra Arias — flown in my honor "over Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul, Iraq" on July 15; and the endless military coins from each of the units we spent time with, along with hats and T-shirts.

Having met and lived with the troops and seen their work — meeting the Iraqis and Kurds — I realized that the bottom line is we all want the same thing: a secure environment that allows our families the opportunity to grow, live and play in a way that gives generations to follow more opportunities than we had. It's not any different than what the folks who live on my street want for their family.

We land at Dulles International. As I walk through the terminal, I hear my name being shouted from behind, "Bob Delaney!" I turn and see two soldiers. They're smiling and waving copies of Covert. They tell me they met me at Camp Marez in Iraq. I tell them I hope the time we spent together and the reading of my story will underline the saying I coined a few years back: Some people go through experiences, while other people grow through experiences. I knew that this was one experience that helped me grow and I hope it did the same for them.

Bob Delaney's journal of his personal journey to Iraq 08/07/09 [Last modified: Sunday, August 9, 2009 9:15pm]

    

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