The following story is told by Steven C. Barber.
I left Los Angeles International Airport bound for Frankfurt, Germany on a Sunday afternoon, equipped with two 4K cameras, a laptop, iPhone and one cameraman—the mission was to head down the training range (combat zone) to track the men and women of Stars and Stripes (“Stripes”), the oldest and most prestigious military newspaper the United States has ever produced. The history is Stripes goes all the way back to the civil war, yet most Americans have never heard of Stars and Stripes and the ones who do know about it are the ones that have seen the fictional film Full Metal Jacket by legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick.
As we touch down in Frankfurt some eleven hours later and the jet lag hits like a ton of bricks, we attempt to stay up for a few hours just to catch up with the local time zone and prepare for two days of filming and interviews at the Stripes office in Kleinneuhausen, a small hamlet about an hour out of Frankfurt. The filming schedule will be fast-paced and lean as I prepare to interview the Stripes commander and several support staff in a brief two-day period.
The theme of the interview(s) is Patriotism.
In interviewing Stripes Director of Advertising, David Smith, he was moved to tears as he recounts a story of a Vietnam Veteran getting emotional as he approaches Stripes for the first time in 50 years. “This is not just a paper he says; this is a paper with a mission and no agenda. No political slant left or right, but just news and information for the troops down range! This is the very least we can do for our young men and women in harm’s way.”
We were so fortunate to have sixty minutes with Iraq War four-star General David Patatrus as he explained with observable passion, the history and the importance of Stripes down range to get important information to our troops.
The two days in Germany went by quickly and we were off to Kuwait on Kuwait Air- A five hour flight at 33,000 feet over Serbia. We finally hit the tarmac in Kuwait City at around 10 o’clock in the evening. This is where reality sets in and we realize we are on a very dangerous mission—my fearlessness started to kick in.
The Lieutenant Commander Michael Bailey informs us right before we land that we must go directly to the print plant and film the paper coming off the presses. We breeze through customs and our ride is waiting from a crusty Boston Stripes veteran named Bob Riesman. Bob is from the heart of Quincy (Boston) and every other word and his mouth is “hod” (hard) or “pock” (park) the car! I was guessing he was around 70 years of age, but quickly learned he was my age (50-something) and just apparently lived one hell of a lot harder than I ever thought about.
We head to the print site where we meet Fadi, who heads up the IT organization. We spend the next 90 minutes shooting the hell out of paper as it is coming off the press and over forty-five (45) local national Indians Muslims and Arabs as they prepare the paper for the trucks out to the different bases throughout Arabia.
After a long day of travel and filming, we head back to our hotel and completely pass out, only to wake up in the morning and find out that we are on worldwide Arab news about our new film “World’s Most Dangerous Paper Route”. This was a great start!
Morning Prayer comes early here; at about 4:20 in the morning in Kuwait at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. Still whacked out from lack of sleep and jetlagged, I get up to get in a two hour work out and swim and for the first time in the five days we have been on the road, I am completely rested and refreshed.
We are now on our way to see John at the Air Force Base about 80 miles south of Kuwait and to finish our interviews of several commanding officers and several enlisted men and women to talk with them about the power of Stars and Stripes. There’s a contingent of several thousand men and women in uniform in the middle of the desert and it’s certainly not an oasis, but America certainly has a strong presence in this region.
Spending time in the chow hall interviewing the enlisted men and women was amazing. Their passion for the Stars and Stripes and for America is palpable and the sacrifice these men and women make is off the charts!
We are now headed straight to Kuwait International Airport to jump the “clipper” to Dubai, with a 5 hour layover in the early am. Suddenly, at 5 am, as we’re heading through security, calls to morning prayer bellows through the airport—there is no separation of church and state here. As I head to the men’s room before we board the aircraft to Afghanistan, I experience something I had never seen before…there are 50 Muslim men cleaning their feet in the sink, and praying on the bathroom floor with prayer rugs. Now boarding the aircraft, we are met by two young attractive Russian flight attendants, and every passenger on board was either a contractor or military. There were large buys heavily bearded, that no one would want in their fox hole! The 2 hour flight took us over some of the most beautiful and unique earth scape I have ever seen—Rugged, jagged and desolate terrain.
Landing in Afghanistan at Bagram Air Base was routine as we loaded onto buses and were taken to a large outside depot where our bags were waiting for us. We were then given a twenty minute lecture by two twenty something army corporals. This lecture was downright hard, mean and tough. The 200 people on the compound were told no pornography, no sex and no alcohol. Anyone caught for any of these infractions would be arrested and sent back home with immediate termination.
A series of other rules were read to us and then we were told “welcome to Afghanistan”. We were then shuffled through a security check point for processing and it reminded me of high school. I later learned that sixty-eight people have been kicked out this year as a result of this very necessary process.
Military intelligence is often known as a contradiction, and this was no exception. Our legal paper work was a disaster, and there was no room or passes for us. After several hours, this extraordinary inconvenience was taken care of and we were accommodated—Game On.
Day one, we jumped on a Shinnok helicopter and travelled with Special Forces to Camp Arifjan and another undisclosed camp 100 miles deep into the Afghan mountains. Special Forces got off and then Special Forces got on. We flew for another 45 minutes and landed in Kabul dropping the Special Forces while yet another group of them got on to head back to Bagram. Everyone was loaded with every weapon conceivable from M-16s to hand guns to grenades and several clips. We are at war, there is no denying this. I had never been in a war zone, but you know it when you are in it.
We landed in Bagram and walked quickly off the flight line back into the building to interview several young soldiers about the Stars and Stripes newspapers and much to my delight, the paper is well read and respected. As we were leaving the building to call it a day, the General Manager of Stars and Stripes, Frank Baldwin asked us if we were ready for a Black Hawk Training Mission. Assuming he was joking, we said sure, and within thirty minutes we were back in our flak jackets and helmets with video cameras locked and loaded. We were going hunting for the Taliban. Back out to the flight line, we hop on board the back of the Black Hawk, strap in and we are airborne in thirty seconds. The sensation and power of this incredible Helicopter is like nothing I had ever felt. Within seconds, the gunner has his finger on the trigger and we are skimming the Afghanistan dirt at 180 MPH just one-hundred yards off the deck. I can see roosters and mud huts as far as the eye can see and children waving at us at just about every house.
And at a moment’s turn, the Black Hawk pilot banks this miracle of machinery at 90° and I can see the ground coming at us faster than my eyes and brain can conceive what’s happening. What an incredible rush as I am instantly placing myself in the movie Black Hawk Down by Michael Bay, except it is Blackhawk Up! We fly about forty-five minutes into the countryside and turn around and make a landing back at Bagram and touch the earth like the gentleness of touching a baby’s face. One of the crew gets out and unstraps us; he has a black visor on that looks like Darth Vader and gives us the thumbs up as we make our way along the flight line back to the military terminal—Mission Accomplished. When we get back to the terminal, I put down my flak jacket and my helmet and just sit there looking at military personnel everywhere, armed to the teeth with M-16s and 45s; it was at that precise moment that I realized we are at war.
The next two days we tour the base and do several more interviews with soldiers and one of the Vice Commanders of the Air Force wing and spent several more hours filming for our new movie The World’s Most Dangerous Paper—a documentary about the men and women of Stars and Stripes.
As we are packing our things on our last morning at Bagram Air Base, we come under rocket attack—the military air raid siren goes off and then the C-RAM Technology intercepts the mortar in midair and disintegrates it. The all clear message is loud distinct and a godsend to hear.
America has been at war for sixteen years in Afghanistan and there is no end in sight. I had an opinion about this war before coming here thinking it was unnecessary, and this experience proved I was very wrong. The Taliban are an evil force that needs to be eradicated and erased from the history of the earth very much like that of the Nazis.
The men and women of Stars & Stripes keep the newspapers coming every single day seven days a week to keep the troops informed and give that connection to their homeland America.
We are not just the greatest country in the history of mankind; we are the kindest and most decent country that man has ever known. If it were not for the power of the strength and the ambition of the American military, the world will be thrust into darkness. Thank you men and women of Stars and Stripes and thank you to the young men and women of our armed services.