It’s been almost three weeks since my last post, but things have been a bit hectic around here. My husband’s been on a 10-day elk hunt in the middle of nowhere. There was a death in his extended family. My family came in town. And there have been some significant changes at work in the last few weeks.
I’m a believer in a Divine Plan, that things happen for a reason.
That usually pertains to major life events, but sometimes it’s evident in everyday stuff.
Take last Thursday, for instance. I walked into my office, and barely before I dropped my keys on the desk (and surely before I’d had a drop of caffeine), I found myself on a live radio show. OK, not just any live radio show — the Bob & Tom Show.
If you don’t know who I’m talking about, click on the Bob & Tom picture below and listen. You’ll catch up quickly, hear my national radio debut and get a good laugh to boot.
Back to that Divine Plan…
Rewind to little over a month ago when we decided to put Jeff Foxworthy on the cover of Turkey Country. We had access to this awesome image and interview, of course we’re gonna use them!
Magazine goes to press, hits mailboxes, yadda, yadda. And — BAM! — an e-mail arrives in the Turkey Country inbox. It’s a request from Dean, a producer for the Bob & Tom Show, asking the editor of the magazine call in ASAP.
Apparently, Foxworthy was on the show earlier that morning. And apparently, one of the show staffers is an NWTF member who brought a copy of the Foxworthy cover to everyone’s attention. One thing led to another and…
I have to say I had a great time. I laughed A LOT, got to talk about the magazine and the NWTF, laughed some more, cringed a bit, then laughed again.
It’s true the NWTF server crashed while the show was airing. Whether or not I’m “hot” is in the eye of the beholder. Or maybe I really do have a face for radio.
Either way, it got folks talking about the NWTF. And we got a new server out of it…score!
It confirmed that what we do today (or perhaps what we did the other day) really makes a difference. I’ve already seen how a simple 10 minutes on the Bob & Tom Show has had an impact. I appreciate the folks who told me I portrayed hunting in a positive way or that it made them proud to be an NWTF member.
Who says Divine Plans can’t include rednecks or even turkey necks?
It’s a truism that has proven itself over and again.
The Armed Forces Entertainment experiment, dubbed the “Outdoor Legends Tour,” was no exception. Each of us who participated was thanked repeatedly at every stop along the tour. From hospital beds to armored vehicles, the occupants expressed the same gratitude when hearing how the hunting community was full of appreciation and support for their sacrifices.
Little did these service members realize was how honored we were to bring that message and how humbled we felt to be in their presence. Spending time in their world gave us a greater understanding of the Armed Forces programs and its missions.
Another less expected gift I received from the tour was the insight into the lives of my team partners. None of our group will ever know how or why we were selected for this project. Personally, I think it was about balance.
There was a man from the upper Midwest with a zeal for good dogs, fine guns and all things feathered; an adventuresome Canadian with a craze for continent hopping with a muzzleloader over his shoulder; and a woman from the South with a passion for shooting white-tailed deer and wild turkey with anything bearing a scope or peep sight.
Yet each of us is outspoken about hunting and patriotism. I can truthfully say despite our strong personalities and the added stress of extreme heat, sleep loss and tight schedules, we never exchanged a cross word or displayed a sour mood. In fact, as the tour progressed, we bonded and found greater appreciation of the others’ strengths. It didn’t take long for us to function as a team.
As I said in the beginning of this diary, no matter your personal views on war or the military involvement in Asia, the men and women who risk their lives there daily are our sons, brothers, sisters, mothers, neighbors and friends. We must support our own and continue to thank them for protecting our freedoms while praying for their safety until each one returns home.
This experience was life changing in many ways, but the change it brought about to me, as a hunter, was a sense of renewed pride. One of the most poignant statements I heard in Afghanistan that continues to reverberate in my head was, “The anti-hunters sure haven’t sent anybody over here to see us and make us feel appreciated.”
These words alone should make every hunter stand a little taller when they see an American flag. I know I do.
We were in and out of at least two military camps each day during the tour. One of the most interesting camp visits was towards the end of our adventure — the Queen’s Palace.
The palace was constructed in the early 1920s, built mostly of marble and granite. Even back then, it came equipped with indoor plumbing and electricity, which I’m sure few other homes in Afghanistan had at that time.
I spotted the Queen’s Palace from the air as we swooped by in a Black Hawk helicopter. The roof damage was severe, but I was still taken by the grandeur of what was once the home of the Queen of Afghanistan.
The palace was taken over by the Russians in the 1950s, and they built an officers’ compound in a nearby area outside Kabul. The lovely old mansion has changed owners twice since then. Al-Qaida claimed it for a while until the United States and our allies took control of it and gave it back to the Afghan people, who keep a squad of watchful guards over it now.
The temperature that day was way beyond hot, but we were anxious to see more of this once magnificent structure that bore so many scars and held so much history. We were told there was as much of the palace below ground as there was on the surface. The king’s castle was on another hill well over a mile away. Underground tunnels connected the two.
I took this photo standing at the palace. You can see the king’s castle (left) in the distance, as well as the Russian officers’ compound. Razor wire and bomb shelters surround the place today.
My tour companions and armed escorts walked the winding road to the top of Palace Hill. Bomb squads swept the roadway and its sides, using white spray paint to mark where an explosive device could be buried.
We stopped to sip water and check out the view halfway up the hill. The Afghan guard on duty offered his seat in the shade to us. It was the only bit of shade found anywhere nearby. We were anxious to see the palace so we thanked him and trudged on.
I couldn’t resist sitting in the queen’s bathtub. The tub is lined with a single piece of hollowed marble.
Every floor, every room was a wonderful discovery tour back in time. It was easy to imagine gala parties and happier times in the large open areas. The winding marble stairways with wrought iron banisters connected the floors, as did a primitive elevator. The many open-air verandas offered views of the surrounding countryside.
Almost all the rooms were spacious and well lit with natural light pouring in from abundant windows. The walls of the palace were several feet thick in some places, which made the interior very comfortable compared to the relentless sun bearing down outside.
The outside of the palace tells a grim story. The bombed-out roof grids look skeletal above dangling mortar and brick balconies. It just made the Stars and Stripes look brighter and more beautiful.
Our visit to the Queen’s Palace evoked so many emotions. We ooh’d and aah’d at its magnificence. We marveled at the skills it must have taken to build it. We imagined what life might have been like living there in its heyday.
Mostly, however, we mourned over the sadness of war and how it can destroy even the mightiest of kingdoms.
As the fun afternoon wore on, a distant sand storm began to cloud the setting sun, which made for an amazingly beautiful sky and dangerous flying conditions. No matter to us, we saw it as an unexpected, but welcome opportunity. We had such a fun afternoon on the range, and our group bonded almost instantly with many of the servicemen and women.
Members of the camp were eager to display one of the flags I’d been carrying on this incredible journey.
With the sand storm delaying our pickup flight we were given bonus time with this Special Forces unit.
The handlers were disciplined in the correct manner of folding and carrying our flag. The flag ceremonies all ended the same way: I was presented with a perfectly folded flag, which meant there was no red showing.
Every American should feel patriotic pride whenever he or she sees the Stars and Stripes, knowing there have been hundreds of thousands throughout history who have given their lives to defend that flag and our freedom.
Old Glory was always shown honor, respect and reverence each time it was displayed.
As I mentioned before, my luggage was lost on the flight from Germany. The few things I did have in my backpack were perhaps a bit atypical — my passport, Kindle, American flags, lip balm, a Mossy Oak cap with the NWTF logo, a light jacket and one of my Sweet Talk turkey calls.
My motto: Might as well make the best of every situation.
Thanks to the sandstorm, we had time to spare in camp. I figured some of the group would enjoy a little turkey calling. Most of them were turkey hunters, but as with any group of hunters, their skill and experience levels ranged widely. They were quick to critic each others calling or sometimes just scowl if the notes were off key.
This bunch of Southern boys enjoyed a little Sweet Talk turkey calling.
I finally parted with the Sweet Talk call in this camp and left it for them to practice on until they are able to come home and actually use their calling skills in the turkey woods.
We were scheduled to visit two outlying camps each day, which meant leaving out early every morning, donning heavy protective gear and hopping in a Black Hawk helicopter to ride to each location. I really enjoyed these flights, with the fresh air blowing in the open doors and the sights of the country below us.
Of course, there were capable men and women armed with machine guns pointed out the chopper doors at all times.
One of the most memorable camps we visited took us on a sightseeing tour, followed by an opportunity to shoot their artillery. As luck would have it, a sandstorm blew in at the appointed return flight time, and we were able to spend several more hours with this great group.
I’m sure my traveling companions will agree this was the most relaxing and entertaining evening of the entire trip.
Click on on the first image below to see a slideshow of all the cool hardware. If you’re a Keepin’ Up With Karen subscriber and reading this off the email that was automatically sent to you, you’ll want to click on the blog web link to view the slideshow.
Our chariot awaited to carry us to the next camp.
View from the Black Hawk helicopter
I enjoyed the helicopter rides and taking in the scenery from above.
This camp was all about shooting, and we were the perfect group to appreciate every opportunity offered. They even had an archery range set up with a few recurve and compound PSE bows.
Qualified instructors were available to brief us on what we were shooting. Granted, none of it looked like my old Browning deer gun, which made the experience even more fun. The basics are the same — just aim and shoot.
This turreted .50 cal required a little different shooting technique. I likened it to high-caliber texting, since my thumbs were my trigger fingers.
My early squirrel hunting days with an open-sighted single-shot .22 was a firm foundation for catching on to this much larger firearm. The only problem was a hot shell casing rolled under my forearms and fried the skin. Thankfully, a good old Southern country doctor amongst the forces patched me up quick as a wink.
One of the coolest things in the arsenal was a rocket launcher. The back blast was ferocious for anyone behind the shooter, but the actual shooting wasn’t bad. I blew a tank to smithereens from almost 300 yards.
We didn’t actually shoot these antique Russian tanks, but it was fun checking them out. This equipment bone yard is a rusting reminder of a country that has seen more than its share of war and misery.
One unit made a road sign from a target (notice the holes) with directions to each of our hometowns. And check out the caps we’re wearing. These were personalized gifts from a Special Forces unit. Mine will go in my collection curio of treasures.
It is hard to say enough about the hospitality and the warm reception each of the Afghanistan camps offered.
While visiting one camp that had seen its fair share of action, a young guard noticed my turquoise cross necklace and said, “I see you are a Christian. Please take this gift.” It was a rosary made of beautiful black beads. I reasoned with him that considering his present situation he might need it more than me, but he would not hear of it. A special gift I shall always treasure.
Lt. Col. (ret) Lew Deal from Armed Forces Entertainment and Hope For The Warriors had the forethought to get a zillion of these photos printed before the trip. I can’t begin to estimate how many we signed, but often it was hurriedly done in unusual circumstances. This photo was taken inside a Blackhawk helicopter. I signed it using the top of my helmet for a desk. The pilot, co-pilot and gunners were hunters but couldn’t get off duty to attend the official meet and greet.
From generals to snipers, doctors to pilots, even septic truck drivers, we were given an opportunity to spend time with each department and learn about their specific part in Operation Enduring Freedom.
It also was nice to learn more of the humanitarian projects going on in Afghanistan. I must not have been watching the news when they explained about the schools we have started for Afghan children and how much of the focus is on helping young girls get an education. I didn’t know childbirth was the No. 1 killer of women there and that we have established birthing clinics staffed with female doctors to assist the women.
I also didn’t know that in some camps as many as 18 allied countries are working and fighting side by side to help the Afghan people gain their independence. It was also news to me that we are teaching them to govern and sustain themselves as they gradually gain control of their homeland.
Having never served in the military, camp life was way different than what I thought it might be … in a good way. It occurred to me early one morning, as I followed my nose to the nearest coffee pot, how courteous everyone was. Not only to me but also to each other, no matter if they were military, civilian contractors or local workers.
Early-morning joggers exchanged warm greetings. Food servers smiled sincerely. People of every rank and station exchanged pleasantries. It wasn’t just the greetings that caught my attention, but the manners and respect that often lacks in our society — small gestures such as holding doors open and addressing others as sir or ma’am.
I can truthfully say that I witnessed not a single act of rudeness during the entire tour.
I was especially pleased when I received permission to display the American flags I brought from home. An AMVETS post from my home state of Tennessee entrusted me to bring their flags and messages of encouragement and brotherhood to this war-torn country. There is no telling where these flags might surface some day for a good cause.
We just thought we’d been busy up to this point, but the storm was about to be unleashed.
Our group had adjusted well to the mounting air miles and 12-hour time difference. We were anxious to shake hands and exchange hunting stories with the troops.
The first camp we visited had a fine lunch followed by a lengthy meet and greet in the dining area, or DFAC as they referred to it. They presented each of us with a certificate of appreciation from the chief of staff, gave us a tour of the compound and briefed us on the state of affairs.
These folks were the epitome of hospitality. Many hailed from Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Tennessee, so I felt right at home. I wished we could have stayed longer, but our chariot was waiting and so was another camp full of service men and women who were anxious to talk hunting.
I witnessed a lot of last minute goodbyes and faces filled with emotions among the shifting troops at Camp Manas.
My team’s bags finally arrived, and I held out hope until the last minute that mine would come straggling in, but no such luck.
The PX was small, with limited inventories and almost no clothing for women. I purchased a towel, a pack of men’s t-shirts, socks and two pair of men’s trousers right before we went on lock-down for the flight to Afghanistan.
My laptop, good boots and stacks of neatly ironed Mossy Oak RedHead shirts with matching tactical pants would never find me now.
Seeing who got the good seats…
I learned a lot that day. Lock-down simply meant being locked in a very hot, large tent with all your belongings and a whole bunch of other sweaty people for a couple of hours while someone in the front screamed orders so fast I couldn’t understand a word. Thank goodness Lt. Col. (ret) Lew Deal could interpret the announcements for me.
Someone tipped me off that the seats along the sides of the plane were the best, but they were all full when I boarded. Far be it for me to argue over a seat, especially when the occupant has a 9-mm and I’m just wearing a boat anchor in the shape of a vest.
I think this guy’s got it.
But there is justice. I found a seat in the cramped front-middle of the plane and soon struck up conversation with a young man in a tan jumpsuit. He was a hunter so we hit it off immediately.
As the cargo was loaded, he asked if I would like to ride in the cockpit with him and the other pilot as we flew from Kyrgyzstan to deliver the load of passengers and gear. He didn’t have to ask me twice.
View from above the mountains of Kyrgyzstan
The sky was crystal clear, which gave me an eagle’s eye view of the mountains below.
We landed somewhere in Afghanistan, and about a dozen passengers loaded on a C-117 along with a menagerie of pallets, fuel tanks and things I couldn’t identify. But that left all kinds of against-the-wall seating on this flight.
We arrived at Camp Bagram sometime before midnight. Our contact assigned us a bunk. This place had none of the casualness we found at Camp Manas.
Everyone at Camp Manas was packing and dragging firepower, except us hunters. We felt pretty under-dressed for the occasion.
Welcome to Camp Manas near Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan!
Thousands of troops pass through here each month. We arrived a little before dawn. After a short briefing, we settled into our bunks. Since I had only the clothes I was wearing, there wasn’t much unpacking to do.
Thank goodness my toothbrush, passport, American flags and cell phone were in my backpack. I figured I could simply borrow Jim Shockey’s hairdryer and Bill Miller’s lip-gloss.
Soon we were issued protective gear. The vest had thick bulletproof plates surrounding our vitals and felt as if they weighed a ton. No kidding. The vest alone was like wearing two concrete blocks over my shoulders (and I am a very strong woman). I can’t imagine how some of the small-frame girls handle this piece of gear all day in the triple-digit heat. My helmet is certainly off to them.
Now I feel a bit overdressed…
That evening we had a formal meet and greet with the troops at Pete’s Place, the main gathering point at camp. We met servicemen from everywhere, but a group of former Florida cowboys from the Red Horse Unit and some guys from Guam hung with us till quitting time. I met a couple of young female enlistees from the St. Louis area who wanted to get into turkey hunting.
The common thread we shared was a love of country and hunting.