In July of 2008, Artie Lange, Gary Dell'Abate, Nick DiPaolo, Jim Florentine and Dave Attell traveled to Afghanistan to entertain the troops. While there, Gary took down a behind the scenes account of the trip.
June 29th, 2008 - Noon - Frankfurt, Germany
It's Sunday morning in Frankfurt. The first leg of the trip was pretty easy. A woman at the counter recognized me and bumped me up to first class. They gave us PJ's and slippers. I ate the "quick meal" so I could go to sleep faster.
I'm traveling with Nick DiPaolo and Dave Attell, two comedians that I have mad respect for. Nick is irritated by everyone and everything. He has a kinetic energy that coupled with his biting humor, thoroughly amuses me. He's completely politically incorrect which I love because that's just another way of saying he's honest. Nick and I are polar opposites politically which is fine. I don't know Dave as well but have always loved him on the show. He seems like more of a veteran of this stuff, having done a few US tours.
Our flight was delayed two and a half hours due to storms and the general B.S.. at JFK. When we landed, we had just missed our connecting flight to Istanbul and it was a giant mess. No one from the USO was around. Lufthansa re-booked us on a flight with Turkish Air but no one at Turkish Air knew what the hell was going on. Our USO rep had moved on to Istanbul. If we miss this next flight, we could miss the entire tour.
The travel is boring but I sort of expected that. We barely made the next leg of the trip. There was lots of confusion at the ticket counters. People are mostly jerks.
I'm a little nervous of what lies ahead. Oddly, my biggest fear is performing. I only have to do a short time, maybe 3-5 minutes and then intro everyone, but I am not a stand-up and have never really enjoyed doing it.
I am capable and I know I can pull this off but I want to earn my keep and set a good tone for the shows since I am first up. I think the fact that I have such respect for these guys is making me nervous. If only I were emceeing for Carrot Top!
I'm also a little nervous by my inability to communicate to those back home. I have no cell and my blackberry doesn't work over here so I am really cut off. I was able to hop on a computer at the Business Class lounge in Frankfurt.
I saw that the Mets lost and I got a $2300 bill from my electrician. Maybe I'm better off not having e-mail.
I got my first e-mail from Mary saying that they missed me and that Lucas was taking my leaving a little hard. He is so sensitive and I sometimes forget that. He got teary when I said goodbye and insisted we shoot a "last" game of pool in the Man cave. Gotta love that kid.
I opened this book to find a note from Jackson telling me how proud he is for what I am doing. I told the kids I was doing this for them, to show them this is what people should do. I think they get it.
Everyone keeps telling me this will be a life changing experience. I am unsure I am capable of one...at least not in 3 days.
I do hope it will be an amazing experience. Maybe I'll come back and change my mind about the war. I'm curious to see the attitude of the soldiers. I think of my dad shipping off to Okinawa at 17.
At any rate, the number of civilians who have been to a war zone is probably minimal.
If firmly believe that we will bring some happiness to the soldiers. Everyone says how appreciative they will be. I am more interested and excited about the meet and greets, a chance to meet the soldiers one on one. I think that will be the most moving experience of the trip.
Last 2 days have been nuts - got maybe 3 hours of sleep in about the last 40 hours. We got into Kyrgyzstan (Russia) in the middle of the night. Accommodations were shockingly good...like an okay dorm room, clean bedrooms and showers. We had no idea what to expect and were told we could be in small tents at times.
Jim Florentine has a satellite phone he got from his brother so I've been able to call home fairly frequently.
Had a chance to sleep six hours. Maybe got two and a half good ones. I'm all tweaked up and very nervous about tonight's show.
Got up at 10:30 and we toured the base. Met Colonels and big wigs. They were all very nice. Met a lot of the regular soldiers as well. All are extremely grateful to see us.
We seem to have a pretty high recognition factor. They not only know me and Artie from the show but they know Dave from his show "Insomniac". They also know Nick from "Tough Crowd" and they know Jim if you tell people he does the voice of "Special Ed". These are all Comedy Central Shows.
Dave is amazing at meeting people. We went to breakfast and he just sat down with the soldiers and started chatting. Jeff Anthony is our USO guide. He's a 50 something, no nonsense ex-marine. Extremely nice but he's done this a lot and I sense that he's a little weary from being back here so soon. I think he's also surprised at how short this tour is. 4 show in 3 days. Usually the tours are twice as long
Jeff told me at breakfast we should sit and eat with the soldiers, not stay to ourselves. It never dawned on me to do that. I thought it would be an annoyance but I realize that's why we are here.
Met some nice people but the running thread is that they say thank you every time they see us. I met a Met fan from Pennsylvania and we just chatted about that. We don't talk politics. Life is tedious here. Very boring. I realize that chatting with us just breaks up the monotony.
There are these little gazebos to go to smoking. Dave Attell is always there. It seems to be the place where people congregate even if you don't smoke. We usually sit out there and within minutes there are five or six soldiers. That's a great opportunity to have one on chats with people.
We went on a big plane today. Went in the cockpit. We walked on the wing. We are like little kids.
Artie never made it out with us. He slept until 4:30. Showtime was at six.
The show went well. I was as nervous as I've ever been. Artie makes me nervous. I still feel like I don't belong because I'm not a "comedian", but the other guys are really supportive.
Dave has been great. He says that the meet and greets are 80% of why we are here and the shows are 20%. People are happy to see me so I think I'm pulling my weight. Unfortunately, Artie has slept through both days of meet and greets so he hasn't seen it. He's really missing the best part of the trip.
We finished the show and I had a beer. The beers here are much bigger...like 24 oz. and much higher in alcohol. Mine was 7% as opposed to 3 ? % at home. These soldiers are only allowed two beers in any 24 hour period. They have to scan their ID to get them.
I was about to have my 2nd beer when we got word that we would be flying out at 2am instead of 7:30am.
We had to leave for the take off area at 11:30..then we just sat around for two hours. They keep you in a big room with seats and show movies. They showed "Mr. Brooks" with Kevin Costner. I love that movie
I was exhausted. Jim and I laid down on a row of chairs. Fell asleep for about a half an hour. We took old school buses to the plane. We were last on and they saved the front row for us. They plane as packed with soldiers. It's an old plane and there's nothing modern about it. No frills all the way. Imagine if you took all of the paneling off the inside of a plane and could see all the wires. That's what we were on.
We took turns going in the cockpit. Doesn't matter how old you are...it's still like being a little kid. Very exciting.
Took off late and landed about 5am local time in Kandahar. We were met by a couple of SUV's and brought to the base.
As soon as you get out of the car you can feel the grit. It's like ground up rocks. It's fine and sooty. I could feel it on my hands seconds after I got out of the car.
This time we had two rooms with four beds to share. Jim, Jeff (USO) and I took one room. Artie, Nick and Dave took the other. I was glad because I'm pretty sure that Artie snores and I've been having trouble sleeping.
By the time we put stuff in our room, it was 20 minutes until the food tent opened so we decided to wait and eat before we went to sleep. We figured we'd sleep better if we weren't hungry.
I had a shockingly good omelet! Artie took his sweatshirt off at breakfast and his
t-shirt came off too. He was standing there for about a minute with no shirt. People applauded. Caused quite a scene.
Went to sleep after breakfast for about seven hours. Best sleep I got yet! Woke up and we started touring. No Artie again, he was too tired.
We just walked around meeting people. We went to see the Predator Planes. They are an amazing feat of technology. Unmanned, flying up to 25,000 feet with a camera that can see people and what they are up to on the ground.
The colonel who gave us our tour is a huge Stern fan. He asked me about the merger and he asked Jimmy about Robin Quivers. Even wanted to know if Sal is still married.
We saw the planes and took pictures with them. We saw the cockpit. Met the woman who flies the plane remotely. She let us take pictures in the cockpit. It's like a gaming console. So cool!
Then we went to see the vehicles that are like tanks but can sustain a blast from a land mine.
The thing I'm getting form all this is "this" war is very necessary and important. This war in Afghanistan. The Taliban is more dangerous than ever. There was a suicide bomber jailbreak about 12 miles from the base we are on. 400 of the "worst of the worst" escaped.
The Taliban are evil, insidious people who are of the highest tenacity. They just don't quit.
We got back, cleaned up and went to show #2. It was an odd show. It's Canada's Independence Day (July 1st) and there are more Canadians on this base than Americans. Our comedy show was right before their big celebration. It was outdoors on the boardwalk. They told us to expect about 750 people. We got there five minutes before the gig and there were seven people. A weird thing happened. As soon as we got there, I smelled a really foul odor. I was informed that we were close to the shit pond. Basically the shit pond is where all the waste goes. I guess the Army put it too close to the barracks and every night around 6, the wind blows the stench of shit towards the main part of the base. It was really bad.
I opened to about 50 people. I felt I did not do well. My best joke was a lame reference to the shit pond. That got a nice laugh. I'm starting to feel like I don't belong doing this but again the other guy's were supportive. I felt like Artie was a little disappointed. Everyone else did really well but agreed it was a tough gig. Outdoors, at six pm, with no alcohol is difficult.
I forgot to mention that the base is dry. We are all craving a drink.
We finish the show and we pile into two SUV's. We drive about 100 yards when the sirens go off. The SUV's immediately make a sharp turn towards the barracks. We are told to get out and we start walking towards a bunker. We are all cracking jokes but we are also looking at each other like "What the Fuck?". The people who are with us show no fear....nothing. They are calm and direct us into a bunker. We are in there for about 20 minutes. Everyone is joking around. We signed the walls. People took photos. I was a little scared but probably not nearly as much as I should have been. The soldiers were so calm and in control that I felt well protected.
After that ordeal ended we went to a meet and greet at the recreation center. Again, people were happy to meet us. They shook our hands and thanked us often.
The DFAC (Dining Facility) was closed so we ordered Pizza Hut. Usually not a big fan but it tasted good tonight. Went to email Mary and catch some Met scores at the Internet Center. Came back and went to sleep at midnight. I could have slept until 7 but I woke up at 4:30 and could not get back to sleep. I had to pee. Ended up getting up and 6:15 and going to check my email again. Nothing from Mary and the kids. I was a little bummed.
Had breakfast with the gang, then came back to get a demo on our flak jacket and helmet. The jacket is light but uncomfortable but we have to wear it.
We went to the helipad and boarded three Black Hawk Copters. This might be the coolest vehicle I've ever been in and the most amazing ride I've ever had. Seeing the country side was amazing. It looks a lot like the mountains in Vegas.
We really got to see a side of the life that most people don't get to see. You fly over the vast desert and suddenly a small make shift tent pops up. You see a few people. The pilot says they are Bedouins and they are harmless. You see clay huts that you can't imagine anyone can live in but they do. Suddenly you'll see a goat herder with his goats pop up out of nowhere. The pilot says sometimes he flies low and the goats scramble and bump into each other. They are very young guys. You can't believe they are old enough to fly this expensive piece of equipment. One of the gunners will be 20 in fourteen days. He can't drink for another year but he can shoot people with his machine gun. Makes no sense.
We landed at the FOB (Forward Operating Base) in Camp Lagman in the town of Qalat.
It's a small base of about 150 American soldiers (there were French, Romanian and Lithuanian as well as Canadians in the coalition forces). The stage was makeshift, built that morning. The steps to the stage were a bunch of tractor sized tires with plywood thrown on them.
I realized that I was trying to out new material as opposed to these four amazing comedians with over 80 years experience. I had about 10 jokes...I got rid of 3 that didn't work, added a new joke and re-ordered them. This was clearly my best set so far(if you can call 7 jokes a set)
Everyone did really well and these guys truly appreciated us. We went to lunch with the head of the unit. They said the food was great but it wasn't. Just hung around chatting with the soldiers.
We headed back to the Black Hawks to make our way to a small FOB about 30 miles away. It's a group of 30 soldiers who have been out there for two months of a six-month stint. When we got to the copters we found out that they canceled this part of the trip. We needed an Apache to accompany us because they felt it was too dangerous. We were extremely disappointed. We hoped this would be the most interesting and meaningful gig of the trip. Not meant to be.
I was feeling very intimidated about doing any comedy. I really don't belong with these guys but I really wanted to make the trip. After the third show, Artie said I did really well and that I was a really good MC. It really made me feel good. I realized once I got here, how out of my element I was. All I wanted to do was not embarrass myself or make it bad for them. I think I pulled it off.
We got back on the Black Hawks, which is an amazing view because they fly so low.
Then I had one of the top experiences I've ever had in my life. I was wearing headphones on the copter so I could communicate with the crew and Artie. The pilot asked us if we would like to fire the machine gun. We jumped at the chance. I felt like a five year old boy on a fire truck! On of the coolest things ever.
We landed back at the base. It was hotter than the day before and with the flak jacket and helmet it felt hotter.
We went back to the barracks. The colonel who was in the charge of the Predators stopped by to meet Artie. Turns out that the night before, when we did the gig, the Predator went up. The colonel had the Predator take a picture of us performing and he presented it to us. He said the bomb we signed got dropped last night. We were happy.
The Black Hawk pilots had flown an American Flag. We all took pix with the flag on the Black Hawk and they folded it up and presented it to me to bring back to the studio (along with a certificate). I had a white Mets hat and I had all the pilots sign it.
Nick turned around said "this tour has the golden touch". I'm feeling that way too.
Unfortunately, that feeling didn't last long.
Went to send Mary and the kids an email and then I went to bed. It was one of the few nights that I got a full, nice night's sleep.
Got up on Thursday morning ready to start the journey home. We have a 3:30am flight out of Kyrgyzstan to Istanbul. All we have to do is take a flight from Kandahar to Kyrgyzstan. It's a short flight....maybe 3 hours.
Found out from our USO guide Jeff that we have some trouble. Our tour got confused with another comedy tour that canceled their leg to Afghanistan...therefore our transportation out of Kandahar was canceled. No worries. We have 20 hours to get to Kyrgyzstan.
We have to take a plan to Bagram to get to Kyrgyzstan. Apparently Bagram is a major hub.
This is all Army Travel, which means there is no actual schedule. We get to the terminal at 9am and just have to wait. It's not really a terminal but an old building in disrepair. I mean this place is ancient. Turns out it was the last place the Taliban was in before they were driven out of Kandahar. They call the building the "Taliban's Last Stand". You can see that it's a very old building (like hundreds of years). The coolest part is there are bullet holes in the walls. Many bullet holes. The bullet holes are from the last battle where the Americans took over the building
The wait is extremely boring...and it's really hot out today. We play cards (I lost $17). We ordered Pizza Hut and talked to soldiers. The plane we are to take is a C130. They call it the "bus" of the Army. It's the plane that you see in every movie. There are no traditional seats like on most planes, but just a long bench. It's really hot on the plane and I can't stop sweating. It's an hour flight. My bags are away so I have nothing to read or watch. It's hot. We take off at 4pm and the sweat is pouring off me. I try to close my eyes and relax but the sweat is going in my eyes and burning them. This trip is torture.
We land in Bagram at 5pm. Jeff wants us to go visit the Pat Tillman USO Center. It's the nicest one in the world. The NFL has donated a ton of money to it . Looking at all his stuff (jersey's, family photos) makes me sad.
We have to go through Army Customs and they make us completely empty our bags which is a huge pain. They took away my bullet shells that I shot in the Black Hawk copter.
We have to wait some more. They tell us to go upstairs and eat. This is the worst food ever. It's not even a kitchen, just a bunch of boxes of food stacked from floor to ceiling. All dry food like cereal, etc.
They have these odd meals where you take the sealed food, put it in a bag, add water and the bag gets hot and it cooks (takes 12 mintues). It was really disgusting! Artie and I tried the vegetable lasagna. We took one smell, looked at each other and tossed it in the garbage. I had two bowls of sugar frosted flakes and he had cocoa puffs. I also ate a chocolate peanut butter paste that came in the meal.
More waiting around. Nick got really mad because he had to go to the bathroom and they made him use the porta potty. It was dark and gross. Nick said he was holding the toilet paper up to the light to make sure it was clean and he was done. When he found out that we used a regulars bathroom he was really pissed. Nick has a very short fuse on stuff like this.
We finally boarded a C5 airplane around 10pm.
Took off around 11.
We were on the flight with all the Special Ops guys. Interesting group. There leader came up and reminded them that there were "guests" (us) on the plane and they should be careful what they say.
Short flight, maybe 90 minutes but we lose time for the change so we land at around 2am Kyrgyzstan time.
We land at two but don't get off the plane until 2:45. Our flight is at 3:30am. It's gonna be very tight. A van is waiting for us with an interpreter. We get to Manas Airport on the commercial side around 3:05 and we are running around like lunatics. We have to pass through some sort of customs but we already have visa's. The interpreter and the police get into some sort of discussion. The Russians scream at us in Russian. We pretend we don't hear them and keep walking. No one stops us.
We get up to the ticket office. Jeff goes in. Comes out after about five minutes and tells us "We aint' getting on this one". No worries. We have been told that if we miss this, there is a 5:30am plane and even a 10am to London.
Jeff disappears for five minutes and comes out to tell us there's been another mistake. The 5:30am flight is not in 90 minutes...it's a day later!
We start freaking out but Artie is particularly upset. We get together and try and put a plan together. We figure we have to be able to get out but Jeff tells us that there are very few flights a day out of this airport. We are freaking out. I suggest to Artie we call his contact at Continental, a guy named John. John is a miracle worker on stuff like this.
We call John and he tells us there is a 5:20 flight to London. Artie decides we should get on it and then try to get home from there. Many more options from London. John tells us that we can get a coach ticket for just under a grand. Artie says he will pick it up. We tell him we'll pay him back but he doesn't hear us.
He tries to buy the tickets and he is informed that the price is not $979...it's a little over $5000 for one ticket! We decide we are out but Artie is going to forge ahead. He is getting increasingly frustrated and agitated. He gives the woman his AMEX. It gets denied. Artie is pissed. He gives her his Visa card. It gets denied. Artie goes ballistic. He throws his bag against the wall. He kicks his luggage down the hall. He's yelling. He's really angry! So are we. We can't believe it.
Artie's card got turned down because he was trying to spend $5000 in Russia at 3 in the morning. Apparently you need prior approval to do that!
We go to the bar. We are pissed/depressed. We did a good job and we want to go home. All sorts of theories are flying. Some think Jeff lied to us about the extra flights to keep us calm. Nick thinks the USO is screwing us because we were so dirty. I tell him I think that's crazy. He tells me that's his "C" theory. That makes me laugh.
We get in the van back to the base. Artie took a bunch of Valium. I think he took 8. By the time we get back he is a slurring mess. He can barely walk and he is slurring like crazy. Jeff tells us to get him in the room so that none of the officers see him like this. I put him in his room. He says he's going to write. I ask if I can video him and get a recap. He says no. I say fine and leave.
We all go out the opposite exit so Artie doesn't hear us. We are glad he is "down" and we want to get some breakfast. We look up and there's Artie. He's awake and out and he's being pretty loud. He walks up to me and starts yelling at me for wanting to video tape him. He's out of his mind and unreasonable but I don't want to agitate him anymore. So I keep apologizing. No matter how many times I say I'm sorry, it's not enough. He's yelling about how I'm out to make him look stupid. Attell finally takes him to his room and gets him to bed. This is the worst of Artie. Jeff tells us that he is not putting this in his report. As far as he's concerned the tour ended in Kandahar. He's such a good guy.
The rest of us go to breakfast. This is my third sunrise in five days. I realize I've seen more sunrises with this nutty group than I have with my wife.
Go to my room and crash at 7am. I wake up at about 2:30. This is the best sleep I've had on the trip. Dave is already up (when does he sleep)?
I go over to one of the local Russian shops and buy two antique phonographs Jim and I were looking at. One was $250 and one was $150. I get them both for $265. I give Jim his. He was happy to have it.
Now it's just hang around and wait. We went to the DFAC (Dining facility) and we just hung around killing time.
Artie got up at seven or eight. He apologized for yelling at me the night before. I was shocked he remembered it. It's one of those things that will be hard to forget.
Around midnight, Artie and I pass a group of soldiers, maybe 30 or so. One guy yells out, "Hey, come and hang out with us". So we walk over. They are from Fort Hood in Dallas and they look really young. We just start shooting the shit and Artie has them laughing. He starts telling jokes and sort of doing his act....but it doesn't seem like his act. It's very natural and funny. .Artie has them laughing hard. It's a beautiful moment. It's the reason we came. It's completely organic and unscripted. Artie is on a roll. I take a step back and watch Artie doing his thing. I really savor the moment. I see the boredom these soldiers deal with and I realize this is a bright spot for them. They will really remember this. I know I will.
At 3:30am we load our stuff onto the van and head for the airport which is five minutes away. We stop to pick up the interpreter. They tell us we don't need one.
We get to the airport to check in and we are getting the big runaround. We keep getting sent to different places to get boarding passes. Guess what? The interpreter is needed! They call him and he's over in five minutes with two other helpers. We get the passes. We go through the gate. No one can come with us past here. We are on our way.
Not so fast!
When we go through immigration we are told our Visa's have expired. They were supposed to be for ten days but they air only for one. We are told that we have to go down town and get new ones...at 5am. Yeah right. It's 5:10am. The flight leaves in 40 minutes and they won't let us through. I can't stay another day! I have to get out of here.
I start to panic. Jeff tells us to calm down and asks to see a supervisor. The immigration folks are old school Russians. Ruddy faces, big hats and they barely understand English. I am not confident.
The "boss" shows up. His English is better. Yes the Visa's are expired but he can help us right now for a mere $45 each. No paperwork ... just $45 each cash! It is a textbook, old school Russian shakedown. Jeff pays the money and we move on. I guess we are getting the full Russian experience.
We hang at the lounge. Trip to Istanbul is uneventful. I slept about 3 hours of the 5 ? hour flight. 3 ? hour lay over in Istanbul. We go to the Business Class lounge. Artie is on fire. He has not stopped talking since he woke up last night. Like the Ever Ready Rabbit. He's in a great mood, telling stories. Jeff from the USO asks me about it. He says Artie has been going non-stop. I don't know what to say but we're glad he's in a good mood.
We get on the flight to JFK. Almost home. We are anxious to get there. 11 hour flight. I take an ambient and sleep for 4 ? hours. I'm watching the first season of 24 at Jackson's insistence. It's really good.
Land at JFK a half hour early. Breeze through customs. Get to the luggage rack at 5:50. No luggage. 10 minutes...15, 20, 30, 40....We are now confident our luggage is lost. It finally comes out at 5:50. We were sure the Russians sent it to Moscow.
We say our goodbyes. Nick hops in my car. I'm dropping him off at the Mobile Station on the Hutch. We get there quickly. No traffic. His wife is waiting.
I pull into my driveway at 6:45. Lucas is first out. He hugs me and it feels good. I am happy to be home.