(From left) Corey Pavin, Tim Simpson, Bobby Wilson, Tom Watson, Matt Snook, Dan Boever and Rick Kell spent a memorable nine days with U.S. Troops.
Captain's Blog: An amazing week in Irag
United States Ryder Cup Captain Corey Pavin recently returned from a nine-day trip to visit the troops fighting in Kuwait and Iraq, where he, Tom Watson, Tim Simpson and others witnessed first-hand the bravery and dedication of the most inspirational people they had ever had the pleasure of meeting. Here is Pavin's personal account of his trip.
Fri., Sat., Nov. 20-21, 2009
It's time to leave Miami and fly up to Dulles for the start of an amazing and fulfilling nine-day trip to Kuwait and Iraq to visit our troops.
After arriving at Dulles I met Dan Boever, a long-drive guy who is also going on this little excursion. Dan told me how excited he is to go see the troops over in Kuwait and Iraq and is full of questions about how it is going to be. As the day goes by, I find out that he has a warped sense of humor -- very similar to mine.
Dan and I were waiting for Champions Tour player Tim Simpson at baggage claim. It was great to see Tim again. It has been years since we last saw each other. While talking to Tim, I found out that he is heavily involved with the Wounded Warrior Project, which provides programs and services to severely injured servicemembers. I'm deeply involved with Operation Homefront -- a non-profit community that supports our troops by helping the families they leave behind when the active duty or reserve member deploys.
As Dan and I waited for Champions Tour player Tim Simpson at baggage claim, I thought how it has been years since Tim and I last saw each other. It was great to see Tim again, because it has been years since we last saw each other. I found out that Tim is deeply involved with the Wounded Warrior project, just as I am involved with Operation Homefront.
Off we go to Walter Reed Hospital to visit with troops who have been injured while serving our country.
At Walter Reed, we meet the remainder of our group: The great Tom Watson; Bobby Wilson, a long-drive competitor; Matt Snook, a country western singer; and Rick Kell, with the Fore the Troops Foundation, who were all there waiting for our arrival.
We held a clinic on the front lawn of the Walter Reed Hospital, where we gave lessons to eager and inspirational soldiers, some of whom had lost multiple limbs in the line of duty. The Salute Military Golf Association sponsored this excursion for the troops. Tom and I each gave a short speech, which consisted mostly of thank yous to the troops that were on hand for the event. We expressed how proud we were of their selflessness in protecting the freedoms that we have here in the United States.
Tom, Bobby, Dan and myself gave personal lessons to grinning soldiers who seemed quite happy to be outside their hospital beds. I was amazed at their incredibly positive attitudes and their ability to listen to what we were asking them to do. Surely it was a by-product of their military training.
Our next stop was a visit to the wounded soldiers in the hospital. Matt had a name of an injured Army Ranger that he was asked to go visit. That's when we met Ranger Edward Hickman, who has been at Walter Reed for two weeks. What an amazing attitude this young man had! He had many injuries, including a wired jaw that was broken in two places, his thumb was blown off by a round, he had fragments of his own gun in his left arm, a shotgun wound on the back of his right shoulder and shrapnel wounds behind his right ear. Despite his extensive list of injuries, all Ranger Hickman could talk about was his eagerness to get back to Afghanistan with his unit! Wow!
It's the same mantra I heard when I had the honor of visiting Walter Reed in 2006: "All I want to do is get back to my unit."
We all visited another young man from Riverside, Calif. With him in his room were his wife and mother-in-law. He was a very nice young man. Matt sang two songs to him and we watched his face brighten up right before our eyes.
On our way out we ran into another soldier who happened to be a big golf fan. He had his foot in a cast and said he had some bone grafts in his femur where he was wounded. He had two sisters, his mom, dad and his grandparents with him. His grandpa had a veterans cap on. He was a great kid who wanted to know who my four Ryder Cup picks were going to be. I told him to get his golf game in shape and maybe I would pick him. He said, "deal."
We left Walter Reed and had dinner on our way to the airport for our "short" flight over to Kuwait. About 16 hours later, we were at Camp Arifjan where we had our first dinner overseas. That's where Tom and I sat down to a beautiful meal of ... Taco Bell!
When we got back from dinner, I called my wife, Lisa, to let her know that I was safe and sound and to tell her how much I love her. After hanging up, all I could think of was all the troops who don't have that simple luxury to call their loved ones and say, "I'm OK."
It was humbling and one of those small things a lot of us take for granted.
Sun., Nov. 22, 2009
At 8:30 a.m. we loaded up in our minibus to go visit the Commander Sergeant Major here at Camp Arifjan. We were told how the U.S. military interfaces with the Kuwait government and how Kuwait subsidizes much of the cost of the camps in Kuwait. It was very interesting, but much of it was difficult for a simple golfer like me to grasp.
General Ray Odierno, the four-star general in charge of all operations in Iraq, and Corey Pavin in Baghdad.
After we met more military personnel, said thank you for their service and took lots of pictures, we loaded up and drove an hour and a half to Camp Ali Al Salem Air Base. Once there, we ate lunch at the DFAC (dining facility) and then gave a quick demonstration on their makeshift driving range. We signed hats, balls and pictures for the troops and gave them a few clubs for them to use for anyone who wants to hit balls in the future.
Next stop is Camp Buering where we meet the Colonel in charge. He is a great guy with his staff all from Alabama. There is a lively conversation between Tim Simpson and the Colonel about the rivalry with Georgia and Auburn. I think Tim had a little more ammunition to attack with, given that his Bulldogs defeated the Tigers a couple of weeks ago. We ended up spending the rest of the day with all the Alabama staff.
After more pictures, we went to a training facility where we put on Kevlar vests and helmets. Two at a time we jumped into a Humvee that can be rotated to simulate a rollover. I went first with Bobby Wilson. It was fun to do, but it is hard to imagine being upside down with gunfire all around while trying to undo safety harnesses and get out of the vehicle. That is why these brave men and women train so hard. While in the simulator, Sweet Home Alabama started to play ... of course, I would have preferred California Dreamin'.
Next stop was with a group of soldiers who were about to be deployed to Iraq. Camp Buering is the "gateway" to Iraq and these soldiers were getting their final training before heading north. We spent some quality time with these young soldiers and thanked them for putting themselves in harm's way to protect all us Americans from terrorists and allowing us to live the lives we do in the USA.
We then had a meet-and-greet with more of the troops. And I had a special guest that I was meeting. My brother-in-law Tony, a civilian who spent three years in the army, is working here at Camp Buering. I haven't seen Tony for about two years and it was fantastic to see him again. Between autographs and pictures with the troops, I was able to spend the last four to five hours with Tony. Very cool!
It was time to eat dinner. And after dinner, Matt Snook sang for about an hour to at least 200 men and women. I was very impressed with his performance. Tom Watson came on stage and sang a song with Matt and some of the Alabama "gang." It was great to see the soldiers relax and forget for a moment that they were going to Iraq soon. I spoke with many more soldiers during the show from all over the US. California, Iowa, Texas, New Hampshire, New York, Illinois and even more from Alabama were represented. What a great country we live in!
The show was over and it was time for the two-hour drive back to Camp Arifjan. Once back at camp, we packed our bags to be put on a pallet for our trip into Iraq. As I write this, it is now 12:30 a.m. and we have to be ready to get in our minibus at 4 a.m. to go to the airport to catch our military flight north. It has been a very long day, but as usual a very rewarding day saying thank you, thank you, thank you to our fighting men and women.
Mon., Nov. 23, 2009
Monday started early with a 3:20 a.m. wake up. A quick shower and then I called Lisa and we were able to catch up with each other. It was great to hear her voice. It's hard to fathom being away from my wife and daughter for 12 months like our troops do! What an incredible sacrifice they give to our country!
4:00 a.m. and off we go to catch our flight to Baghdad. Another hour-and-a-half drive to the airfield to catch our C130 transport up to Baghdad. At the airfield we are given our flack jackets and helmet that we will use while in Iraq. We board the C130 and settle into our webbed seats. A few more civilians board and we watch three senators board. They are going to go meet with General Ray Odierno, the four-star general in charge of all operations in Iraq. The senators were then going to seek out soldiers from their respective states.
Our flight to Baghdad is delayed due to fog, and we wait on the tarmac for about 45 minutes. Just like home!
We finally take off and land at Sather Air Base at about 9:00 a.m. Our first order of business is straight to a meet-and-greet where we have a tremendous turnout. Approximately 200, mostly air force, go through the line and receive pictures, caps and signed balls from us. We all ask them questions about where they are from and when they will go back stateside. Many of them are golf knowledgeable and ask us questions in return. Lots of smiles and thank yous are shared by all of us. California, Iowa, Maine, Illinois, Ohio, Washington, Oregon, Texas, Florida and a few other states are all represented with this diverse group of soldiers. I even met a young woman from Camarillo, California, which is adjacent to my hometown of Oxnard. It's a small world we live in!
Off to lunch and a 30-minute break before we all put on a clinic to another 100 army personnel. Dan Boever and Billy Wilson put on a great show with Dan cracking everyone up with his part of the show. Tom Watson and I hit some balls and then we all gave lessons to about 10 soldiers.
Back to the table where we sit and all sign Ryder Cup hats, golf balls and 8x10 posters with pictures of us on it. Lots of photo ops as well. We see lots of smiles and we have given these soldiers a well-deserved respite from their daily routine. All this happens from 2 p.m. until about 4 p.m.
At 4:30 we are off to see General Anderson, who has been instrumental in clearing the way for our trip into Iraq. General Anderson explains to us the incredible changes that have transpired here in the last six years. The infrastructure of Iraq, with the cooperation of U.S. troops and the Iraqi people, have come leaps and bounds. The situation here is so much better, it's hard to put into words. I was very impressed with the intelligence of this man!
We have a quick tour of the palace called Al Faw. It was built as a victory palace for the war against Iran and is now headquarters for our army.
Back to our quarters and a 30-minute break until 6 p.m. and dinner with General Odierno. We have a nice dinner with various other Generals ... there are "stars" everywhere!
After dinner, we head out back where there is a large lake where we put on a clinic as we hit balls into the lake in the dark. Again a very entertaining clinic and we finished the evening with Matt Snook singing a few songs to a group of about 20 people. I hand out some more Ryder Cup hats that Tom and I sign.
As I was talking to Tom after we left, we discussed how important it is for even the Generals to have a break from their day-to-day difficult decisions. Mission accomplished!
It is now 10:30 p.m. as I write this and I have been awake since 3:20 a.m. with only a couple hours of sleep. We have all signed our name about 1,000 times today, taken hundreds of pictures and shaken at least 500 hands! We have given hundreds of soldiers time to relax and forget about the war here for a short period of time. We have thanked every single person for their service to our country and I can't wait to get up tomorrow and do it again!
These men and women are true heroes and we are all glad that we can give back just a little to them.
Thank you to all the men and women of the military!
Tues., Nov. 24, 2009
The wake-up call feels very early today ... I think after our long and fun and fulfilling day yesterday, jet lag has caught up with me.
We all meet at 8:15 to go see General Odierno, but it was pushed back to 9:30. Bummer ... I could have used some extra rest. Anyway, we saw the General and he gave us a cool belt buckle and his personal medal as a thank you for coming over to visit the troops. He also explained what is going on now and we asked him what the American people need to know that may not know already. He said that the progress in Iraq politically and their way of life has improved dramatically and that with the new election coming up soon, this time is crucial for Iraq to get on its feet as a democracy. I felt the most important thing he said was that we have to make sure they stay on this path without disruption. His job is to figure out the best way to do this with a minimal amount of troops.
We said goodbye to General Odierno and went to the helipad to catch our Blackhawk transport to Camp Hammer for the 20-minute flight. Once there, we went to the command center and visited with about 25 soldiers and engaged them in a lot of one-on-one talk. After this visit, we went to the DFAC and had lunch while Matt Snook sang for the troops while they dined.
An intimate clinic followed lunch and then on to the Blackhawks for the short flight to COP (command outpost) Carver where we met up with the 10th Mountain Division. Great group of guys! It was clinic time again and once again Dan Boever was so funny! Lieutenant Colonel Greene, their commander, gave Dan the okay to try and hit a tower 300 feet high ... and he did it on the second ball! Very impressive!
I handed out AT&T calling cards to everyone there and once again lots of thank yous and best wishes to our troops as we walked over to a makeshift stage where Matt Snook performed for an even larger group of soldiers. He is a very talented musician and the crowd just got bigger and bigger the more he played.
A quick dinner and then Blackhawks to Camp Cashe South and some more of the 10th Mountain Division. More clinic, Matt Snook singing, handing out AT&T calling cards, autographs and pictures. Tim Simpson gave a very nice speech to these soldiers to thank them for their sacrifices that they make for our benefit. Again, a group of very grateful soldiers who we have had the opportunity to entertain and take their minds off the fact that they are thousands of miles away from family and loved ones.
It's now 10:30 p.m. and time for our last flight of the day back to our quarters. We fly right over the heart of Baghdad, which is amazing in the sense that in 2006 when I was here, it was way too dangerous to do so. Times are changing over here! Thanks to our fighting forces!
Wed., Nov. 25, 2009
A loud "BOOM" wakes me up at 7:15! I am thinking, "What was that?" I don't hear any sirens, but to me it seemed like a pretty big explosion. I am so tired that I go back to sleep until Dan Boever taps me on the leg at 8 to wake me up. We have to leave at 8:15!
I jump out of bed and get ready and eat breakfast in the next 15 minutes and am ready to go visit the troops.
I ask what the explosion was and I find out it was a "controlled detonation" just outside the barrier of the enormous camp here in Baghdad. Our troops had found some kind of explosive device and exploded it without anybody getting injured. Chalk one up to the good guys!
We all jump in the vehicles for a tour of "The Victory over America" palace a short ride away. Saddam Hussein had built this enormous palace after we pulled out of Iraq during Desert Storm. For some reason he felt that he had won the war. Go figure. At any rate, this was one of the first places that our forces hit in 2003. The palace was never finished and the cranes are still standing at this unfinished structure.
Next stop is a clinic at Camp Victory and a autograph/photo op session. About 100 troops show up and I met a soldier from my hometown of Oxnard! We talked about Oxnard and his deployment. It is his third trip to Iraq. It still amazes me the sacrifices these men and women have committed themselves to. All in the name of our freedom.
After the clinic, it's off to the DFAC for lunch. We sat with troops and sign some autographs after lunch, before our next clinic at a different location on Camp Victory.
The next clinic is a great hit with another 100 to 150 troops. The clinic was held by the edge of a large lake, and there was an abandoned building sitting on the peninsula about 250 yards away. It turns out that this is the building where Saddam Hussein was held prisoner before he was hanged. Wow! There is a large window that has no glass in it anymore that we decide to try and hit drivers through. All the troops are loving this part of the exhibition. Tom Watson tries first and hits about 15 balls and near misses the window a few times. Now it's my turn. I hit my third ball and half way there I raise my arms because I think I have made it. It hits the top of the frame of the window and bounces away. Oh well, I missed my target from 250 yards by inches. I yell out,"I SUCK!," and everybody laughs. Next up is Tim Simpson and on his 12th ball he hits it right through the window! The troops cheer like he just won a tournament. It was soooo cool!
After thanking the troops for their service, we took a group picture then and went inside for autographs and pictures.
Next stop is dinner and our last meet and greet of the day. At the rec (recreation) center we sign hats, balls and posters for another hour and a half to troops that we can't say thank you to enough.
After all the troops have been taken care of, I challenge one of the sergeants to a game of pool. Bobby Wilson, the sergeant and myself play cut throat. We end up each winning a game a piece and call it quits.
After billiards, General Anderson walks in with a gift of an American flag for each of us. What a wonderful gesture on his part -- and something I will always cherish and remember.
Well, it is time to go back to our quarters. It is 9 p.m. when we arrive at our quarters for our earliest return on the trip so far. We are all tired yet invigorated at the same time. Another great day here in Iraq that started out with a bang and ended with a bang of our own.
Thurs., Nov. 26, 2009
It is Thanksgiving Day! We were supposed to leave at 9:30 a.m., but it has been changed because of circumstance beyond our control. I am a little sad because it means we won't be able to see as many troops on Thanksgiving Day as I had hoped. But at about 11, we head out to visit some army men who are playing a typical game of Thanksgiving Day flag football. After overtime, we hand out hats, sign some autographs and take pictures with the group and individuals. And of course wish them all a happy Thanksgiving with well wishes and "be safes."
Off to the DFAC for our Thanksgiving meal. The DFAC has amazing decorations as well as freshly baked turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, pies and everything else you can think of for Thanksgiving meal. While finding a place to sit, I spot General Odierno having his Thanksgiving meal with the troops and stop and wish him a happy Thanksgiving. Once again, he is very gracious and explains to us all the morale visits he is making today.
During our meal, my thoughts go to Lisa, Alexis and all my family and friends. I emailed all of them earlier in the day wishing them all a happy Thanksgiving. I can't help but wonder what all the troops who are over here and around the world serving our country are thinking on such a family holiday as this.
We finally are able to catch our C130 to Al Asad on the western corner of Iraq. It is an airbase that covers approximately 90 square miles and is currently housing 17,000 Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine personnel. It's off to our CHU (containerized housing unit), which is basically a metal box with a bed in it.
Meet and greet time again where we have the opportunity to see about a hundred troops, and Matt Snook plays some of his country tunes on guitar. Later that night we headed back to our CHU, where Senior Chief Carr and a lieutenant in the air force smoked cigars and talked about golf and the military.
After cigars I was able to telephone Lisa and Alexis, who are now in Des Moines spending Thanksgiving with her family. Hearing their voices brings a big smile to my face. It was a great way to end Thanksgiving Day!
Fri., Nov. 27, 2009
This will be our last day to officially meet with the troops. It's hard to believe that this is our fifth day in Iraq.
A big thumbs-up from the troops.
Our first visit is to the medivac pad where soldiers in helicopters go out and bring back wounded soldiers; it is a national guard unit from Oregon. One of the crew was telling me about a deployment he had in Afghanistan and how they were under fire while they were bringing wounded soldiers out for medical care. These men and women are like ambulance drivers on a helicopter taking fire sometimes.
Next stop was a visit with the MPs at Al Asal. All our group took turns hitting balls through a 3/4-inch piece of plywood. I even managed to do it with my slow ball speed. After we put holes through the plywood, we all signed it and left it for the MPs as a momento of our visit.
Our next visit was a clinic for about 100 fighting men and women. A large trash can is set up about 90 yards away and we take turns trying to fly it in. Tom Watson gets one in and later I make one before we move to a rooftop where the "long drive" guys take over. Somehow Tim Simpson is hitting drivers and saying how Tom Watson's comments have helped him hit it higher. Dan Boever comes up with the line of the trip when he says, "Do you realize we are on the roof of a building?" All of us, including all the troops, are laughing very hard. This is our last clinic and again we thank the troops for putting their lives on the line for our freedom. After a group picture and autographs, we depart for dinner and our last meet and greet on our tour through Iraq.
Another 150 or so soldiers show up. Matt Snook is singing country music while the rest of us are signing various items and taking pictures with our soldiers. The commander of the base, a Navy captain, brings me a gift. It is the Navy eagle, which he pins on me. This goes with my Army captain's bar. I think these officers are aware that I am captaining the Ryder Cup next year. It is a great gift and one that I will cherish as a great reminder of this trip to Iraq.
Time to head back to our CHU and pack our bags for palletizing for tomorrow's flight to Kuwait City. Our trip is almost over.
Sat., Sun., Nov. 28-29, 2009
We all start our day by meeting at 8:15 to go to the DFAC for breakfast. I am going to miss the DFACs (not really). After breakfast, it's time to catch our hour-and-a-half flight on a C130 back to Kuwait city and Air Force base Ali Al Salem. But, we run into another glitch. The aircraft coming for us has an engine fire and has to divert to another airfield. We are stuck at Al Asad until they can locate and fly in a new plane. About five hours later and a lot of sitting, it's time to board our flight out of Iraq.
The C130 that comes to get us has the same crew that flew us to Baghdad five days ago. The navigator is to be married next year and one of the crew in the back is from my wife's home state of Iowa. He has an Iowa state patch on his uniform and I take pictures of it to show to Lisa. Unexpectedly, he takes his patch off and hands it to me. What a gracious young man. That's the Midwest for you.
After we land at Ali Al Salem, we take a group photo with "our" Air Force crew.
An hour and a half drive back to Camp Arifjan and the clock reads 5 p.m. Time for our last DFAC meal of our trip. I have dinner with my dining mate, Dan Boever, and I make a very sarcastic remark that it feels great to sit down. I get my reward with a wry grin from Dan. We only have another 16-17 hours of sitting in front of us.
After dinner, I have a very private conversation with Tom Watson, my captain for the 1993 Ryder Cup. I asked him for input for the Ryder Cup next year and he thoughtfully gave me his opinion. My respect for Tom has done nothing but grown over the years and I listen intensely as he speaks.
It's now 8:30 and it's off to the airport we go. Rick Kell, our fearless leader, asks us all if we have our passports. We all say yes ... except Tim. He has a panicked expression on his face and is looking very worried. It turns out he had put it in a different place in his backpack than he normally does. We all gave a sigh of relief.
Our flight takes off Sunday morning at 12:40 a.m. for our "short" 12-hour flight back to Dulles. Once there we all go through customs and immigration. Some of our group are staying in Washington and others are transferring to other cities. Tom (Watson) and Matt (Snook) are heading back to their homes, Bobby (Wilson) will head home tomorrow, Tim (Simpson) is off to another terminal for his flight, Rick (Kell) lives here and Dan (Boever) and I migrate to our flights together. We all say goodbye to each other and express in our own ways how wonderful this trip has been. I have made three new friends on this trip, Matt, Dan and Booby. And strengthened my friendships with Tom, Tim and Rick.
Dan and I head to our respective gates together. I started this trip meeting this total stranger and am now ending it with a new friend. My thanks go out to Dan, Tom, Tim, Matt, Bobby and Rick for great teamwork and a compassionate heart for our braves soldiers.
I would also like to say thank you to Rick, AT&T, and the PGA of America. Rick made this trip happen just like he did with the first annual "golfers" trip to visit the troops in 2006 that I was on. It is Rick's 14th trip over to Iraq and he will be bringing wounded warriors back funded by First Troops Foundation after Christmas for "closure." My thanks to my friend Brian Fitzgerald at AT&T, who arranged for me to be able to hand out 200 calling cards to grateful soldiers. And lastly, I would like to thank the PGA of America for sending over 200 Ryder Cup hats to give to our fighting men and women.
The last leg of my journey is to Dallas, where Lisa And Alexis are awaiting my return. I jump in the car and Alexis is asleep in her car seat looking adorable as ever. Lisa and I look at each other and smile a big smile and kiss. I am home!
God bless America And God bless our troops!