QAYYARAH WEST AIRFIELD, Iraq —
Places like this base near the frontline of the war on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are where USO tours like the one, led by Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, are needed most.
Rain had fallen on the base and it was questionable whether the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the USO troupe would be able to make it. The troupe features country music star Kellie Pickler and her husband singer-songwriter Kyle Jacobs, the Roastmaster General, comedian Jeff Ross, and Chef Robert Irvine and his wife wrestler Gail Kim.
There are roughly 900 U.S. service members at this base, located about 40 miles south of Mosul. It is a logistics hub supporting the Iraqi offensive against ISIL in Iraq’s second-largest city. These service members make the progress against ISIL possible.
In the rain, the base is a mud hole, and when it’s dry, it’s a dust bowl. “Q-West” as it’s known locally is a bare bones base for service members. They live inside concrete bunkers inside a tent. The tents are roughly 30-feet wide and 150-feet long. There are two people to a bunker and more than 100 service members live in each “bunker tent.”
The main improvement at the base was the addition of shower trailers and porta-potties, said 101st Airborne Division soldiers based here. There is a Navy clinic staffed by medical specialists from Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, Va., and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington. Air Force personnel manage the field and keep track of the aircraft that transit to and from the airfield and the increasingly crowded skies over it.
This base was ISIL territory until July when Iraqi forces took back the airbase here.
The terror group did what they could to wreck the base and make it unusable -- ISIL ripped up the runways and planted improvised explosive devices throughout the base.
Air Force engineers came in August and rebuilt the entire base. There are no planes assigned here, but hundreds have landed and offloaded supplies needed up north against ISIL.
Whole world watching
“The whole world is paying attention to what’s happening in Mosul at this time,” Dunford said to the service members at the beginning of the show.
The transformation in Iraq and Syria has been striking, the chairman said.
“They didn’t have your number and you’ve proved them wrong, the Iraqis are doing what needs to be done up there because of the support you are providing to them, and you are making a difference,” Dunford said.
Sacrifices worth it
This is important not only to the chairman personally, but to many Americans. “I will tell you this: One of the most important things that we are doing right now is we’re making sure the sacrifices we have made in Iraq these past 13 years are worth it,” he told the service members. “I’ve had moms and dads who have lost their sons and daughters over here, soldiers that have suffered wounds visible and invisible over the years tell me they wonder if it was worth it.”
The service members at Q-West now are helping answer that it has been worth it, the general said. The U.S. military, working alongside coalition partners, have been instrumental in helping retrain Iraqi forces. They have provided the support necessary to take on ISIL. The successes over the past year – in Bayji, Ramadi, Fallujah and in Syria – have proved ISIL is not invincible. U.S. personnel will be able to say “we eliminated the evil that was here in Iraq and we made sure the Islamic State was no more,” Dunford said.
The general praised the commitment of the artists that volunteered to leave their families to visit service members for Christmas. “They didn’t hesitate,” Dunford said. “They signed right up. We can’t bring you home for Christmas, but we are able to bring a bit of home to you. That’s what the USO is all about.”
The performers were on an outdoor stage. A generator ran in the background and mine-resistant, armored-protected vehicles brought the performers from the C-130 aircraft to the area. The gravel that covered the ground was gradually sinking into the mud, but it was filled with songs and laughter.
Irvine was the master of ceremonies for the show, his wife demonstrated some nifty wrestling moves, the Roastmaster General got roars for his comedy and a “fast roast” of service members, and Pickler – on her 11th USO trip – belted out her hits ”Red High Heels” and “Tough” before the entire crew joined her in singing “White Christmas.” Every service member in the audience joined in.
The troupe duplicated the experience at al Asad Air Base and in Erbil before flying back to Baghdad.