My Trip to a War Zone 25 Years Later, on the 12th Anniversary of US Invasion of Iraq

Today marks the 12th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. Congress is currently in the midst of a charade, avoiding the war debate, while on the table is a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) for our continuing war efforts, this time, ostensibly, to fight ISIS.

It’s under that backdrop that I found an article I wrote 25 years ago as I flew to and from Saudi Arabia, where I was part of the first and only (at that time) radio show to broadcast live from the site of the soon-to-begin first Gulf War (aka Operation Desert Storm).

Although my memories of the trip remain vivid, I had forgotten I had written this until I unearthed it from the multitude of boxes containing mementos and memories piled in my garage.

As I read it, the emotions came flooding back and I realized that, although 25 years have passed, our presence in that part of the world has only grown and, sadly, made the situation much worse.

I hope my thoughts and feelings from a quarter century ago might make a difference today. I’ll be sending it to my congressman with the hope that it’ll move him toward a “No” vote on a new AUMF.

Monday, Dec 17, 1990 12:50 PM (Los Angeles time)

We are on MGM Grand Air — flying over South Dakota. Mark & Brian and I are flying to Saudi Arabia to broadcast back to the states as the country is readying for war. We’ll make one stop for re-fueling in Prestwick, Scotland. The one glitch in the plan is that they may not let us back on the plane after landing in Scotland.

KLOS’ Nelkane Benton, Nicole Sandler, Mark Thompson, Brian Phelps, Carey Curelop

One week ago today, Mark & Brian and I got our passports. It’s amazing that three adults — the country’s hottest morning radio team and their producer — never had the need for them before! We found out the previous Friday that we would be allowed to go to Saudi Arabia to do the first (and only) live radio broadcast home from the Persian Gulf. Red tape was cut and strings were pulled, and we got our passports last Monday in about 30 minutes! MGM Grand Air teamed up with the USO in a program is bringing over 15 tons of gifts to the service men and women over there called Operation Desert Cheer. And we were going to be a part of it.

It all came about so quickly. It seemed as if we were moving mountains in cutting through the bureaucracy. Of course there were complications. We weren’t sure if we would be able to get satellite time…or even the phone lines necessary to do the most basic, raw radio broadcast.

Then, there was the question of the visas. The picture taken for my passport could probably win the award for the world’s worst — it really is awful. But I never thought it might keep me out of a country. Wrong! My visa was almost denied because I had cleavage showing.

They wound up approving it, but I understand that some eyebrows at the Saudi Embassy were raised by a very innocent (and really ugly) picture.
In preparation for the trip, we were given three booklets of information about Saudi Arabia, the same info given to the soldiers before they head over. It’s amazing that these attitudes still exist in 1990. Basically, women are third class citizens. I must be covered from the neck to the ankles to the wrists, I am not allowed to touch any man, even a non¬-military man, in public. We’ll be arriving at a military base with lots of guys who haven’t had much contact with people from home in a long time. Mark & Brian can hug these guys — but I can’t!

Earlier, I wrote of a glitch, and at this time, it is still up in the air as to whether or not we will actually get to Saudi Arabia. Last night, or actually this morning, at 1:30 AM, my phone rang. It was our engineer, John Miller, who was already there. He left Friday afternoon to get the technical end of the broadcast set up. He called to say that the colonel in charge of the Joint Information Bureau (which oversees all press operations) advised him to tell us not to come. I told him that until I received some official notification that we couldn’t come, we’d be there. He then called Nelkane Benton, KLOS’ director of Community Relations (the person responsible for getting us involved in the Operation Desert Cheer program in the first place). Then she and I spoke, and we agreed — we would proceed as planned and play it by ear. By now it was 2:30 AM. The Mark & Brian Show hits the air at 6. I got up, showered, and headed to the radio station.

The game plan was to broadcast from the station from 6–7:30, head to the airport, and broadcast from the airport from 8–9:30, when we were scheduled to depart.

The first two people I encountered at LAX were Bob Brenier of the USO and Pat O’Brien of MGM Grand Air. Neither one looked very happy. They explained that they had been informed earlier that morning that the plane would not be permitted to land in Saudi Arabia if we were on board. The official explanation given was that the Saudi Royal family had been offended by something Mark & Brian said on the air six months ago. It didn’t ring true, but at this point was unimportant. There was nothing we could do right then, so we huddled with our Program Director, Carey Curelop, Nelkane Benton, and Chuck Demonie, the President of MGM Grand Air. We decided that Mark & Brian and I would fly to Prestwick. It’s a 10-hour flight, and a lot could happen in that time.

Right now, that’s where we stand…

For backup, we made plans to rent a car and cellular phone and go in search of the Loch Ness Monster if we’re stuck in Scotland. It was meant as a joke, I just hope that’s not what our show tomorrow morning consists of.

— —

It’s now 7:40 PM, Los Angeles time, and we’re preparing to land in Prestwick, Scotland. Chuck Demonie’s lawyers in Washington, DC have been working on straightening out this mess — as I’m sure has Nelkane Benton, the USO and anyone else even remotely involved.

For the past 10 hours, we’ve been flying in absolute luxury, and watching movies — we saw “The Witches,” “The Freshman,” and “Breakfast at Tiffanys”. We’ve just landed. We’ll know something soon.

9:15 PM LA time — We are off to Saudi Arabia!!! Leigh Kimball, Director of Marketing for MGM Grand Air flew over on Friday with our engineer, John Miller. Apparently, Leigh has been pestering the powers that be enough so that they finally admitted we had been getting the runaround. From what we can piece together, nobody in charge wanted to accept the responsibility of making the final decision to allow us to go — it was probably easier to just say no (as our government has been pushing, for so long). We really don’t know what transpired, just that we are back in the air and will be in Saudi Arabia in about 7 hours. The big question now is whether or not we’ll be allowed to broadcast. The technical end is set — we were able to borrow the satellite time from the radio pool, and John Miller has everything set to go. Now all we need is someone’s permission.

It’s now 10:25 PM — way past my usual bedtime. I’m usually in bed by 9:00 PM to be up at 4 AM for a 6:00 show. We just put a call in to KLOS. The Airphones don’t work once you get out of U.S. airspace. They wouldn’t let us off the plane at Prestwick until we got the official word on our status, and once we found out, we had to leave. Our time on the ground in Saudi Arabia is very limited, so we must adhere to a strict time schedule.

We went into the cockpit once we were somewhere near London, about 30 minutes after taking off. They established a connection with KLOS through Stockholm Radio. Mark and Brian explained to the KLOS audience what was happening, and that we wouldn’t know if we’d be going on the air until we landed. We are all on pins and needles — nervous about the situation we are about to enter, and the uncertainty of what to expect.

But even with a shaky radio connection to the Los Angeles audience from somewhere over England, these guys are still funny, in a very sensitive way. They never cease to amaze me — they can find humor in just about every situation, and always make me laugh. This is one experience I know I will never forget.

Movie #4 is on — “Days of Thunder”. I’ve already seen it and it’s not so hot. Tom Cruise looks good, but I’m on my way to Saudi Arabia and am probably better off not thinking about good-looking men! I’ll try to get some sleep. If all goes well, we go on the air in 7 ½ hours….

— -

4:15 AM December 18, 1990… I woke up about 45 minutes ago when Chuck Demonie came through the cabin and said, “We’re over the Red Sea. Ten minutes till Saudi.” I jumped up — quickly wide awake, then realized we’d still have an hour and a half of flying over the desert until we reached our destination — Dharhan. But the view from the plane is amazing! There are huge expanses of desert — it’s now 3:15 in the afternoon here and the sky is clear blue. I can see the sand so clearly — -I half expect to see Lawrence of Arabia riding by on horseback! I wonder if there will be sand where we are headed. From what I can tell from the map, it’s right on the Persian Gulf. Yet I don’t know what our access to anything will be. I guess I’ll find out shortly, as the monitor in the plane’s lounge says we land in 40 minutes.

4:55 AM — we will land in about two minutes. I woke Mark & Brian about 20 minutes ago, and we have been doing some last minute preparation with the expectation that we will go on the air. We’ve come this far — we can’t let anything stop us now!

I brought along some mail from home addressed to “Any Service member” plus some phone messages to pass along… A listener named Susan Allen called me. Her husband Christopher is somewhere in Dharhan. She just found out she’s pregnant and wants us to let him know.

A photographer who came along to document the trip just passed by and asked, “You guys ready to go to work?” Mark & Brian just looked at him and both answered, “We just hope we can!”

After seeing only desert for the past hour and a half, I just saw the Persian Gulf. We’re circling back, and the landing gear is going down. “Ladies and Gentlemen, we’re clear to land. Everyone be seated, we’ll be there in a minute,” was just heard over the speakers.

We are landing…a very barren view… few cars on the road… a helicopter is flying off to the side… lots of planes, military planes…
“Oh my God” is what I just said out loud, as it sets in where we are and what could erupt here at any time. We’re on a military base. — -
We are on the ground, and taxiing to the spot where we will disembark. It’s now 4:15 PM here, 5:15 AM in Los Angeles. The flight attendant just said, “Please stay seated until the plane comes to a complete stop. I’m not sure what will happen after that. Good luck on your radio broadcast.” — -
10:15 AM Los Angeles time December 18, 1990. We are back on the plane, getting ready to head home. To say this is an emotional moment is an enormous understatement. I have been more affected than I thought I ever would be. All I know is that I am terribly upset by this place, by what is here, and by what could happen.

We got off the plane at the Saudi military base here at Dharhan. As we taxied to where we eventually stopped, I noticed all the planes, painted in camouflage — so many of them — from the small fighter jets to the bigger, enormous, cargo planes. It was later explained to me that some of the smaller planes were F-16s that had just escaped from Kuwait in the final moments. There were signs on the sides of them that read “Free Kuwait”. There were jeeps, and soldiers in fatigues. I was overwhelmed by the severity of the scene. We were told we would get on a bus and travel to a hotel where the Joint Information Bureau the officials that oversee the press corps) has its headquarters.

It is also where all the press — everyone covering the conflict — is based. Apparently we had clearance to do the show. We met Col. Bill Mulvey, the head guy of the JIB, who first took us to a corner of the lobby where he laid out the ground rules for the broadcast. (This is the same guy who had relayed the message early yesterday morning via John Miller in that 1:30 AM phone call that we should not get on the plane!) He then took us up to the roof where John was waiting with a very basic remote set-up. This setting, on the roof of this hotel, was where all the TV networks did their live shots. The sun was just setting in Saudi Arabia when we took the air, and was just coming up in Los Angeles where we were being heard.

We were unable to get a large group of service men and women together, but throughout the course of the three hours we were on the air they trickled through in small groups. We hooked U.S. service people up with their loved ones at home, and experienced their heartache and home¬-sickness along with them. We spoke to kids who had been out in the desert and didn’t even realize that it was just a week before Christmas. We brought over a few cards and letters that listeners asked us to bring (in addition to the 15 tons that were on the plane), and I know we definitely made a difference to the few people we were able to touch.

The first person we put on the air just happened to be the first serviceman I spoke with on the ground in Saudi Arabia. His name is Michael Novick, and he is from Valencia, California — just north of Los Angeles. He knew of KLOS and Mark & Brian! I told him why we were there, and asked him come over to where we would be broadcasting from, and we would try to hook him up with his family. He got there just moments after we went on the air. I got his mother’s phone number, relayed it back to the station and connected them on the air. It made me feel so good to be a part of this. Michael had not spoken with his mother in over three months, and we helped them wish each other a Merry Christmas, and send their love.
Michael thanked me, and said he just had to find a friend of his to bring back. I told him we would only be there until 8:30 (PM, local time) and to hurry. The show went like that for the next three hours…we connected families who had been separated, we shared many tears and, thanks to Mark & Brian’s gift of humor, some laughs too.

Paula Abdul called the radio station from a photo session in L.A. where she was listening (and KLOS is a rock station that has never played a Paula Abdul Record) just talk to some of the guys who were there with us. They sang “Straight Up” to her! Our sportscaster, Todd Donoho, did his regular segment, and guys who were with us listened intently to the news of the Rams awful defeat by the 49ers, and of the Lakers’ terrible problems this season.
Elvis frequently visits the Mark & Brian Program (courtesy of the talents of Brian Phelps). And since Elvis was in the Army, it was only fitting that he join the guys in Saudi Arabia. When Elvis visits Mark & Brian in the studio and he “feels something coming on”, the belch is supplied by KLOS newsman Chuck Moshontz. In this remote part of the world, Elvis’ gaseous eruptions were supplied by the Army’s own Timothy Mack. Mack earlier had the opportunity to speak with his wife Betty in Germany.

Betty is in Germany because that is where Timothy was stationed before he was sent to Saudi Arabia. His kids, TJ and Yolanda, are also there. Then there was Betty Anderson, also of the Army and she too came to Saudi Arabia from Germany. Her husband is also in the Army, still stationed in Germany — and he and their two kids are still there. She has been in Saudi Arabia for almost four months, and has not spoken to them once. We tried to hook them up — -there was no answer at home, and she had already left work. It absolutely broke my heart to have to tell her that we were out of time and couldn’t reach her husband.

We were getting close to the time when we had to end the show, when Michael returned. He had a friend with him. Sidney Pittman is about 40 years old, a career military man. He called his wife Debbie in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. While they were talking, it was revealed that this would be their first Christmas apart in the 21 years they had been together.

Sidney Pittman with Nicole Sandler

Debbie said their oldest son would be home from school tonight, and they’d put up the Christmas tree, and put the angel that Sid made on top. As she was saying this, Sid began to cry — and there was not a single dry eye in sight.

There was one thing left to do before signing off and heading back to the plane. A listener had sent Mark & Brian a poem written by her fiancé in Saudi Arabia. We all thought it was important to read. It is called “The Life of a US Serviceman”

We are your sons and daughters, the kid down the street, former classmate.
We are the child who walked into your home with muddy shoes and played with your own children.
We are grown now, and have offered the greatest sacrifice — our own lives to preserve freedom.
We are separated from our loved ones, yet we don’t ask much. But my friend, don’t forget about us.
We don’t start wars — politicians and governments do.
We are here to stop war, because we are the ones dying.
So the next time you see a young serviceman, please realize he might die tomorrow, protecting your life and freedom.
And please my friends, don’t forget about us.”
— -Dave Ribus

We had to hurry back to the base and get on the plane and leave because the time we were allowed to be on the ground was limited. I made my way through the hotel, struck by the incongruencies — -a luxury hotel filled with Saudi men in their long white flowing robes and headgear (for lack of knowledge of their proper names), and U.S. military personnel in camouflage fatigues. Back home I watch the news on TV, listen to the radio, read the newspaper — probably more than the average person. But nothing prepared me for the flood of emotion that overtook me through this experience.
I got back on the bus with Bob Brebier and Karen Riley of the USO, Leigh Kimball and Pat O’Brien of MGM Grand Air, our engineer John Miller, our military escort and, of course, Mark and Brian. I couldn’t look at any of them because I couldn’t stop the flow of tears from my eyes. I sat by the window, staring at the passing scenery with all the signs of the coming fighting. We were stopped by two roadblock checkpoints. Young American kids, again in their full camouflage fatigues, were checking to make sure we had the proper credentials to get through, I guess. They didn’t give us any trouble, but it was scary nonetheless.

At the second checkpoint, I noticed a young man sitting off the side of the road, surrounded on three sides by what appeared to be canvas bags filled with sand — -a sort of sandbag bunker. Again, scary, and upsetting! What hit me was the absolute enormity and seriousness of the situation.
We made it back to the base, and I noticed more things — -the big cargo planes (C-5s??) with the nose cones opened on hinges. Inside, trucks, Jeeps, more planes…wow. Then I saw a group of about 40 soldiers walking across the base. They had just arrived in Saudi Arabia — -and they will be here for a while. I’m scared for them. I wish we could just load them on our plane and take them back home with us.

As I got off the bus to get back on the plane, I noticed Michael Novick, the kid from Valencia. I wanted to run up to him, hug him and kiss him and tell him to take care of himself and come home safely. I couldn’t. I was too upset, and afraid that I would completely lose it. The tears hadn’t stopped since we left the hotel. I waved goodbye. I think he understood.

When I got back on the plane, I headed straight for the only place I could be alone, the lavatory. I sobbed and got as much of it out of my system as I could. I regained as much of my composure as possible, and headed back out to find a seat. Mark Thompson had just boarded, and we hugged and cried together. I told him how much I wanted to go up to Michael and say goodbye — but just couldn’t. He told me he saw him too, and did talk to him. He shook his hand, and Michael removed the USO cap from Mark’s head and his floppy camouflage-colored hat from his own head and traded.

Then Brian came on board after being particularly touched by other young man. Brian stayed outside until the last moment — -he was the last passenger back on the plane. He had a conversation with the guy whose job it is to close the door to the plane, from the outside. This young man did it not only for our flight, but for every flight departing Saudi Arabia from this base. Brian asked him how hard that is to do. He said there were times that he just wanted to jump inside before the door closed, but it was his job. And eventually the day would come when someone else would shut the door on his flight home.

I’m not having much success shaking this feeling of helplessness. The thing that’s getting to me is that it’s all about killing. All these people — they will never be “troops” to me again, they will always be people — all this equipment, all the money wasted that could be put to much better use — -and it’s all about killing. I know that war pre-dates modern history, but isn’t it time we stopped the madness? Because when it comes down to the fighting, we all lose. There is no victor.

We have taken off, and we are heading home. The guys are settling in watch another movie. They have chosen “It’s A Wonderful Life”.