by Kaitlin Young
I was fortunate to be invited to join in an Armed Forces Entertainment tour this December. Our troops spend long stretches away from their families and friends, serving the United States and our interests abroad. Armed Forces Entertainment provides various tours meant to break up the monotony and give our soldiers a taste of home. This specific tour would bring five professional MMA fighters to various bases in Kuwait and Iraq, where we would be able to see what the men and women of the military do on a regular basis, roll with the troops, and answer questions they might have.
A Visit with the Troops
We were accompanied by our tour director, Amanda Earley. Amanda was in the Army for a decade and had been discharged due to a rather severe spinal injury. As a former soldier herself, she knew the ropes. She is a publicist now and has been working with MMA fighters for a while; she chose the crew that would complete this tour. A few of my friends had done AFE tours with Amanda in the past and thrown my name in the hat. (Thanks, you guys!) When the call came, I said yes right away.
There were four other fighters on tour: Mark Munoz, Jake Ellenberger, Beneil Dariush, and Ian Butler. Mark retired from the UFC a few years ago, but has been actively coaching since. Jake just retired a few short months ago. Benny (UFC) and Ian (Bellator) are still right in the thick of it. It was a fun group, and, as you might imagine, a very competitive group. There was a lot of clowning around with the occasional sage observation about their preferred martial art or fighting in general.
We all flew into Chicago, and from there to Frankfurt, and then Kuwait. We stayed in the Radisson Blu while in Kuwait City, which was very nice and had a killer breakfast buffet. It was right on the Persian Gulf, so I ran along the beach every morning. The weather was 60 and sunny and a welcome break from Minnesota winter. Having not been to Kuwait before, I decided it would probably be a good idea to take a gander at the local laws before gallivanting around town.
Kuwait: A Nation with Sharia Law
In Kuwait, there is no separation of church and state, and the laws are in accordance with Islam. It is less conservative than many other countries in the area, but it is nothing like the US. Amanda and I were not required to cover our hair, although most local women we saw were wearing at least a headscarf. Alcohol consumption is also strictly forbidden. You are not allowed to eat or drink publicly during Ramadan, regardless of your religious views. Women still cannot vote in Kuwait. While there are not laws against wearing shorts and showing your legs, there are also no laws against sexual harassment. It was advised that I not wear shorts on my run, or I would be dealing with whatever happened as a result. I’m more of a capri girl anyway, but the idea of having not much choice in the matter was sobering. There are women who live their entire lives with that sort of restriction.
No thank you.
A Visit to the Bases
The first base we visited was Ali Al Saleem, where we met up with the bomb squad. They let us wear their gear and play with their robots. The bomb suits are ridiculously heavy, with little mobility, but wearing them is still better than dying. We were taken for a ride in a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) tactical vehicle by a very enthusiastic young man who launched the vehicle over the highest hill he could find. It was a blast. Before our rolling session we visited the gymnasium we’d be using, only to find a game of dodgeball in session. It looked to be more than just a pickup game, as some of the guys had matching shirts. Nevertheless, Mark (our unofficial ring leader) asked if we could cut in and play with them. Now, if you have not played dodgeball as an adult, with other adults that are apparently on some kind of league, it is a whole different game. One guy had an absolute rocket for an arm and would send the ball whistling past his target’s head — or into it. Grown-up dodgeball is violent! We lost the first game but came back with better strategy to win the second and leave on a good note. It was a nice warm up for our rolling session.
This particular base had a BJJ club, and a couple of the guys were purple or brown belts from back home. It was a nice time and we had a lot of fun getting to roll with them.
We ate in the chow hall with the military personnel and contractors. I don’t know how everyone stationed over there isn’t the size of a house. The food is generally high calorie, though there was a salad bar available at every base. There was also always a desert bar available and an assortment of juice, pop, and slushies, in addition to water. It’s one thing to say no at the grocery store. It’s a whole different level of control to say no to dessert, pop, and french fries — delicious, ready, and waiting for you — at every single meal. Kudos to those of you able to refrain. The rest of the fighters and I were not in that group!
Onward to Iraq
Flying into Iraq was an experience. We were issued helmets and Kevlar vests as we were technically flying into a combat zone.
When we arrived, it was 50 degrees and rainy. That’s right, Iraq was muddy and cold — definitely not what I expected! The first base we visited was Erbil and it did not have a gym, but an outdoor hangar with wrestling mats. It was so cold that our bodies were steaming as we rolled. We had come in on short notice, as the troops found out only a couple of hours prior that we’d be there. Fortunately, we still had a great turnout.
Later that night we had the pleasure of being able to take a peek at the notorious Apache helicopters. They are incredible killing machines. Amanda and I ended up speaking with a 15-year combat veteran pilot who also happened to be the instructor for other pilots. There were a few people we met on the trip that exuded experience and bad-assery. He was certainly one of them. He explained to us how “easy” it is to land a chopper with blown engines. He also told us a story of having to land with a missing rear propeller. Apparently, if you time it right, you can set it down like a dinner plate. He mentioned a few times how fun it would be to take us out in one but that the military probably wouldn’t allow it. Both of us were pretty bummed that we couldn’t take him up on the idea.
We stayed in barracks for the first time here. Most buildings have bunks OR plumbing, not both. If you had to tinkle in the middle of the night, it had to be bad enough that it was worth going out in the mud to get there. The same was true for taking a shower. All the women’s buildings had a code on them and this was true for every base we visited as, apparently, sexual assault is a real problem. You had better not forget your code or you’d be stranded in the rain until another woman came by who could help you out.
The next base we visited was Al Asad. Al Asad had been built for the Iran/Iraq war and was closer to the Syrian border. It is in a basin in the middle of the desert, so low that you can’t really see it until you are on top of it. It’s brilliant. The entire base is massive and used to be American-run, but has taken a significant turn downhill since being turned over to the Iraqis. The smaller part that is now inhabited by Americans and coalition forces is known as Camp Havoc. This base had a great emphasis on fitness and its gym had a massive Crossfit set up. Hilariously, someone decided to hit Mark a couple of times during the roll and bought themselves a good-natured thrashing. Most everyone was respectful and fun. Our host was Lieutenant Colonel Heymann, who is a level 4 Army Combatives instructor. He also hopped in to roll with us!
Paper Airplanes and Dogs
Later we took part in a paper airplane contest. One gentleman crafted a plane that went ridiculously far — the rest of us, not so much. Mark had a good run in his first heat but wasn’t able to replicate in the second. Some of our opposition likely had a far greater understanding of flight and what makes a good airplane, but we had to give it a shot. We then had some downtime where Jake defended his title of ping pong champion of the tour.
The next morning we finally got to visit the Military Working Dogs — the K9 MPs.
They were all trained in agility, bite work, and detecting explosives. They ran a demo for us on all three. The first dog we met was Sam. He had a beautiful coat with a giant head, powerful bite, and the personality of a teddy bear. He also had an obviously close bond with his handler, Derek Smith. We also met Jerry, who was a slightly smaller GSD, wide eyed and focused. We were told to be cautious with Jerry because he had bitten before, but he warmed to us quickly and seemed to be one of the rare dogs that prefers a hug over just pets. Amy was the third dog, an aggressive Malinois that they didn’t dare let near anyone. She seemed thrilled with her work. She jumped and barked with excitement when one of the handlers put on the suit and walked away — it was her turn to go get him. They do not train the dogs to be mean, but some just are and it isn’t curbed. It suits them well in this profession. All three of them were older than you might expect, eight or nine. They work until they decide to stop working, but they seemed to genuinely enjoy their jobs. Depending on the temperature outside, they might stay in their kennels or in the room with their handlers. When it is time to retire, handlers are given first dibs. While some dogs are able to be adopted out to the general public, many of these dogs cannot due to their attack training, PTSD, and other special considerations. Rather than putting down our retired veterans, there are some organizations like Save A Vet that work to place these dogs in appropriate homes.
We Missed Visits to Two Bases
We were scheduled to visit Taji and TQ, but the weather wouldn’t permit it — not because we couldn’t fly in the rain but because Iraq was still not without conflict and rain means poor ground visibility. It meant a greater risk of being fired upon. We were all pretty disappointed. From the sound of it, neither place has had many entertainment visitors. We were really looking forward to spending time with the troops there. Hopefully we are able to next time around.
We hitched a ride with some lovely Canadians on our way back to Kuwait who let us hang out with the pilots. It is very loud in the back of a C- 130, but my ears popped far less than they do in the insulated cabins we are used to with commercial flights. Inside the cockpit it is quiet and the flight was incredibly smooth.
Once back in Kuwait we visited Camp Arjifan, or AJ. This was a special treat as one of my teammates from back home is stationed there. They had a BJJ club that included a couple of pro MMA fighters and a lot of them were comfortable on the ground. I even got a chance to roll with our host. Our Q&A session was also the most detailed. The men and women we spoke with seemed pretty knowledgeable about fighting. They had done their research and asked interesting and well-thought out questions.
AJ was almost like a little city. They had a food court with Starbucks, Subway, KFC, and a few other spots from home. There was a friendly stray cat hanging out and chowing down. What a brilliant place to hang for a stray. Everyone misses their pets at home. No doubt he is eating well.
After a long day of hanging with the troops we caught our flights back to the US. We flew to Frankfurt, then Chicago, and then I was on my own to Minneapolis. I collapsed into a heap upon returning home, possibly more tired than I’ve been in my adult life, but it was so worth it. I hope I get the chance to do it again. We’ve been able to stay in contact with some friends we made there. It was an unforgettable experience.
To any troops who may read this, thank you for your sacrifice. You are truly appreciated.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author (Kaitlin Young) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or opinions of Zebra Athletics.