]()On December 19th, the New England Patriots played the Green Pay Packers at the Gillette Stadium. After a big win ending at nearly midnight, six of the Patriots Cheerleaders rushed home to finish packing for their Armed Forces Entertainment Holiday Tour the next day, traveling to the Middle East to spend Christmas and New Year's with our deployed troops!
Monday, December 20
Arriving at Logan Airport with two suitcases and a carry-on each, three enormous boxes containing approximately 5,000 cards received from our fans in support of our "Cheers for our Troops" drive, and 12 boxes of posters and calendars, the cheerleaders checked in with barely enough time to board before take-off! A big shout out to Wendy and Steve! We couldn't have done it without you! With layovers in Amsterdam and Turkey to include fifteen hours of flying, we arrived at Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan at 3:00 a.m. to snow and freezing cold weather. We felt like we were back in good ol' Foxboro!
Wednesday, December 22
After checking in to lodging and a few hours sleep, we "hit the ground running". We were issued some awesome military boots to keep our feet dry and headed off to our dress rehearsal at "Pete's Place". We then went to Wing Headquarters where we received a briefing by Colonels Sones, Brandner and Vega. Following the briefing, we boarded a bus for a cultural tour of Bishkek. We came back to have dinner with the troops, one of our favorite parts of the tours. It's during meal times that we get to have the most candid conversations with the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, learn about what they do on the bases and about their families back home. After we left the DFAC (stands for dining facility - so many acronyms!), it was back to Pete's Place for an autograph and photo session. There were so many Patriots fans at this base, and a lot of football fans in general. It was a really fun event! Finally, we headed back to lodging to fight off the jet lag and prepare for the next day.
Thursday, December 23
After breakfast with the troops, we performed our first show of the tour at Pete's. There was a huge turnout and the audience was awesome! After the hour-long show and autograph session that followed, the cheerleaders had lunch and then boarded a bus for a humanitarian assistance mission at a school in town. I was truly impressed by the philanthropy efforts displayed at Manas. Many of their troops readily, frequently and proudly volunteer their time to not only renovate this school for underprivileged children, but to entertain, collect donations for, and genuinely care for the children. Two busses were full of troops and cheerleaders and the day was spent dancing with excited kids and distributing hats and scarves. We returned to the base, tired but happy after a day of playing with beautiful and happy children. We had dinner with the troops and prepared for our evening show at Pete's. The evening show turned out to be as successful as the matinee. The crowd was enormous and very loud and interactive! The post-show autograph session lasted for a couple of hours and many of the troops tried on, and took pictures with, the Super Bowl rings!
Friday, December 24, Christmas Eve
After breakfast with the troops, we had a full tour of the base to include Humvee rides! Talk about four wheeling! Next, it was on to the EOD demonstration. EOD stands for Explosive Ordnance Disposal. That's some pretty intense stuff. When you think you're in for a tough day at work, try being on the EOD team. Jayson, the team leader, is from Maine, and a huge Pats fan. We got to try on the suits which hard to even stand up in, though once on, the cheerleaders tried out some dance moves. The ladies climbed some ropes, tested out the robots, and learned about different types of explosives. Before we left, the EOD guys presented the cheerleaders with some "beautiful and interesting" calendars from their unit. Thanks guys! They're displayed proudly in our locker room! Our next visit was with the safety/security department and then it was lunch time. After we ate, we went to an open field and watched a bird demonstration. Birds are very dangerous to aircraft, especially in large numbers (think the Hudson River), so Manas Air Base uses birds of prey to chase away others. We each took turns wearing a glove and let the falcon land on our arms. Next we went to the K9 unit where two of our escorts, Quardrick and Jordan, were brave enough to don the huge bite suit and get attacked by the dog (scary but hilarious!). It's amazing how well the dogs are trained when I can't even get mine to sit or give his paw. Lastly, we stopped briefly at a base holiday party and then got fitted for our "battle rattle" - our protective vests and helmets, for our travel to Afghanistan.
Saturday, December 25 - Merry Christmas!
Santa gave us the best Christmas present ever this morning and that was three extra hours of sleep! Instead of a 4:00 a.m. call time like we expected, we got a 7:00 knock on our door instead! We went to the DFAC for breakfast-to-go and waited at the terminal for our flight. After our goodbyes to Q, Danni and Jordan, we flew on a C-130 and landed at Mazir e Sharif, also known as Camp Marmal, or The Mes. There we were greeted by Tammie, Kelli, Nicki, our driver, Aaron and also SFC Matthew Chlosta, who took amazing photos and video for us throughout the Afghanistan leg of the tour! The first thing we did was go to the DFAC, which was adorned with what appeared to be a dozen huge cakes and ice sculptures, and there was even a live band playing! The food was amazing; a real Christmas dinner, just like you'd have at home! It was so festive! After the meal, we loaded into a van and delivered literally HUNDREDS of filled Christmas stockings to troops on the base, as well piles and piles of the cards from our Cheers for our Troops collection. We ended the night at the base holiday party, signing posters and taking photos with the servicemen and women celebrating the holiday away from home.
Sunday, December 26
After breakfast in the German DFAC (there are a lot of coalition forces at this base), we donned our "battle rattle" for our first of what would be many helicopter rides of the trip. Half of us got on a Chinook, the other half on a Blackhawk, and off we went to Khelegay. The cheerleaders signed autographs, took pictures, checked out the M4's and M16's (very cool) and also received "Punish the Weak" t-shirts which they'll wear to practice when they run the dreaded ramps at Gillette Stadium! The group split for three more visits to FOB's and COP's (forward operating bases and command outposts, respectively); to PEK, Talawka and OP North. Our last stop of the day, where we would be performing and then sleeping, was FOB Kunduz. We had a quick tour of the base, met some great people, and hurried to prepare for our show. Sgt. Mulryan showed us wonderful hospitality and his troops were an enthusiastic and amazing audience. As we slept in a tent that night, surrounded by barbed wire, reality hit us. We thought about the troops that we had met at the show who had an extremely dangerous mission to perform the next day. Our thoughts and prayers were, and are, still with them all.
Monday, December 27
Rise and shine. We climbed into the Blackhawks to travel to COP Heyraton for a meet and greet and then took some pictures on the MRAP's (mine resistant, ambush protected) vehicles. Much too soon it was back to the helo's for departure. We flew to Deh Dadi II, had lunch and prepared for a show. As always, it was a lot of fun and there were SO many Pats fans in the audience!! We left quickly after the show for a flight to Camp Spann. This was a HUGE base for which they had built a giant stage for the cheerleaders' performance. We had dinner with the troops, a few meet and greets and it was show time with full costume changes. A great autograph signing followed the show and then we had some hot chocolate in the DFAC before bed. Tomorrow is our last day of "FOB hopping". Can't wait to see what it brings!
Tuesday, December 28
We were all pretty tired. The jet lag, the cold, the helicopter rides, carrying the gear and the performances are finally catching up with us. We were thinking if we had just ONE full day to sleep and catch up, we'd be ready to start all over again! We just needed to re-charge our batteries. We were really looking forward to our last day of helicopter-travel adventure.
We traveled to COP Gaji, PJT Meymannah and Ghormach. It was there that we presented the flag made of the handprints by the students at the Bowie Memorial School in Chicopee, MA. We presented that same flag to a squadron of Marines in Iraq last year, and Captain Christoper Hermann brought it back to the school when he finished his deployment. The cheerleaders took the flag to the Middle East for IT'S second deployment and presented it to Staff Sgt. Justin Damon of Weymouth, MA, who will carry it back with him when he returns home safely. Our last stop of the day was at FOB Griffin. We met a great group of Navy EOD guys, many coalition forces troops and put on a really fun show. We slept in a super crowded tent (so crowded that I had to sleep with my suitcase ON my bed), got another great feel for real military life, and prepared to head back to our "home base" the next day.
Wednesday, December 29
After sharing breakfast with the Navy EOD crew, we jumped on the Blackhawks and headed back to Mazir e Sharif. Literally minutes after we landed we performed our first show at the base. Poor Stephanie, borderline exhausted and fighting off a cold, she still sang like an angel. I don't know how the cheerleaders danced with so much energy but their dance performance was perfect and the troops had a great time. We had a little bit of free time so we got to go to the bizarre today, try on some fun hats and buy some souvenirs. The free time ended quickly and it was off to eat and then prepare for another show where we had full costume changes, a large audience and long autograph session. Then it was back to lodging for a full night of sleep! Woo hoo!!
Thursday, December 30
We were sad to say goodbye to our new friends in the Regional Command North but it was time to depart for Qatar to ring in the New Year. We boarded a C17 that read "Spirit of Bob Hope" on the side! What an honor to be in a plane decorated with the name of the man who started morale tours for the military! We landed in Al Udeid where we were met by Wendy and Royal, got through customs and immigration, and drove to Camp As Sayliyah. This is an R&R base (that's rest and relaxation, not Rock & Roll!), so it's very nice and very comfortable!. The troops here are treated to many amenities. We knew we wouldn't be sleeping in tents! When we discovered we didn't have to walk outside with glow sticks or flashlights to use the latrine we knew we were livin' big! haha There was even a laundry facility right in the dorm style housing! Clean clothes! Lights out... good night!
Friday, December 31
The morning started with breakfast with the troops. The DFAC was awesome. They even have Krispy Kreme donuts. I'm pretty glad I don't live there or I'd be in big, big trouble. We had a little personal time to use the computers and reach out to our families and then it was back to the DFAC for a meet and greet. We had a base tour and then prepared for our New Year's Eve show. The stage was huge, the backdrop an enormous American flag! It was a beautiful way to end a fabulous tour. The countdown began and at the stroke of midnight, the noisemakers sounded, balloons burst and everyone celebrated together! We hurried back to our rooms to pack our suitcases, catch three hours of sleep and then leave for the airport. Sadly, our tour had come to an end.
January 1, 2011
HAPPY NEW YEAR
As we waited in the airport to board our commercial flight back to the states, Amanda, Angela, Kelsey, Patricia, Siobhan, Stephanie and I reflected on all that we had experienced and everyone who we had met over the past two weeks. Though we were tired and anxious to see our families, we realized the days had actually flown by and we were sad to be leaving behind the people we had met, knowing it would be a long time before they got to see their own loved ones. Thank you to Armed Forces Entertainment for giving us this amazing opportunity that we will never forget.
Donning "battle rattle", flying in Blackhawks, Chinooks, C130's and C17's, visiting thousands of troops in Kyrgyzstan, Qatar and over a dozen forward operating bases in northern Afghanistan, sleeping in tents, delivering Christmas stockings and cards, laughing, crying, learning, and most importantly, having the opportunity to shake hands with, and be able to look in the eye and sincerely thank the TRUE PATRIOTS of our nation, our U.S. troops, this tour was truly the experience of a life-time.
To the men and women of our armed forces, we salute you!