I was asked to go to the Canon Air Force base in Mew Mexico to speak to a group of officers about domestic violence. At the time, soldiers were coming home from Iraq and killing their wives. The military wanted my perspective on how and why this kind of abuse occurs and what signs to look for. When I finished my speech I got a standing ovation. Colonel John Posner presented me with the Commander’s coin. I didn’t understand the significance of it then, but I learned later that only the highest of dignitaries get the honor of receiving that coin. I silently asked myself, “How did I get here?” I was given a VIP tour of the base and offered a ride in an F16. I had recently had four vertebra fused due to a seventy MPH head on crash while filming a chase scene with Bobby Unser Jr. in downtown Los Angeles. It was too soon after the surgery and my neck couldn’t take the G-force. I do have an open invitation to take that ride however and I plan to take them up on the offer.
Evidently Colonel Posner thought I was a good candidate for the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference (JCOC) and nominated me for an extraordinary trip with the military throughout the European theater. Out of twenty five hundred nominees only forty-five people were selected. How a former wheelwoman for the mob found her way into that elite category of people chosen I will never know. After accepting the invitation from the Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld to participate in the Defense Department’s program I got the incredible opportunity to learn first-hand about U.S. military personnel, their equipment and capabilities, and national defense strategies.
We started out at the Pentagon where we were given a tour that included the top secret Military Command Center. Most military personal are not even allowed in this area let alone civilians. General Pace briefed us as to what to expect for the rest of the journey. Up until this point we had no idea where we were going for security reasons. We were told that we were a potential target for the terrorist. That fact didn’t faze me. I had a lot of experience with terrorist. In reality, I was even more excited to embark on the unknown. I never did lose my appetite for adventure. And this was by far the greatest adventure of all. Whenever we were off of a military base in Europe we had a full on police escort to and from our hotel, sort of like when the President travels.
From the Pentagon we were taken to the Marine base in Quantico where we participated in an obstacle course. We lost one of our colleges who pulled a tendon and couldn’t continue on with us for the remainder of the trip. After a pleasant dinner at the Officer’s Club we were then shuffled off to Andrews Air Force base where we boarded a C-17 and headed for Stuttgart, Germany. I was lucky enough to be chosen to sit in the cockpit for take-off. I was surprised at what little effort and relatively short runway it took to get off the ground. This is a huge aircraft, designed for carrying tanks and heaving equipment to the war zone. There weren’t many seats inside, in fact many of us had to ride on seats attached to pallets on the sides of the aircraft. I got one of the six available beds. Sometimes being a female works in your favor. While I slept, they did an air-to-air fuel transfer over Iceland. We arrived at the U.S. European Command Headquarters where we were met by EUCOM’s leadership for an update on current operations pertaining to the global war on terrorism followed by a reception with General Wald.
After arriving in Europe every other country we visited we traveled on a C-130. Upon landing, a red carpet was rolled out for our arrival. We disembarked flanked by saluting soldiers standing at attention. None of these aircraft were built for comfort. We were not considered civilians anymore, we were military personnel. We wore earplugs on the planes and were issued helmets and flak jackets and other body armor. We rode in tanks with live fire from Apache helicopters shooting above us and fired every weapon the military possesses.
After long down and the dirt days on the bases we always had a reception dinner hosted by the four star General of whatever arm of the service we were visiting. Our days were long, starting out a 4:00am and ending at 11:00pm. We all understood in short order the meaning of military time. They really mean business. Many occasions there was no time to shower before joining our welcoming dignitaries at our reception dinners.
In Naples, Italy we boarded the USS Mount Whitney and headed out to sea. We were welcomed on the ship by Admiral Harry Ulrich who is the Commander of the Naval Forces Europe as well as the one in charge of NATO operations for the Navy. The Navy put on an exciting and informative show on our behalf. We experienced aircraft landings and launches, observed amphibious landings, Non-Compliant Maritime Interdiction and other warfare demonstrations. In England the air force displayed their military might with an impressive air show that included an aerial demonstration that featured one of the C135’s, two F-15’s and two f16’s. They did several passes and air attacks blowing up a target on the runway. They also demonstrated an in- air fueling.
We were in such top-secret areas with wall-to-wall screens monitoring terrorist hotspots all over the world. When a world crisis happens or is about to happen, this is the place where it is detected first. Their mission is to provide intelligence to the U.S., NATO and coalition forces. It was so top secret that I had to be escorted by two soldiers to use the rest room who waited by the door to escort me back. I could go on and on but I have to stop somewhere.
I have been truly blessed to have had this experience. Very few people, even those employed by the Department of Defense get the opportunity to interact with such an encompassing cross-section of military leaders and service members of all ranks. The most memorable moment though was visiting our wounded soldiers at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Ramstein, Germany. Their sacrifice for our freedom brought tears to my eyes, yet these young men and women with missing limbs had such high moral and positive attitudes, not unlike all the soldiers I encountered throughout this trip. Their bravery will stay etched in my memory forever. I came away from this extraordinary adventure with a profound appreciation for our military. To say that I am proud to be an American would be an understatement.