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Operation Thriller USO Tour, Day No. 6

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This is the sixth report from Operation Thriller, the USO's first authors' tour to the Persian Gulf. The tour consists of five members of the International Thriller Writers organization: Steve Berry, Andy Harp, David Morrell, Douglas Preston, and James Rollins.

Co-written by Steve Berry, Andy Harp, Douglas Preston, and James Rollins.

Who knew the US Air Force ran such an efficient travel service? At the crack of dawn the lot of us loaded up into our usual means of transport -- the workhorse known as the C-130 Hercules. By now we've become accustomed to donning and shedding the thirty pounds of armored vests and helmets worn during our jumps across the Arabian Peninsula. This morning, while waiting on a bus on the tarmac for our plane to land, we watched a wounded warrior being carried into a C-17 for transport to a hospital. The sight reminded us that the conflicts in this region are not over.

Overall, we've been impressed with the enormous logistics involved in moving machinery and people around. The military runs its own airline, complete with ticketing, baggage, security, even television in the waiting lounge, except that you board with body armor, a helmet, and the engines of the plane running at high speed. A "hot load" is the term used to describe the experience. We also experienced a short-field takeoff today in which the plane accelerates at top speed down the runway, leaves the ground, then, as the plane approaches the security perimeter of the base, climbs steeply and banks ferociously, all the while making itself a difficult target.

We also found the true desert today in Basrah, an endless spread of flat sand. Coming in we flew over giant fires from oil refineries, the sands all around stained black. When asked about the fires, one airman simply explained that the refineries were having "management problems."

Reaching Basra, our accommodations at the military base were unusually comfortable and secure. Each room comes with a massive "buddy bunker" next to the bed -- a place of refuge in case of a mortar attack. All you have to do is roll out of bed, cower, and plug your ears. Luckily, we never had to use ours.

Once settled, we visited the EOD -- the explosive ordnance division--where Douglas Preston donned a bomb suit, also known as a "stupid suit," because the more a bomb technician uses the suit, the more confident (and therefore "stupid") he becomes. In the afternoon we visited the base hospital, a huge tent facility, well-staffed, but with, thankfully, not a single patient, thanks to the drawdown. The day ended with a meet-and-greet at a classy USO center, the hub of off-duty life here. At the event we were introduced to an Army chaplain's assistant who flew for a half a day from Tallil, Iraq to meet Rambo's creator, David Morrell. David described the meeting as a "true highlight and honor."

While we were at lunch today at the DFAC (dining facility -- we're learning the acronyms), one of us remarked to an Army Lt. Colonel how impressed we were with the effort the USO made to move us to the troops. His reply was, "Yes, the USO goes to the front." Having been here the past eight days, we believe it.