10/23/2006 06:14 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How to Gain an Appreciation for U.S. Soldiers

THE PENTAGON CALLS it the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference (JCOC), a military immersion conducted for hand-picked civilians on 72 different occasions since 1947.

I think of it as an extreme form of military tourism. I know: I just did it.

That's why today I am exhausted, and $3,000 in travel expenses in the red. In the midst of Ramadan, I have just traveled 15,000 miles and visited four countries inside of one week.

Along the way, I was briefed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, boarded the USS Iwo Jima by helicopter in the Persian Gulf, fired the best of the Army's weaponry in the Kuwait desert (just 10 miles from Iraq), drove an 11-kilometer Humvee obstacle course designed to protect against IEDs, boarded the Air Force's most sophisticated surveillance aircraft in Qatar, and even took a tour of a military humanitarian outpost in the Horn of Africa.

My visit was to CENTCOM, the Pentagon's geographical designation for the hottest spots in the world, an area encompassed by Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and 24 other nations, home to 651 million people and 65 percent of the world's known oil supply.

I learned many things that I hope to convey right here in the next several days, but most importantly, I came home with an unimpeachable appreciation for American soldiers at all levels. While the rest of us sit here and philosophize, 140,000 are over there trying to do their jobs.

I will not attempt to convince you that the invasion of Iraq was justified, nor even that a continued occupation is appropriate. Neither point was the focus of my briefings. Instead, I came away with a body of knowledge about the way the war is being waged - much of which I cannot share - and an appreciation for the soldiers.

I met them when I was riding in an Army Black Hawk helicopter. I ate lunch with them in a 120-degree desert tent. I interacted with them while firing an M-4 protected by a Kevlar helmet and 16-pound plated vest, and as I was being turned 360 degrees in a Humvee training unit.

I saw them building dormitories for girls in the most impoverished areas of Djibouti, Africa. These were not shills. These were soldiers of all shapes and sizes who now find themselves in harm's way and who, to a person, exhibited an amazing sense of patriotism when I asked them about their mission.

I also spoke candidly to their leaders: Rumsfeld. Giambastiano. Nichols. Walsh. Jackson. Whitcomb. North. Holland. Walley. Shugg.

Not all household names, but they ought to be. They are the commanding officers of the war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan. To a man, they are extremely impressive. Take off the uniforms and you could see any one of them running a Fortune 500 company. No question was off-limits and I took full advantage.

I asked Secretary Rumsfeld why he doesn't articulate an Iraq exit strategy.

I asked Navy Vice Adm. David C. Nichols Jr. - the No. 2 of all of CENTCOM - whether it was true that we failed to strike a Taliban funeral in Afghanistan because of the governing rules of engagement.

I asked Army 3-star Gen. Steve Whitcomb, the man with supply responsibility for Iraq and Afghanistan, if we have enough troops. Everywhere we went, I asked everyone whether we are still activley hunting Bin Laden.

And, my group of 45 civilians was escorted for the entire week by Marine Maj. Gen. Timothy Ghormley, who recently relinquished command of the Horn of Africa, so I was able to hear his thoughts on how we are trying to "win the peace" in Africa, lest it become another hotbed for radical Islam.

But the commanding officers were not the most impressive part of the trip.

Neither was my playing weekend warrior, knowing full well that I would be going home to clean sheets, reasonable temperatures and safe streets. Overwhelmingly the best part of my journey was the opportunity for the many interactions I had with rank-and-file soldiers at every level - like Tech. Sgt. Jerome Knights, a 20-year-old Baltimore resident who keeps F-15 engines flying in Doha; or Harrisburg's Daniel Keyes, a deck seaman aboard the USS Iwo Jima, who misses buck season; or 24-year-old Robert Zaluski from Chicago, who told me he loves his mom and taught me how to fire an M-4 in 120-degree temperatures in Kuwait, and who right now is probably over the border in Iraq.

I ate an MRE, meal ready to eat, with Maj. Monte Weathers, a married father of two from the Kansas National Guard, who showed me the trick to creating a concoction they've dubbed "Ranger pudding" to keep the food interesting.

I had dinner one night in Kuwait with air traffic controller Brian Duncan from Chicago, and Engineman 1st Class seabee Walter Powell from Kentucky, a pair of 34-year-olds with attitudes that make a guy like me, sitting stateside, question his own manhood.

We can say what we will about the politics of this war, but the character of the men I met who are fighting it is not open to debate.