Harden The Fuck Up:
BMX Goes to Iraq
A couple of months ago, I learned that Nate Wessel would be taking some riders to Iraq to do BMX shows to entertain U.S. troops. I immediately called him up and practically begged him to take me with him. What an amazing opportunity that would be, to get to travel to a legitimate war zone and see things that almost no one gets to see without committing a large chunk of his or her life to the military. Low and behold, Wessel agreed to take me with him. A few weeks later, I woke up, checked my email, and found a plane ticket to Kuwait sitting in my inbox. It was on.
This is just such a bizarre position to be in. Kagy stretches a superman flip in the second Basrah show during a lull in the dust storm.
We had an excellent and diverse crew for our desert adventure. Street shredder Brian Kachinsky, Dew Tour champ Chad Kagy, tech- master Dave Osato, and Hollywood stuntman Mike Escamilla would be riding in the shows, and they complimented each others’ styles and personalities beautifully. Catfish would be handling the announcing, while Wessel and skateboarder Jud Heald would pull double duty as ramp builders and show performers.
We all flew on commercial airlines into Kuwait, where we met up with Christian Schauf, the man behind Trovata Entertainment. He was the real reason we were there. Trovata contracts entertainment events for troops in Iraq; Christian decided the troops needed to see a BMX show, so he got together with Wessel and made it happen.
From the airport in Kuwait City, we were whisked away to the Camp Arifjan military base in luxury SUVs complete with security detail. They drove in “convoy” formation, each vehicle following about three feet from the one ahead of it at 75 MPH on the highway. When we asked why all this was necessary, we were told that we were “high profile” visitors. We all got a pretty good chuckle out of that one.
The next afternoon, they loaded us back into the SUVs and took us to the Ali Al Salem Air Force base about an hour away, where they handed us flak jackets, helmets, and ear plugs and loaded us into the belly of a C-130 cargo plane full of soldiers. It was a completely raw experience. It really did feel like something out of a war movie – we were jammed in there cattle-car style, sitting on metal bars with mesh stretched over them next to men with automatic weapons. They loaded pallets of cargo in behind us, closed the gate, and took off. It was loud, dark, smelly, and incredibly hot – but amazing. Our first stop – Camp Liberty in Baghdad.
A couple of hours later, our C-130 landed at Camp Liberty, which was Saddam Hussein’s headquarters before the Americans invaded and took over the base. There, we’d be staying in “CHUs,” or Containerized Housing Units, which is the fancy name the military gives to shipping containers that have been made into living quarters. There are hundreds and hundreds of these CHUs lined up in grids, like a small makeshift city or shanty town. Each unit is surrounded
by what the military calls T-walls, which are nine-foot tall, 12” thick concrete barricades designed to contain explosions. If a missile hits one CHU, they don’t want the blast destroying all the adjacent housing. To give you an idea of what the place looked like, whenever one of our military supervisors would tell us we were heading back towards the CHUs, Mike would announce, “Back to District 9!” As inappropriate as his comments may have been, to be fair, it really wasn’t all that much of a stretch.
Our first day in Baghdad I found myself wide awake at 5:00 AM, so I wandered around the base and shot some photos. I photographed the CHUs, Humvees, these enormous six-wheeled armored car things with guns mounted on top called MRAPs (which stands for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected and weigh in at 38,000 pounds), and whatever else looked interesting. It was a strange phenomenon, having what seemed to be free-roam of a military base. Eventually a soldier walked up to me and said, “May I ask what you’re doing?” He was friendly enough, but he made it clear that I wasn’t supposed to be strolling around shooting photos, especially of the CHUs, Signal Hill (where the communications antennas are located), and a bunch of other acronyms that for some reason I actually asked him to repeat as if I somehow might understand him the second time around. The military absolutely adores acronyms, by the way. He was really nice about everything, though, and he didn’t make me delete any photos, take my camera, or shoot me, so I’m not going to complain.
Later that morning, Nate and Jud got busy building the show ramps, with the help of several soldiers, including our new friend Gary Keane. Gary actually rides, and he even postponed his leave so he could be on-base when we arrived. Now that’s some dedication. As it turns out, Gary had even built himself a six-foot mini ramp on-base, which evidently proved to be quite the hassle considering he had to get approval from the various officers in his chain of command. We got to session his ramp for a little bit one morning, and it was super fun.
While Nate and Jud were building, our caretakers on-base found plenty of ways to entertain the rest of us. Our first stop was the K9 training grounds, where we had the opportunity to be attacked by military German shepherds. Imagine this: they put you in a padded, supposedly dog-proof suit, tell you to run, and then sic these enormous, vicious, trained-to-kill dogs on you. It was so amazing. I have a newfound respect for how powerful a dog can be – two weeks later I still have a bruise on my bicep where one bit me through the heavily-padded suit. There is no doubt in my mind that without that suit on, the thing would have ripped the muscle clean off my arm.
Kagy with a table on our new friend Gary’s mini ramp he built on Camp Liberty, officially dubbed “Operation Dust Pipe.” And yes, there was dust there. Lots of dust.
We got hollered at for shooting this photo. Apparently the middle of a military runway about 30 feet from a helicopter about to take off is not an appropriate place to ride flatland. Who would have guessed? Nonetheless, Catfish refused to let men with guns, intense winds from the chopper, his 25-pound flak jacket, or his Kevlar blast helmet slow him down.
Soldier Interview: Kristopher Nelson
Name, age, rank, and hometown?
I’m Private Kristopher Nelson, I’m 19, I’m from a small town southwest of Boston called Douglas, and I’m a private PV1 E1.
How long have you been in Iraq?
This is my first deployment; I want to say I’m about seven months in, and I’ve got a couple of months left. Can’t wait to go home again and do the crazy shit like they did on the ramps tonight!
What happens after you go home?
I’m going back to Texas for a bit, gonna get married, and I’m about to have a baby.
“…I can’t wait to go home again and do the crazy shit like they did on the ramps tonight!…”
Oh, wow, congratulations. What do you think about these guys coming over here and riding tonight?
Oh man, just hanging out with them, chilling with them, seeing the show – it just brings a smile to my face. I know that them being out here means so much to us as soldiers, and I know that they appreciate everything we do. Right now, in my eyes, they’re the real heroes – as civilians, as gold medalists, as VIPs, they’re out here instead of back home with their families; they’re here with us, and that takes a lot of heart.
Wow, that’s really nice of you to say. What exactly do you do out here?
I’m a 63 Bravo, that’s a light wheeled mechanic, I work on the MRAPs over there, and the Humvees.
Why’d you join the military in the first place?
Mostly for the benefits. The economy wasn’t that good when I got out of high school a year ago, and I just wanted to do it since I was like seven years old. At my school, they asked us if we wanted to take the ASVAB test to join the military, and I said hell yeah, and I took it. Now I’m over here in Iraq with a HSC DSTB 1st CD.
So you joined straight out of high school?
Roger. I was actually 17. I joined, and they said I had to wait one more year until I finished high school. And that’s what I did.
Soldier Interview: Gary Keane
Name, age, rank, and hometown?
Gary Travis Keane, I’ll be 25 years old next month, I’m from Raleigh, NC, and I’m a specialist in the Army.
How long have you been in Iraq?
I’ve been in Iraq since January, so about eight months.
“…my father taught me that the greatest measure of success is how many people are better off because you lived…”
What exactly do you do out here?
I’m 63 Bravo, a wheeled vehicle mechanic – I just make sure that everybody’s rolling all the time. The main objective is making sure that the vehicles are ready for war.
And how long have you been riding bikes?
I rode bikes for about six years, then I took almost a five-year break, then I got back into it two summers ago.
What motivated you to build a ramp on-base here?
The biggest thing was getting online and reading magazines and whatnot about other soldiers who ride who were getting stationed in Iraq – they’d be like “Yeah, I’m gonna be in the sandbox for the next fifteen months, and I won’t be able to ride, but I have all this money, so I’m just gonna build my dream bike.” I thought, “Man, that’s pretty crappy, I really want to ride when I get over there, I don’t want to go a whole year without riding.” I saw a YouTube episode of some guy shredding here on Victory – I was like, “Man, that guy is riding over there! I’m gonna build something!” I really wanted to be able to show the soldiers that it doesn’t matter where you go, if you love something, nobody can stop you. That was my biggest motivation, not so much that other people couldn’t do it, but that they didn’t think they could do it. I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from riding – not even a terrorist. It’s been amazing though – I’ve met so many riders, and they’re like, “Oh you’ve got a mini, that’s so sick!
I’m getting my bike shipped out tomorrow dude! You just made my whole deployment!”
What were some of the obstacles you had to overcome actually building a mini ramp on an active military base? The biggest obstacle was paperwork – just making sure all my ducks were in a row. Just like at home, having to sign paperwork that says I’m okay to ride this skatepark because I have health insurance and I’m over the age of 18; well, over here I had to get a memorandum from my company commander allowing me to build it on our pad that we live on, and my battalion commander had to come up with a bunch of rules and do a risk assessment, and now if anyone else wants to ride it they have to get a memorandum signed from their battalion commander saying they’re allowed to ride it. So it’s the same thing as the states. It’s just hot.
How hot does it get over here, anyway?
Well, last month was really cookin’ it pretty bad. . . . it was around 130 on average at the peak of the day, and it didn’t go below 100 until after midnight. We had several nights where I wasn’t even riding at night because it was so hot. Even the wind is hot – it’s like having a blow dryer in your face. It’s ridiculous.
How much longer are you out here for?
I’m out here until January, just a couple more months to go.
Cool, what happens after that?
I’m actually going to get out of the army on March 23, 2010. My game plan then is to move to New York City – I’d really like to be a personal trainer, maybe work at a bike shop part time. I really want to move there for the street scene and just the lifestyle.
What made you want to join the army in the first place? When I was growing up, my father taught me that the greatest measure of success is how many people are better off because you lived. I just really wanted to give back – I have a lot of pride in my hometown, my state, my country, and everything it stands for. A huge portion of my family was affected by September 11, but that didn’t have that much of an effect on my decision. I just wanted to give back, because I really want to be successful as far as people being better off because I lived.
Osato with a clean tailwhip nosepick on one of the “small” T-walls. He went over the back of it on a few attempts, and the crowd thought it was the most unreal thing ever. Camp Liberty.
This huge concrete structure on FOB Hunter used to be an Iraqi fuel bunker before American forces destroyed it with a missile. Now, it’s a perfect place for Brian Kachinsky to do a bunnyhop tailwhip drop in. I still can’t believe this actually happened; an obliterated bunker in the middle of a war zone really is the last place in the world you’d ever expect to see someone riding street.
Next up on our tour was the Flintstone Village. Yes, apparently Saddam Hussein created a full-scale replica of Bedrock, home of the fictional caveman cartoon character Fred Flintstone, so that his grandchildren would have a place to play after he slaughtered their fathers. How thoughtful of him. The Flintstone Village is surrounded by Saddam’s various palaces – the Victory Over Iran Palace, the Victory Over America Palace, the Ba’ath Party House, etc. According to our guide, American forces launched a missile at The Victory Over America Palace shortly after capturing the base, reportedly because they didn’t like the name.
I feel like I should take the time to mention that being on an army base is weird. I am personally not a big fan of guns – until this trip, I hadn’t been around them much, and I’m really not that comfortable with them. They just seem dangerous to me. On an army base, every single person has an automatic weapon strapped to him or her at all times – when walking around, when working, at the dinner table. Always. I found this more than a little disconcerting. Even stranger, though, was that after a few days, I didn’t even really notice anymore. It just sort of seemed normal.
A lot of these kids are young, too. I talked to so many soldiers who were 19 and had been in the service since they were 17. Seeing them, in their off-duty uniforms made up of mesh shorts and a tucked-in grey Army T-shirt, I couldn’t help but think they looked more like they belonged in a high school gym class than in the desert carrying an M-16. And in any case, gym shorts with automatic weapons is just a weird combination to begin with.
Another little interesting tidbit about the military bases is that they contract out base security to Ugandan nationals. As it was explained to me, Uganda is not part of the Geneva Convention, so the Ugandans can basically do whatever they want without having to worry about pesky things like being prosecuted for war crimes. They’re basically unaccountable for anything they do, and it’s more than a little frightening. For instance, the cafeterias (called DFACs in the military) are very high-security areas because there are so many people crammed into such a small space. To get in to a DFAC, one has to present his military ID to the Ugandan security officers at the front gate. We were warned repeatedly not to play around with the Ugandans – we heard several stories about how serious they can be. For instance, one U.S. military officer regularly ate at a certain DFAC, but one day he forgot his ID; when he ignored the Ugandans and tried to go in anyway, they shot him in the legs.
Aside from base security, there are plenty of other dangers. One of Christian’s planes had a surface-to-air missile fired at it on another tour earlier in the year; fortunately it missed. One civilian contractor told us that an insurgent was found in a U.S. military uniform on-base a couple of weeks prior to our arrival, and that a soldier had been killed in his CHU a few months before that. We were, after all, in a war zone.
Oh, and by the way, it’s hot in Iraq. Very hot. I think it was around 115 every day or so. The crazy thing is, all the troops kept telling us how much it had cooled off in the last month. I can’t even begin to imagine. On one of the last nights of the trip I remember thinking it was actually sort of nice out; a little bit later, I noticed a thermometer that said it was still 96 degrees. And I won’t even get started on the dust. . . . let’s just say that if you wipe your face off with a white towel, the towel turns brown.
A lot of our time was spent doing meet-and-greets with the soldiers. I was somewhat skeptical of how well these would go, but all the troops we encountered were more psyched than I could have ever imagined to get to meet a bunch of scummy BMXers.
Everyone really did make the most of the T-walls; here Brian rides up this one like a wedge and then barspins over the chunk at the top. With all the razor wire, concrete barriers, and rubble, this shot really looks like the epitome of riding in a war zone.
As they saw it, we had travelled a long way and risked our lives by coming to a war zone to entertain them, and they were very, very appreciative. They presented us with commemorative coins and patches, some of them even taking their unit patches right off their uniforms and handing them to us. The riders chatted with the soldiers, signed posters, and gave out goodies provided by Hurley, Skull Candy, and Happy Madison Productions. We hung out with all different kinds of units: mechanics, pilots, medics, infantry, paratroopers, Navy SEALs, intelligence, command, you name it.
We chilled with generals, toured the MRAPs and Apache helicopters, played with huge guns in the armory, and were taken into all kinds of high-level security clearance areas where they had to black-out the screens so we didn’t catch a glimpse of any top-secret data. One soldier even asked Chad, “If we could swing it, would you want to come on a combat mission with us?” Chad told the guy, “Ummm, I don’t think so.” I think actually shooting at people was a little more than any of us wanted to get ourselves into. In any case, it never would have happened anyway – we were quite strictly “inside the wire” visitors and not to be allowed off-base.
Eventually, 8:00 PM rolled around, and it was time for our first show. Nate and Jud had basically pulled off a miracle – in one day they constructed a six-foot quarter, an eight-foot quarter, and a five-and-a- half-foot box jump. They were pretty much completely spent, but they somehow got it done.
The soldiers loved the show, there’s no question about it. A few hundred people showed up, and they were all going wild. A lot of the people we talked to said they had never seen the crowd so excited about any of the other entertainers, including a number of big-name musicians. One thing I heard time and time again in Iraq was that life there is like the movie Groundhog Day – every day is exactly the same, over and over again. After the show was over, on numerous occasions I overheard soldiers mention something along the lines of, “For a little bit, I forgot I was in Iraq.” I can’t think of anything nicer they could have possibly said.
The highlight of the show was undoubtedly the T-wall – Wessel had put the six-foot quarter against one of the same concrete barricades that surrounds our CHUs, and the riders used it as a sub box during the show. To say the crowd was psyched would be a huge understatement; I suppose it had something to do with the guys riding something that was part of the soldiers’ everyday surroundings. In any case, they just about lost their minds when Osato fell over the
back of the thing trying to Canadian nosepick it. They were even more psyched when he pulled it. Before we left, the base even presented us all with commemorative miniature T-wall sculptures complete with an embedded Operation Iraqi Freedom coin. It was pretty cool.
DK was kind enough to send over complete bikes to give away each show. Our new friend Gary got the bike this time around, and he was psyched. After the bike giveaway, all the riders hung out for probably about two hours, signing autographs and talking with the troops.
After three days and two shows at Camp Liberty, we were off to our next destination – Basrah. We broke down the ramps – Wessel had designed them to come apart into pieces for easy (well, easier) transport, and we packed them onto four pallets that would be loaded with us into another C-130. A few of us even got to go check out the cockpit during the flight and see Iraq from 13,000 feet. Mike commented that it looked like Riverside, California. The Basrah base wasn’t nearly as posh as Camp Liberty. Shortly after we arrived, one soldier asked us, “Do you guys get a choice in where you’re going? Because I would probably not have chosen this place.” Here, instead of comfy shipping containers, we were sleeping on cots with no pillows or blankets in a huge canvas tent with a plywood floor. The tent next to ours actually housed Iraqis who were working on the base, a notion that did not help Catfish sleep very easy. He’d wake up freaking out at least dozen times a night. We also soon learned that the base had been hit by a rocket attack the night before we arrived. Apparently that’s a regular thing there on Thursdays. Despite the danger and less than ideal living conditions, I didn’t hear anyone complain once. We were all just grateful to be there.
After our first show, during the autograph signing session, a couple of soldiers came up to us and asked, “Hey, do you guys want to go blow some shit up?” Of course we did. It turns out these guys were in EOD unit – the bomb squad – and they had much more leeway than any other unit on base to make things like that happen. Next thing
I know, we’re all loaded up into two MRAPs full of explosives and driving out into the desert. Once we reached our destination, we got to play with some C-4 – and when I say play, I mean we were holding it in our hands and rolling it around like silly putty. Then the EOD guys detonated 20 pounds of if for us. We were about 100 yards away inside the MRAPs when it went off, but even so, the shockwave from the blast was intense. Catfish even got to drive one of the MRAPs back to the base – the rest of us were pretty damn jealous, let me tell you. The EOD dudes were all awesome.
Soldier Interview: Nathaniel Chambers
Name, age, rank, and hometown?
My name is Nathaniel Otis Chambers III, my hometown is Meriden, CT, I’m 23, and I’m a specialist E-4
How long have you been in Iraq?
I’ve been in Iraq for a few months – I took off from Connecticut in May.
How long have you been riding bikes?
I’ve been riding for about 10 years, but I didn’t take it too seriously until about two years ago – I started learning some flatland tricks, picked up some videos, etc.
What made you decide to bring your bike over here?
I couldn’t go a year without sessioning man. I feel like BMX is a lifestyle, and I just really needed to have that with me. It builds my morale – I’m a chaplain’s assistant, and if I have that little piece of home with me, then I’m able to recuperate and do PT and help out the soldiers that much better.
“…they let me go, and nobody was hiring, so I enlisted in the National Guard…”
What do you think about these guys coming over here to do shows on the base?
Oh man, I was so stoked. These guys are incredible man, it’s a blessing to see them in person – this makes me deploying all the much better. It’s the highlight of my deployment.
How much longer are you over here?
Just a few more months.
What happens after that?
Well we’ll be demobilizing, because I’m in the National Guard. So there will be a few months that I won’t have to report to the drills. I’m thinking about going active duty – I enjoy my MOS (Military Occupation Specialty), like I said I’m a chaplain’s assistant; it’s something I’m interested in, just to have a little more money, give tithes to my church, and hopefully God will bless me with a house. I’m trying to pursue a career and get my education. That’s what my dad’s always told me – once you have your education, that’s the one thing you can’t lose – nobody can take that away from you.
What made you want to join the military in the first place?
I was at this job that I worked for a year and two months, I was a supervisor, and I was thinking that if for some reason they let me go, I’d just enlist in the military. That’s exactly what happened – they let me go, and nobody was hiring, so I enlisted in the National Guard just to see how it is. I always wanted to be active, but I just wanted to get a feel for it first.
Specialist E-4 Nathaniel Chambers with a funky chicken in one of the MWR buildings on Camp Liberty in Baghdad.
Soldier Interview: Dan Hylton: From Standard Army to Real Army
Name, age, rank, and hometown?
Hylton, Daniel P. I’m a private first class, 23 years old, and from Davenport, Iowa.
How did you end up out here?
About a year and a half ago, I joined the army. I don’t know; not too much was going on with me and bike riding, or anything else I was doing. I was living in Chicago; it was winter; I was bored. So I joined the army. Probably not the best decision, because there’s not a whole lot of BMX here in Iraq.
Have you thought about bringing your bike out?
I’ve thought about shipping it out, but I’m not quite sure how it would go. There’s not a whole lot of time out here to ride BMX. I wouldn’t really have time to ride bikes out here, except Sundays.
How long have you been out here?
I’ve been on FOB Hunter for the past four months.
Have you run into any other riders out here?
Not really. No. It’s pretty lame – lots of meat heads and dudes who want to blow shit up. I mean, it’s fun, but I kind of miss riding bikes.
What’s the best and the worst part about being out here?
The pay is probably the best part about being out here. The fact that you might get blown up at any minute is probably the worst part about being out here.
How often do you guys see attacks?
It depends; you have a few rocket attacks here and there, and then nothing for a month or two.
What’s the hot girl to guy ratio out here?
There’s like 4 females out here, and there’s like 450 males.
How much longer are you out here for?
About another 8 months.
Then what happens?
IgobacktothebaseinElPaso,andIgettoride their lame cement skatepark that doesn’t allow bikes, and then hopefully go back to the Midwest and ride some indoor skateparks, some street, and maybe some trails.
How hot has it been out here?
The month of August it’s been 140 degrees with the heat index. With all your gear on, you end up drinking about 15 bottles of water a day, give or take. You come back from mission, and you’re completely drenched in sweat. And then after your clothes dry, you get that salt stain residue, and your clothes crust up, and they’re hard like rocks.
What exactly do you do out here, anyway?
I’m a gunner. I’m the guy with a machine gun that sticks out of the turret on the MRAPs.
“…and our whole truck was covered in blood. It was absolutely insane…”
Wow. How’d you get that job?
Basically my platoon sergeant when we were in training just asked me; he said, “Hey do you want to be my gunner?” And I said sure. I’ve been training on that for the past year. We’ve only been hit once out on patrol. I was in the last vehicle; we had three vehicles out, and the second vehicle got hit. It wasn’t an armored MRAP, and it completely blew the door off. It didn’t kill anybody, but it completely took out the gunner in that truck and one of our sergeants. We medevaced him to the other FOB, and our whole truck was covered in blood. It was absolutely insane. That’s the one contact that I’ve been personally involved in, and I don’t ever want that to happen again.
God, I can’t even imagine.
Yeah, people talk a lot about how they want to be in the shit, get blown up, or want to shoot somebody. But when it happens, it’s a completely different experience. It’s kind of ridiculous; afterwards people in other platoons in my unit were saying, “Oh, I wish it would have been us, we would have done it different, we would have been fuckin’ awesome, we would have killed people, we would have done this, we would have done that.” But the bottom line is it wasn’t them, it was us, and we handled it the way we handled it. We made it through alive, so it goes to show something about our training.
Man. Well it seems as though you have a good head on your shoulders; it seems like you haven’t been too indoctrinated or messed up by your whole experience over here. It’s hard to explain, but I feel like being involved in the BMX culture almost gives someone a sort of clarity to see through a lot of the bullshit that would blind most other people.
I know exactly what you mean; riding BMX, you travel to different parts of the country and world, you become culturally aware, more understanding, and more open minded. You don’t close things off, and you’re open to new opportunities and trying different things. That’s probably one of the reasons I joined the military. It didn’t help that I grew up in Standard Country, where at every contest they blew shit up in the back. That kind of mayhem has to take a toll on you somehow. . . . I almost got PTSD from that – I hear explosions and I think I’m at Rampage! But yeah, I try to keep an open mind; I don’t really like conforming to any one which way. I’ve done a lot of things – I grew up BMX bike riding, I’ve been into punk and hardcore for years, I’ve done some martial arts, and now I’m in the army. I plan on going back to all that when I get home – I just have to weather the storm, get out of here alive, and make it back.
Private First Class Dan Hylton, nosepick on Osato’s bike on one of the ramps Wessel built in an hour at the FOB Hunter base. Even after not touching a bike for more than four months, Dan was killing it.
I’m going to go ahead and assume that when Chad Kagy started riding bikes he had no idea he’d one day be flipping a Humvee on a small military outpost in Iraq using makeshift ramps on someone else’s bike while hundreds of armed troops cheered from atop the enormous armored vehicles used to light up the scene. But hell, why not, right?
We hung out with them a few times while we were in Basrah; they’d tell us about all their techniques to disarm various explosives, show us videos of them blowing shit up, etc. Their unit’s motto is “Harden the Fuck Up,” which we thought was pretty sweet. They were even kind enough to give a few of us T-shirts and coins with their slogan printed on them.
The next morning we did another show at 10:00 AM. This one was a little more challenging than the other shows thus far, which had all been at night – this time around, the guys had to deal with blazing heat and a small dust storm. I’ve got to hand it to the riders – they really gave it their all even under the toughest conditions imaginable.
Afterwards, we piled into a Blackhawk helicopter and headed for Forward Operating Base Hunter, a remote outpost about an hour north of Basrah. The Blackhawk ride was incredible. The thing is basically open-air, and there are two gunners, one on either side, ready to shoot at anything that might give us any problems. I sat next to one of the gunners, and about half way through the flight he gave me a headset so I could talk to the flight crew. We chatted for a while about BMX stuff, and then I got to listen in as they went about their business. Out of nowhere, one of the gunners said, “Is that a disturbance to the right?” Apparently he thought he saw something suspicious on the ground, and then the pilot swooped the aircraft over to check it out. It turned out to be nothing, but it was pretty exciting for a second, even though everyone else on board was headset-less and had no idea what was going on.
FOB Hunter was a pretty crazy place. It made the Basrah base look like a country club. There’s really nothing out there – just a handful of buildings and a few hundred troops, compared to around 4000 at Basrah. I couldn’t even begin to imagine being stationed out there, in the middle of nowhere in the desert, for ten months at a time.
Due to limited space in the chopper, we only brought a couple of bikes and no ramps – the idea was to just go and hang out with the soldiers. Shortly after we arrived, though, Wessel discovered that the base had not only tools but also wood, so he and Jud went to work trying to build some makeshift ramps to do an impromptu show. The rest of us explored the base and hung out with troops. Kachinsky did a whip drop-in on one of Saddam’s old fuel bunkers that had been mostly obliterated by a U.S. missile. He was literally riding street in a war zone; it was pretty unreal.
About 25 minutes after we got there, Brian, Catfish, and I were walking around, and we hear someone yell, “Kachinsky!” I assumed a soldier recognized him from TV or something. As it turns out, it was none other than Dan Hylton, an amazing rider from Davenport, Iowa who all three of us knew from back home. We were blown away. The chances of running into a rider we all knew in Iraq are infinitesimal enough, but of all the bases we could have gone to, for us to stumble upon him on this tiny outpost is just unbelievable. Seriously, the odds are staggering. Dan, better known as “Evil,” seriously kills it on a bike, by the way – he even won the Local Exposure stop at Rampage Skatepark back in 2005. Now, he’s a gunner atop an MRAP in Iraq.
When we met back up with Wessel, we were shocked to discover that he had somehow constructed a four foot box lip, landing, and quarter pipe in under an hour. We literally took a walk and came back to find a complete show set-up ready to go. It was awesome. Someone from the base parked a Humvee in between the lip and the landing, so the dudes ended up doing the whole show jumping over a military Hummer. It was dark by now, so they pulled a couple of MRAPs in to light everything up. It was a pretty unbelievable scene, and of course, the troops were so psyched.
After the shows, we gave a DK to Dan – things worked out pretty well for him, I’d have to say. Not only did his friends randomly show up on his tiny military base in the boondocks of Iraq, but they also gave him a bike and built ramps for him to ride. Pretty sweet if you ask me.
We headed back out to the runway to wait for the helicopters to show up to take us back to Basrah. After about an hour, we got the radio signal that the choppers were three minutes away.
When we got to Basrah, we asked if a T-wall could be brought out to the show area so we could use it for a sub like we did on Camp Liberty. We probably should have specified which size T-wall we wanted, because they brought us the big one. Osato didn’t seem to mind.
The military dudes with us warned us to secure our belongings and told us we should probably brace ourselves against the concrete T-walls so we didn’t get knocked over by prop wash when the helicopters landed. We had seen Blackhawks and Apaches take off and land before, and it didn’t seem like that big of a deal, so no one took the warnings too seriously. Three minutes later, we heard the choppers, and then I nearly got blown off my feet. It was unreal how much wind those things produced; suitcases were literally flying away, I couldn’t see anything from all the dust in my eyes, and I could barely stand up. We soon learned why – we were getting picked up in huge, twin-rotor Chinook helicopters. We were psyched.
They loaded us all into one of the Chinooks. This thing was enormous, and it was completely packed with soldiers. They fly completely blacked-out at night, so we couldn’t see a thing in there. There were three gunners, each with night vision goggles – two up front, and one in the back perched on the edge of the open rear bay door holding an M-60 machine gun. The flight was louder than you could imagine and not particularly comfortable, but it was definitely a truly unique experience to get to ride in one of those beasts.
Back in Basrah the next morning, we broke down the ramps so they could be stored on the base for any possible future BMX shows. We packed up our stuff and were corralled onto yet another C-130 back to Kuwait, handed in our flak jackets and helmets, and piled into more SUVs to get us back to Arifjan. The trip was over.
These ten days may have been the craziest I’ve ever had. We got to see and do so many incredible things that I never dreamed I’d get to be a part of. It’s pretty insane to me that BMX literally took me into a war zone. Who would have thought? I’d like to send a big thanks to all my travelling companions, especially Nate Wessel and Christian Schauf for making this whole thing happen and agreeing to let me tag along with them. And, of course, to all the soldiers who were so nice to us – thanks a million guys, and good luck out there. Hope you make it back home soon.
Be sure to check out the edit from the trip below…