When public relations professor Jeffrey Duclos went on a five-day United Service Organizations tour that took him all across Iraq, he encountered a country constantly brewing with violence, risky and sometimes dangerous situations and, perhaps most important of all, soldiers who in the midst of war were able to keep up not only their spirits but their humor.
Duclos did not do it alone. Chuck Norris, whose pop culture appeal has grown phenomenally in the last couple of years, was with him. Who better to go to Iraq with than Walker: Texas Ranger himself?
Duclos has done public relations work for Norris since “Walker Texas Ranger” and accompanied Norris on a trip that had been planned to take place for three years, but was canceled due to security reasons. Duclos suspects that the cancellation had a lot to do with the capture of Saddam Hussein a couple days after their original scheduled time for their trip.
During the course of the trip, Norris met, shook hands and took photos with more than 18,000 service men and women, some of whom were stationed in remote places in Iraq where contact from the world they knew was extremely limited. Actor Marshall Teague, best known for his roles in “Road House,” “The Rock” and “Armageddon” also accompanied Duclos and Norris.
“His objective was that he wanted to see as many soldiers as he could in the time that he was there,” Duclos said about Norris’ goals for his time spent in Iraq. “He wanted to be in the trenches.”
Before traveling to Iraq, Duclos was not allowed to tell colleagues or students about his future venture into the war torn country, a place he describes as being very raw.
“You can fly along for nearly an hour and just see sand, except it’s not sand as we think of it. It is more like lifeless dirt,” Duclos said. “Within a day in Iraq, you are sure to get a sore throat because of this stuff blowing everywhere. You will fly along over nothingness and all of (a) sudden see a strip of tire tracks that just begin and end within this void, or you’ll see a tent, or a small compound of two or three block structures, surrounded by nothingness.”
However, there was not a moment when he thought he did not want to make this trip.
“There are very few world-changing situations where you can see things first hand,” Duclos said.
His family supported him and understood his decision to go, Duclos said, although his mother was quite concerned.
“When I told my mother I was going on a USO tour with Chuck, her initial reaction was ‘that’s nice,'” he said. “She then did kind of a double take and called me back and asked, ‘Do you mean Iraq?’
The itinerary included two to three stops a day for Duclos and Norris. They spent time at different bases throughout Iraq, which encompassed Al Asad airfield, the second largest air base in Iraq, Al Taggadum air base located west of Baghdad and cities like Haditha and Al Qaim, known for their prominent insurgent activity. They traveled with black hawk helicopters to and from different air bases to meet soldiers and had daily scheduled meetings with soldiers from morning till night that left them drained.
“At the end of the day you would collapse with exhaustion,” Duclos said. “When you were out and amongst the military it was very stimulating, and meeting them and seeing how excited they were to meet Chuck was very sustaining, so you didn’t get the full impact of how tired you were until you hit your sleeping quarters.”
If it was befitting for anyone to take a trip to visit soldiers in Iraq, Norris was it. Norris, a modern archetype of the tough, virile crime fighter, has become a hero of some sorts for soldiers all over Iraq.
“Everywhere you went, his image was somewhere,” Duclos said, who even saw military trucks that the soldiers had proudly renamed “Truck Norris.”
“He’s the John Wayne of this generation,” Duclos said. “He represents a heroic figure and a man of principles. ”
This was probably not only due to the character he portrayed on “Walker Texas Ranger,” but by his recent rise in popularity and fame among Internet users who have created “Chuck Norris Facts,” an internet phenomenon of satirical facts that portray Norris albeit purposely as a larger than life, amazingly tough hero among mere mortals of the world, with facts such as “The chief export of Chuck Norris is pain” or “Chuck Norris doesn’t breathe, he holds air hostage.” Or perhaps “Chuck Norris’s tears cure cancer … Too bad he’s never cried.”
Soldiers would have lists of “Chuck Norris Facts” that they had downloaded, copies of his movies on CD, his recent autobiography “Against All Odds,” martial arts belts of all colors and other memorabilia. The USO also provided them with a photo.
They love to exchange Chuck Norris “facts.” It makes them laugh and relieves the pressure and the monotony of their daily routine.
As an homage to these “facts” created by fans, Norris, who had served in the United States Air force as a military policeman, left his own fact on a wall while he was in Fallujah: “Chuck Norris Fact: Chuck Norris was here. 11.2.06.”
Chris Pace, who works with the USO, Armed Forces Entertainment and the non-profit organization that brings entertainment to troops, Stars and Stripes, escorted Duclos and Norris around Iraq, said the troops were absolutely ecstatic to meet Norris.
“Chuck was a pleasure getting to know and he is such a regular, humble guy,” he said in an e-mail from Iraq, where he is stationed at Victory Base in Baghdad. “He also thoroughly enjoyed meeting the troops and thanked each one he met for their service to our country.”
Pace, who had Norris and his team on a rigorous schedule, said that he kept up great and never left a troop without an autograph, picture or handshake. Pace schedules entertainment and he also personally escorts and provides security to as many of the entertainment groups that he can, he said.
Though Duclos and Norris were escorted and guarded wherever they went, it was difficult not to be scared when put in a war zone.
“Night time was always a scary time for me,” Duclos said. “When you are not a lit area, it is the blackest black you can imagine.”
The most dangerous place they visited was Ramadi, now the hotbed of insurgency, Duclos said.
“It was the only time flying that we were escorted by attack helicopters,” he said. “The approach to the base is over the city and you have to fly in low. That’s when they did the maneuvering. I had no idea of the purpose of maneuvers until later when I learned we had just come in through ‘the Black Alley,’ considered the most dangerous air space in Iraq.”
Even though risks presented themselves, Duclos said he always felt that they were in good hands.
Upon arriving back in the states, Norris received through his Web site www.chucknorris.com a plethora of thank you letters from friends and family of those soldiers he had visited who had been touched by his visit.
“I am so grateful for your willingness to go out and meet our troops and I want you to know that my son will never forget that and neither will his family,” one relative wrote. “When he called after your visit he said, ‘I shook Chuck Norris’s hand this morning. What have you done?'”
Since Duclos has served in the U.S Coast Guard Reserve from 1966 to 1972 and has an older brother who served two tours in Vietnam, he knew that keeping in contact with the outside world was critical for the soldiers in Iraq, and this perhaps played as a major reason he traveled to Iraq in the first place.
“I knew how important it was for people in situations like that to have contact with people from home,” Duclos said.
On the first night in Iraq, Duclos and Norris, along with the rest of their team, landed at Al Asad air base. Soon after it was mentioned to them by a base commander that they just received two men whose tank had been attacked by a suicide bomber and who were taken to a the hospital on the base. When Norris he
ard about this, Duclos said, he was intent on visiting them at that moment.
“He walked down (the) corridor and there were two marines, one of them carrying an I.V. for the other marine, who you could see had shrapnel marks on his face,” he said. “Chuck Norris walked up to them and introduced himself.”
“If you had been here yesterday,” the marine said, “the war would’ve been over and I would have never gotten blown up!”
Even though these soldiers were in the midst of war, the humor that they possessed was unreal, Duclos said.
One story Pace remembers is of a marine who wanted to have his picture taken with Norris holding him in a headlock. While Pace was taking the picture, the marine got dizzy and Norris had to let him go, he said.
“I know Chuck was not putting that much pressure on him, but I guess when you have that much training in martial arts, even the light pressure can affect a young tough guy like that,” Pace said.
Minutes later, another marine stepped up and wanted a picture in a headlock as well.
“Once again, this marine went down,” Pace said. “But this time, he was completely blacked out and Chuck had to lay him on the floor and stretch out his legs. Of course, the marine was fine and everybody was laughing about it.”
“I never saw stern-faced soldiers and didn’t see any morale that was bad,” he said. “They had that sense of camaraderie, commitment to each other, that kind of ‘I can’t let my buddies down’ day to day acts of courage in line of duty.”
Duclos, whose brother had served two tours in Vietnam, said that there were many comparisons between Vietnam and the current Iraq war.
“It was a war of choice, it was a war based in false information and both are incredibly unpopular wars,” he said.
Though Duclos has been opposed to the Iraq war from the beginning, he is quick to point out that any sentiments we might have for it should not be placed on the people who have devoted their lives to fighting it.
“We can’t confuse feelings about war with people who are obligated to fight it,” he said.
He said this was what happened when soldiers came back from Vietnam, where they were ostracized and completely apart from the world that they left.
“We have an obligation to not let that happen,” Duclos said. “We must do everything in our power to make sure they are linked. We are all in some way connected to someone who is experiencing this. Anything you can do is hugely important.”
As for lessons he learned while on the trip, Duclos said it heightened his awareness of the complexities that the U.S. invasion of Iraq caused.
“The public is not served by having this war reduced to simple solutions or slogans,” he said.
He was also concerned by the effects the war will have on the soldiers after it is over.
“I am concerned about what happens to these soldiers and their families between now and when the war finally does come to a conclusion,” he said.