TAJI, Iraq — There are few occasions in life, if any, when most people could say they once met an Olympic gold medalist in the men's marathon and an astronaut who has traveled over 4.5 million miles in space.
Soldiers in the 615th Aviation Support Brigade, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, Multi-National Division — Baghdad, can say they have. In addition, they met them under one roof, making it even more special.
As part of a campaign to promote running and fitness, The Warrior Tours visited the 615th ASB, 1st ACB, July 10 at Camp Taji, Iraq, north of Baghdad, bringing Olympic athlete Frank Shorter and astronaut Sandra Magnus among others, as they were afforded an opportunity to see Soldiers conduct everyday operations at both the Forward Arming Refueling Point and the Taji flight line.
The Warrior Tours came to Iraq to put the spotlight on deployed Soldiers and their efforts to use running as a way to stay fit, said Rob Powers, from Steamboat Springs, Colo., sports broadcaster and founder of The Warrior Tours.
"It came down to me as the voice of running in America to take advantage of the platform I have and work with my friends in the sport of running to take our spotlight and shine it on our Soldiers," said Powers, an Army veteran.
More importantly, Powers said, he wanted to take a message back home that Soldiers in Iraq are running.
"Our Soldiers are racing and doing it exactly the same way we do it in the U.S.," Powers said. "They just happen to be doing in 120 degree temperatures!"
This is Powers' third tour to Iraq, the only difference this time being the inclusion of well-known figures such as Shorter and Magnus who he said were overwhelmed by the reception of the Soldiers.
"Listening to Frank Shorter telling me this is one of the best experiences he has ever had in his life is the joy of being here," Powers said. "For me as the 'mayor' of running, this is the greatest running experience I've ever had."
Powers said it had always been an ambition of his and fellow Warriors Tour founder Bart Yasso to be alongside the 1st Cav. Div., something they savored.
"It's a twofold joy for me," Powers said. "One aspect is being here and seeing my dear friends experience the same humbling experiences I have here in the past. The second joy is having the opportunity to hook up with my long time heroes, the 1st Cav."
Enjoying the trip to the 615th ASB also was Magnus, from Belleville Ill., who said she made the journey to Iraq to thank the troops for their service.
"The sacrifices the Soldiers make here allow me to do my job because they are taking care of the country in one area that allows us to move the country into another area." Magnus said.
Magnus said she also joined the tour to promote fitness, something she practices strenuously as an astronaut.
"I'm an avid runner and running is something the military does as a requirement, but for fun too and we're here to encourage people to keep running," Magnus said. "I run all the time for stress relief and it's a major part of my lifestyle and we're trying to carry that message; just run and have fun during a race."
Magnus answered 615th ASB Soldiers questions about her career as an astronaut and said she never tires of talking about it.
"One of the fun things about being an astronaut is flying in space and I was able to live in space which was a unique opportunity. I'm very happy to have done that and be able to talk about it," Magnus said.
The party from the tour was able to sit in AH-64D Apache attack helicopter and get a guided inspection of the flight line, which included Shorter, who said the tour had been a revelation for him.
"I came here because I wanted to see what it was really like, because often what you read in the media doesn't correspond to exactly what it's like there," said Shorter, from Boulder, Colo.
Shorter said he won his Olympic gold medal in 1972 shortly after terrorist attacks during the Games in Munich, causing him to run under danger, something he considered prior to the trip to Iraq.
"It's dangerous for everyone in Iraq and my choice to come here is like the choice I had in the Olympic Games in 1972, because my event was five days after the terrorist attack," Shorter said. "I had to think about that because I knew if the terrorists would do anything else, it would be on the marathon course."
"But just as today with all the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, if you let the fear of what someone might do, then they have won," Shorter added, which is why he ignored those who said he should not make the trip to Iraq.
Shorter said he found the enthusiasm of Soldiers in the 1st ACB to remain fit to be a breath of fresh air and encouraging.
"People don't want to sit around, they want to recreate by doing something. Which I've witnessed over here by the success of the gyms and PT (physical training)," Shorter said. "PT has become huge and a lot of it is stress release and I am going take back what I've learned here and improve on it."
The trip was well received by the 615th ASB, said Capt. Xeon Simpson, from the Bronx, N.Y., commander, Company A, 615th ASB, 1st ACB, with Soldiers responding positively to all the guests from the tour.
"The visit went well and the Soldiers enjoyed getting a taste of the civilian world," Simpson said. "The visitors we had seemed excited about the things we take for granted every day; the missions that we do and the equipment we work on; which made our Soldiers enjoy having them here even more."
The enthusiasm of the 615th ASB Soldiers was readily apparent, Simpson said.
"Between getting autographs and talking with them it helped break up the monotony of a normal day by meeting someone new," Simpson said.
Simpson said he found all the tour members approachable and easy to converse with.
"Every single one of them was awesome and these are legitimately famous people, like the Olympian and the astronaut, who were amazed by everything we do here," Simpson said. "You could tell they took a lot from it. They're Americans and they're proud of what we do."
"That was the best feeling. That they're proud of us, even when we think what we're doing isn't as important as someone else," he said.
This work, Warrior tour visits 615th Aviation Support Brigade to promote fitness, by Alun Thomas, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.