WASHINGTON -- U.S. service members' dedication was the universal impression carried home this week by a group of radio personalities following a weeklong visit with Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines serving on the front in the global war on terror.
The group -- consisting of talk-show hosts, a reporter and even a classic-rock disc jockey -- traveled to Baghdad and Fallujah in Iraq and to three bases in Kuwait on a trip organized by the Defense Department.
Dave Kelso, from Oklahoma City classic rock station KLXO, said the trip's effect on him was "nothing less than a molecular restructuring."
"The thing I was happiest to learn was that duty, honor and country are not lost concepts," he said. "The level and depth of dedication of our people in uniform is something that will live with me forever."
The fast-paced tour included a look at various aspects of the logistical effort required to keep Operation Iraqi Freedom running and Kelso said the enormity of the task was overwhelming. "Anyone would need three heads to fully comprehend the size and scope of the operation," he said.
Another radio host said seeing U.S. forces in action reinforced his opinion of service members. "I've always been kind of a pro-military guy," said Jerry Agar, whose talk show airs on KMBZ in Kansas City, Mo.
"I've always supported what we've been doing in the Middle East," he said. "But this makes me feel much more committed to that in terms of not only seeing the work, but seeing the dedication of the Soldiers and having met some of the Iraqi people who are involved in this and having a closer look at what was done to that country. It just increases my resolve."
Nationally syndicated Talk Radio Network host Rusty Humphries said the trip gave him more well-rounded insight.
"I already had a pretty good feel for the political aspects of the Iraq war and the 'big picture' of it," he said. "What I didn't have was the Soldiers' perspective -- what it was that they went through on a day-to-day basis and their difficulties."
Humphries said he embarked on the trip unsure of what he'd find in the area of troop morale.
"I looked for people who have low morale," he said. "I went over there looking for that just to find out what it was that they were unhappy with. Among the hundreds of people I met, I found only two people with what I'd call low morale. I found everybody else very positive, with very good morale. Did they want to be home with their wives and kids? Absolutely. But they knew why they were there, and they're doing it."
The opportunity to meet service members in Iraq and Kuwait also had deep personal meaning, Humphries said. "My father was killed in Vietnam in 1969," he said. "This was my first real experience to see what he had gone through. I want to thank everyone for putting their lives on the line for the country. They're true American heroes."
For Steve Gill, whose morning talk show airs on WWTN in Nashville, Tenn., the trip triggered fond memories.
"As the son of an Air Force fighter pilot, I grew up in the military, and to be around it again and to hear the sound of those fighter jets -- that 'sound of freedom' that I grew up with -- that alone was worth the trip," he said.
Having spoken with hundreds of service members, Gill said he was impressed with the quality of people serving in today's military. "The incredible young men and women who serve us so well and do extraordinary things in extraordinarily difficult conditions just reaffirm everything that I think the American people share in the pride of what these young men and women are doing," he said.
Gill said the chance to experience wearing 40 pounds of body armor in the oppressive conditions under which U.S. forces operate, as well as having the opportunity to go out on patrols, gave him new insight.
"To feel exactly what it is -- not just to look at it on TV from a distance -- I think is something that will bring fabric and understanding to what we do with these stories for a long time to come," he said.
The experience showed him the American people aren't getting the whole story from the mainstream media, Gill added.
"First of all, there is not enough pride and respect (in the media) for what these young men and women are doing," he said. Referring to a beer commercial in which returning service members are applauded as they make their way through an airport, Gill said that too often people see such scenes, appreciate the sentiment, but then move on.
"We ought to show that same applause that we saw in that commercial every day, 24/7," he said. "And after seeing this for a week, hopefully that's one of the things we can convey back to our listeners."
Gill noted that positive developments in Iraq, such as the increasing regularity with which citizens are tipping off authorities on the whereabouts of terrorists, often goes underreported in the media.
"There is huge progress being made in Iraq," he said, citing the aftermath of a helicopter being shot down while the radio hosts were in the country. "In 24 hours, the people of Iraq turned in those responsible," Gill said. "They were apprehended. Six months ago, that wouldn't have happened."
After a first-hand look at Fallujah, purged of terrorists in November, Gill said the rebuilding effort there "will help to set up what freedom really means in a tangible way to these people."
And progress in Iraq, he said, is a direct result of the dedication of U.S. service members. "Hopefully the American people will start to get a sense that this progress is only being made because of the commitment of these young men and women," he said.
Scottie Semler, Gill's producer, said she was most surprised by the degree of stability she saw in Iraq outside Baghdad's heavily fortified International Zone. Acknowledging that danger still exists, she said her overall impression is that "it is safe."
"Our men and women have done their job," she said. "They have been able to secure places where maybe six months to a year ago you couldn't have walked out alone. But today, you can. You still might have that risk of being shot at, but guess what? You'd have that anywhere, whether it be the streets of Washington, D.C., or New York City."
Because of service members' sacrifices, she added, "we now have freedom in a country that has never seen freedom like this ever before."
Mike McConnell hosts a talk show on WLW in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a nationally syndicated program on Saturdays. He said he was favorably impressed with amenities available to the troops. "The quality of life for the troops was far greater than I'd imagined," he said, as was the morale level.
"Morale was as high or higher than any average American worker in any setting," he noted. "The words 'pride' and 'proud,' as used by the president and the secretary of defense, were redefined for me, as even -- or especially -- those working in areas seen to be mundane felt, rightly, that success was not possible without them."
Noting progress in Iraq, McConnell said the way ahead for U.S. forces is clear to him. "The exit strategy would be that when the Iraqis are ready to take over, we leave -- and not until," he said. "And that works for me."
Paul Brandus, a reporter for news station WTOP in the nation's capital, said the trip showed him that the respect he already had for service members is well-deserved.
"The pre-existing view I think that was reinforced was the respect I have for the American soldier - the gratitude and appreciation I have for the very difficult job they're doing under what can only be described, in some cases, as life-threatening conditions," he said.
Though the trip wasn't long enough to make him an expert, Brandus said, it did open his eyes to the progress Iraq is making. "I do sense that things are better than they were six months ago," he said. "I'm not sure if that constitutes a trend or not, but I think they're moving in the right direction. I wish them well.
"They've got a long way to go, too, and if they take more responsibility for their own country, then we can get our guys out, and hopefully they can move down the path of democracy," he added.
Brandus said he doesn't expect that evolution to make Iraq the same as the United States. "But as long as they're stable and reasonably prosperous, I think that's good enough, and I think that will set a good example for the rest of the Middle East," he said.