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East County Wednesday, Sep. 2, 2009 10 years ago

NBA referee recounts Iraq excursion

by: Bob Delaney

Editor’s note: In July, Lakewood Ranch resident and National Basketball Association referee Bob Delaney spent 10 days in Iraq visiting troops at several U.S. bases. Delaney, who in a former career spent more than three years undercover as a New Jersey State Police trooper, shared his experiences in his book, “Covert: My Years Infiltrating the Mob,” released in 2008. Co-written by St. Petersburg Times writer Dave Scheiber, the book received critical acclaim, and earlier this summer, Appledown Films and Scott-Burns Productions of Los Angeles bought the motion picture rights to Delaney’s tale.

Delaney spoke with the soldiers about his experiences undercover and his subsequent years suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Delaney considers the opportunity to help U.S. troops an honor.

“Thirty years ago, when I was undercover, I had no idea I would ever end up here,” he said. “This certainly opens the door (for something new). I’m coming into my back nine as an NBA ref, and this kind of work is definitely appealing and rewarding.”

What follows are excerpts from the journal Delaney kept while in Iraq. The journal first appeared in the St. Petersburg Times Aug. 9.

Driving to Tampa International with my wife, Billie, a strange feeling of separation begins to sink in. I travel all over the country, grabbing flights at all hours to get to the next NBA city or speaking engagement, but this suddenly feels different. It hits me hard: I’m traveling into a war zone. It makes me realize how tough it is for soldiers who leave their loved ones knowing they may not make it back.

Only three weeks before, I stood on the stage at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., for the paperback launch of “Covert,” talking to members of the military and law enforcement about my experiences with PTSD. The widow of a Marine who had committed suicide after two tours in Iraq presented me with his military medallion. She asked me to wear it in his honor and told me she only wished her late husband could have heard me talk. I will never forget that moment, and that medallion serves as a reminder and a motivation.

Then came my testimony for the FBI at the mob trial, and the tension of being re-immersed in that world — an experience that I had dealt with and put away and the scab was being taken off that wound; having to face that criminal subculture again. I understood my obligation, no matter how unpleasant it may have been.

Now I’m starting a new experience that has my heart pounding. At Kennedy International, I meet up with broadcaster Ron Barr, free agent NFL wide receiver Tim Dwight and tour manager John Bullock then board a flight to Kuwait. As we take off, doubts creep in: Did I make the right decision to join the tour? Will we be safe? Why am I putting my family through this?

But I’ve faced fear and the unknown before in my life, and I remind myself these are natural reactions. My favorite quote from Hall of Fame college coach John Wooden comes to mind: “You cannot realize a full life until you do something for someone who will never be able to repay you.”

Twelve hours later, we land in Kuwait, where people throw candy at arriving passengers — apparently a tradition. A team picks us up and takes us to a military base called Camp Arifjan. The base is a city unto itself. There’s even a Starbucks-style coffee shop. After dinner, the soldiers are playing the semifinals games in the men’s and women’s basketball tournament, so I put on my NBA refs uniform and throw the ball up for the ceremonial tip-off. The gym is packed — a real Saturday night out.

When the game ends, the soldiers ask all kinds of NBA questions and pose for photos. So many of them thank us for being there. Many of them tell me they know about my past life from reading “Covert” or seeing the ESPN and HBO stories about me in recent years. But thanks to my publisher, Sterling/Union Square Press, many more will know the story because 1,000 free copies of the book will be given to the military. Back at the dorm building, I talk with soldiers heading to Iraq and others coming from there. I meet one young man, Juan, from Tampa. We talk half the night, and he shares his family photos. I can’t imagine how hard the separation must be for him and the wife and kids he left.

We drive through a sandstorm to Ali Al Salem Air Force Base for our flight. It feels like a snowstorm, and I think, “There’s no way we can fly in this.” We arrive at the air base and the mood is serious, with hundreds of soldiers sitting in black easy chairs watching TV, sleeping, trying to relax. Some are going to Baghdad, some to Mosul. I talk to a soldier who has been burned on his face, head and hands, getting ready for his third deployment. He was a man of few words, simply saying, “I have a job to do.” I notice many wedding rings on the men and women in the hall.

We are all wearing helmets and Kevlar armor, making us sweat profusely in the hot desert air. We pack into a C-130, sitting across from the soldiers going into battle. There’s so much noise we have to wear earplugs for the flight to Mosul. Tim Dwight preps me for the landing, and suddenly, the plane goes into a steep dive that I learn is a military-style landing used in combat zones. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced in 25 years of commercial flying.

Members of the 25th Infantry Division, CP North, Camp Marez greet us at the base. A vehicle follows bumpy roads, taking us to the mess hall. After dinner, we enter a security-controlled, walled unit to our housing units. Shortly after 9, we get a briefing from Gen. Bob Brown, one of the top U.S. commanders in Iraq. Back at the CHU (contained housing unit — two beds and a locker) by 10:30, my roommate Tim Dwight and I hear a bomb explode in the distance and both say at the same time, “Did you hear that?” I have a restless night’s sleep, wondering what lies ahead.

I awake at 5 a.m. to the sound of another bomb blast. After breakfast, we learn that the explosion killed several Iraqi soldiers in the lead car of a convoy.

I have my first ride in a Black Hawk chopper. When I fumble with the seatbelt straps, Col. Stephen Myers takes control and fastens me in — no different than the way I secure my grandkids in my car.

Our group flies in two “birds,” accompanying Gen. Brown to Erbil, a Kurdish area some 40 miles outside of Mosul. We are greeted by members of the Kurdistan army. A convoy of 10 cars led by a pickup truck with a 50-caliber machine gun and armed soldiers provide a wild ride. We arrive at a beautiful building and meet Minister Sanjari, whose region reminds me of Europe. He and Gen. Brown discuss security for the upcoming elections, and I present the minister with a copy of “Covert” and an NBA T-shirt. After about 90 minutes, we leave and head to a Kurdish military base, where we meet four generals, a Kurdish sports announcer and two former soccer players. Again, it underlines to me the bridge that sports play in bringing people from a variety of cultures together.

More copies of “Covert” and T-shirts are handed out, triggering their tradition of showing gratitude by kissing me on both cheeks. It was a long way from the single kiss on the cheek greeting I’d get from the Mob guys back in the ‘70s.

The tour leads to the Citadel, the oldest known inhabited location in the world. I hear stories of how many of their soldiers’ families were tortured and killed under the Saddam Hussein regime. It is heart-wrenching to hear those tales and see evidence of torture — like one teen I saw with no arms. It reminds me of the sick-to-the-stomach feeling I would get when the mobsters would talk about the physical injury they had inflicted on their victims.

We go into a restaurant with U.S. and Kurd soldiers, and I encounter a reaction I never expected. A Kurdish teen grilling kabobs sees me and starts yelling something. Then, he salutes me and blows kisses. I have no idea what he wants, but he’s clearly excited, and I suddenly understand the word “Lakers.” The interpreter comes over and explains the teen is saying, “I see you referee Laker games. I love Lakers. You break up fight this year in Laker game. I see you all the time on Laker NBA games.” He kisses me on both cheeks, while the Army personnel laughs.

As the sun sets, we board the Black Hawks to return to base. The pilots decide to toy with the rookie on board — me. The chopper goes up and down and to the side. The pilot sends a barf bag back to my seat. Through the headset, I tell them, “Even if you were getting me sick, I’d never let you know.” A lesson from my days as Bobby Covert — never let them see you sweat.

Back at the base, we have a cake to celebrate Tim Dwight’s birthday on the lanai with a mural of Hawaiian beaches painted on it — a place designed for R&R right in the middle of a war zone. Gen. Brown passes out cigars and several soldiers strum guitars. For that moment, the stress of war fades into the background.

As I write, there is gunfire in the distance — and another bomb. We spent the day with Special Units — which includes K9, Unmanned Air Vehicles, tank units and IED Sweepers — and take part in Ron Barr’s Sports Byline radio show in the mess hall. The evening serves as a send-off party for a unit leaving the next day.

I also get to give my first PTSD presentation before Gen. Robert Caslen and the troops. It begins with Gen. Brown asking me to explain calls and signals that I use in the NBA. That allows me to have some fun with the soldiers and gradually transition into a discussion of my life undercover and the pressures I faced. I speak for 45 minutes, telling the soldiers about the fear I felt as Bobby Covert. I share that cops and soldiers like to think of themselves as being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but we feel the same fears as anyone else. I explain how I would leave a meeting with the bad guys, then drive and have to pull off the side of the road to puke my guts out or find the nearest gas station because I had diarrhea. Those are normal reactions to abnormal situations, and there is no shame in it. These are things that must be talked about openly.

I could see the soldiers listening closely. We stay up half the night talking about the NBA, the Covert life and PTSD.

We spend the day visiting units at Camps Marez and Diamondback. They take us through the base hospital as if we had been injured — the ER, operating rooms, ICU and the X-ray machines. I ask the medical staff “Who takes care of you?” They show me a garden. It has grass, plants, little waterfalls and benches. They explain it is a Zen-like world for them, an escape where they go to release stress.

We travel to the Syrian border and meet Army, Marine, Air Force and Navy troops. As we land, we see soldiers wearing Iowa baseball caps in honor of Tim Dwight’s alma mater. We are given a tour of COP Heider in Rabiyah, Iraq, the point of entry into Syria. Lt. Col. Richard Vinas presents us with a certificate of appreciation. This base had not had visitors in two years.

A few hours later, we’re back on the choppers en route to the mansion of Sheik Abdullah, where we meet with his brothers, Sheik Shammar and Sheik Faisel. Sheik Shammar wears full traditional garb for the meeting. We are served tea then have a lunch feast — lamb on both ends of a long table on beds of rice. At one point, Sheik Shammar flips through my book and sees a photo of me from my undercover days, a shot with my long hair in pin curlers, and says, “You look like al-Qaeda.” I say, “Maybe I should infiltrate them, too.” He smiles and says, “Please do.”

Back at the base, we do another radio show and I referee a basketball game between teams of soldiers. After it ends, Gen. Brown and I play a game of HORSE in front of the crowd. They love it — and it doesn’t hurt that the general beats me. He and I return to his office around 10 p.m., and a siren goes off. Gen. Brown looks at me and says, “That’s not good” in a calm, matter-of-fact way. Then comes a recorded message blaring the words, “Incoming, incoming.” He tells me to follow him to the bunker, where we can hear bombs exploding nearby for 15 minutes.

After a half-hour, we get the all-clear.

It is time to depart Iraq. We leave from Camp Marez on a C-130, destination Kuwait. By now, I know that flight times mean nothing. Hurry up and wait is a way of life. I feel a sense of separation from the troops I had spent so much time with, acutely aware that I am leaving them behind. It’s hard to believe only a week has passed. It seems more like a month. There have been so many relationships formed, connections made and memories that will stay with me always. I knew I would be meeting soldiers on this trip. But as I left, I realized I had made lifelong friends.

JULY 18-20
After spending the night in a Kuwait hotel, it’s time for the next leg of the journey — a flight to Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany. We arrive Saturday night and on Sunday spend a day in Heidelburg. I make the comment to Ron Barr that we’ve lived a compressed version of what real soldiers experience: We’ve been to war, and now we’re on R&R.

Heidelberg is a beautiful old city. It’s only five hours by plane away from the war zone but those five hours make all the difference in how I feel. Being here, away from the constant awareness of potential danger, creates a sense of renewal and reflection. It underlines to me that this escape has been going on for soldiers in every war.

We visit the Warrior Center Sunday night at the Landsthul Hospital. It’s painful to see soldiers hurting from injuries sustained in battle. We visit with them, doing our best to offer encouragement — and do the same with the doctors, nurses and hospital staff. We do a radio show back at the Warrior Center for those who can attend, and I hand out more shirts and books.

On the trans-Atlantic flight home, my thoughts keep returning to the soldiers I met. I have gained a greater awareness of the sacrifice they make for us. I think back to the gifts they have given me — the soldier who handed me the uniform he wore in 60 combat missions and who is currently dealing with PTSD; the flag given to me by Spc. Mayra Arias — flown in my honor “over Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul, Iraq” on July 15; and the endless military coins from each of the units we spent time with, along with hats and T-shirts.

Having met and lived with the troops and seen their work — meeting the Iraqis and Kurds — I realized that we all want the same thing: a secure environment that allows our families the opportunity to grow, live and play in a way that gives generations to follow more opportunities than we had. It’s not any different than what the folks who live on my street want for their family.

We land at Dulles International. As I walk through the terminal, I hear my name being shouted from behind, “Bob Delaney!” I turn and see two soldiers. They’re smiling and waving copies of “Covert.” They tell me they met me at Camp Marez in Iraq. I tell them I hope the time we spent together and that reading my story will underline the saying I coined a few years back: Some people go through experiences, while other people grow through experiences.

I knew that this was one experience that helped me grow, and I hope it did the same for them.

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