Mike MacEacheran | Freedom Radio, Iraq, Esquire
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Freedom Radio, Iraq, Esquire

The explosions rang out across downtown Baghdad, reverberating like a bass drum beat. It was April 7 2010 and the four scattered bombs, hidden in apartment buildings across northern Shula, exploded in intervals, with the first one detonating at 9.30am local time.

Fifty people were killed and 180 were injured: the latest collateral damage in a long series of terror attacks in the Iraqi capital. About this time, Staff Sergeant (SSG) Don Dees was gearing up for his next assignment. But he wasn’t on street patrol in central Baghdad or out tracking Al-Qaeda linked insurgents; SSG Dees was cuing up the next record to play on Freedom Radio, the American Forces Network (AFN) communications linchpin in Iraq. For the mid-afternoon host, it was just another day in the office.

DJs seldom play records while a city burns. Most radio show hosts wake up to the sound of traffic jams or perhaps the call to prayer from a local mosque. At Freedom Radio, broadcast from a secret location in Baghdad, the radio jockey might also hear the sound of falling bombs and mortar rockets accompanying the songs of Eminem and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. “We’re just military like everyone else,” SSG Dees says modestly. “Everyone has a specialty – ours is just in broadcasting.”

Year on year across America, thousands of men and women dream of wearing camouflage army fatigues. Be it inspired by the onscreen heroics of Charlie Sheen in 1986 (Platoon), Matthew Modine in 1987 (Full Metal Jacket), Brad Pitt in 2009 (Inglourious Basterds), Jeremy Renner in 2010 (The Hurt Locker) – or to a lesser extent Goldie Hawn’s Private Benjamin in 1980 – restless adolescents from Mississippi to Montana will always have an insatiable lust for combat and modern warfare. For a select few, however, the cry of “Goooood Morning Vietnam” in 1987 turned them on and tuned them in to military service.

“Yep – I joined the Army in December ’88, inspired by the Robin Williams movie,” admits SSG Dees. “I was trained as an Army broadcaster and have been providing information to soldiers ever since – I love being able to inform and entertain troops deployed to Iraq. As I prepare my show each day I think about what things they want to hear about and what information they really need. It’s such an honour to serve them.” Playing from and for the heart, Freedom Radio plugs Professor Parker’s Sunday School of Rock – think the Stones, Meat Loaf and Hendrix – Clubbin’ with the Desert Diva and Dees’ very own Afternoon Express. “Defense officials fear Freedom Radio may be making it hotter in Iraq,” he jokes. “Cypress Hill, Ke$ha, Black Eyed Peas and Young Money may also be contributing factors…” To date, Paul Hardcastle’s new wave anti-Vietnam record “19” has so far failed to make the play list.

Trained in the same killing fields as routine marines, the tools of the trade for DJs like Dees and Parker might be a microphone and turntable, but they still go to work equipped with a flak jacket and M16 combat rifle. Historically, this juxtaposition of entertainment and war is as old as the great battles of Pearl Harbour and Iwo Jima. Funded by the US Department of Defense, the AFN can trace its origins back to May 1942 when the US War Department created the Armed Forces Radio Service to entertain and inform troops during WW2. With Uncle Sam’s boys and girls on foreign soil for the fist time, the singular goal was to keep the force motivated, happy and up to date with Peggy Sue at home and Adolf and Heinrich on the Western Front. Broadcasting from London, using equipment and studio facilities borrowed from the BBC, Corporal Syl Binkin, the first ever war-time DJ, found himself entertaining not only US troops preparing for the inevitable invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe but – somewhat ironically – to UK civilians preparing their dinner.

From the 1950s and 1960s, when European audiences widely tuned in to AFN to hear Elvis, to its strategic role during the Vietnam War – jockeys famously played “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” as a signal for Americans to leave Saigon – military radio has existed for a number of different, and sometimes competing, reasons. There is the genuine desire to disseminate objective news; the need to rally troops on distant frontlines; and occasionally – as in Vietnam – it has become an instrument of war.

Shortly after Operation Iraqi Freedom was initiated by former President George W Bush in 2003, Armed Forces Radio and Television established Freedom Radio to broadcast throughout Iraq and Kuwait – joining a roster of established on-air networks, which broadcast to more than 175 countries worldwide from Germany, Italy and Saudi Arabia to South Korea, Japan and beyond. Anywhere the US has deployed troops, AFN can find its audience.

Symbolically, the first record played in Baghdad was Paul McCartney’s “Freedom”, a song written and recorded by the former Beatle in response to the September 11 attacks of 2001. “I was the morning DJ when the station first went on air,” recalls Sandra Altamirano of the 222nd Broadcast Operations Detachment from Southern California, which launched the station in Baghdad. “We had a big discussion between American country music artist John Michael Montgomery’s “Letters from Home” and “Freedom” by Paul McCartney. It was our Air force Sergeant that ultimately chose – I think it was pretty successful.” In contrast, the first song on air in 1991 during the first Gulf War ground offensive after the start of Operation Desert Storm was “Rock the Casbah” by The Clash.

Almost seven years after the initial occupation, the bombs and beats continue to drop.  The mission, albeit under the more diplomatic approach of Barack Obama, is still the same: lift morale, entertain and inform. To this end, Freedom Radio Broadcasts seven days a week with at least 100 hours of air time, proffering a mixture of music, chat and public service broadcasting. Typically, the DJs create infomercials about health and nutrition, guidance on weapon safety, and hands-on Arabic language lessons that may diffuse hostile situations and ultimately save their lives. In these fatalist terms, the lyric “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” takes on a very real life or death meaning.

“For me, life at Freedom Radio was a rollercoaster and it started once I got through the front door,” remembers SSG Tyler Alexander, who was stationed at AFN Iraq from November 2008 to June 2009. “It takes a lot of motivation to get going and the hours are long. But it’s worth it in the end when you get that one email or phone call saying that you made someone’s day with the music you played.”

“We’re about a touch of home,” adds former recruit Altamirano. For the record, the ex-breakfast host once interviewed legendary Vietnam radio host Adrian Cronauer – embarrassingly without having ever seen his life story onscreen. “We have a good connection with our audience as we experience what they experience – we’re deployed in Iraq just like them; we miss our families like them; we’re stationed in a combat zone where there is rocket and mortar fire.” Considering the logistical problems of broadcasting in such a volatile country, besieged by turmoil and terror alerts, it is a major victory for the production team.

The potential reach and influence of Freedom Radio should also not be underestimated. It broadcasts to a potential daily audience of 92,000 [the current number of US soldiers left on duty in Iraq], eight Marine Corps bases, and maintains a facebook fan page with nearly 3,000 followers. The DJs also regularly receive emails from an avid Iraqi and Kuwaiti public keen to absorb Western influences. “We know we have a significant following of Iraqi citizens interested in American culture,” explains Specialist (SPC) Jessica Randon, who works on the Freedom Radio production desk. “It’s very different today than ever before; primarily because of our extensive use of social media to extend our reach.” It’s a bizarre thought that Iraqi tribal chiefs and militia may also be listening in. What exactly, you might be forgiven for wondering, do they think of “Sweet Home Alabama”?

But while its detractors believe Freedom Radio is purely a machine of wartime propaganda, the AFN DJs insist they provide a crucial lifeline to the soldiers who put their lives on the line every day. They regularly deal with emotional shrapnel too: in the past announcers have handled suicidal and disillusioned recruits and nursed traumatised soldiers re-adapting to life back home through its online fan-site. Regular unedited bulletins from Associated Press also help maintain the station’s independent stance. “Our presentation must be objective if it is to be perceived as credible by our listeners,” insists SPC Randon. “We have to tell it like it is or we will lose the respect of our audience.” Presently, one of the DJs’ most significant operational tasks relates to the responsible draw down of US forces in Iraq; an overtly contentious issue on the front line.

Whilst Barack Obama’s tactical retreat from Iraq is planned for October this year – with the destiny of the Iraq oil law expected to be the crucial point determining the manner in which the US administration withdraws – Freedom Radio’s DJs have no plans to hang up their headphones or dim the faders just yet. Ever the consummate professionals, the show must go on.

“If I got the chance to play the last song…” pauses Altamarino. “I think I’d choose “I’m Done” by Jo Dee Messina.” At the mention of the tacky hit by the US country music star, she bursts into raucous laughter. But, as Altamirano has ended her tour of duty and returned to California, the task will most likely fall to SSG Dees or one of his colleagues from the 209th. “My vote goes for Green Day’s ‘Time of Your Life’,” he concludes with a tinge of melancholy. “I like the line…for what it’s worth; it was worth all the while…”