A visit by a group of aerospace legends to U.S. military bases in the Middle East is back on.
After the trip was put on hold Monday (supposedly for security reasons), the group was allowed to continue their visit on Tuesday, but with a catch.
They will not be allowed to travel to American installations in Iraq or Afghanistan, as originally planned. Instead, their trip will be limited to "safe" areas in places like Turkey and the Persian Gulf.
At last report, the legends group, which includes former astronauts Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan and Jim Lovell (along with Air Force fighter ace Steve Ritchie and SR-71 test pilot Bob Gilliland) were visiting a U.S. airbase in Kuwait. The famed aviators, their escorts and support team will reportedly remain in the region through the March 13th, and the scheduled conclusion of their tour.
Still, it's a far cry from the extended tour that originally included visits with American military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, literally thousands of soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines who hoped to meet and chat with these legendary pilots won't have that opportunity.
Making matters more frustrating, there has been no real explanation for the curtailed visit. The decision was made as millions of Iraqis voted in national elections, and other VIPs (including defense secretary Robert Gates) visited the region. Obviously, the "security concerns" that prevented the aviation legends from entering Iraq and Afghanistan had no impact on other scheduled events.
And, as we previously reported, the spectre of politics has entered the equation. A well-placed Washington source reports the White House made the decision to limit the group's itinerary--not the Pentagon. The source described the rationale as "political," but wouldn't speculate as to why the Obama Administration made its decision.
Both the White House and the Pentagon have not responded to requests for comment on the matter.
Meanwhile, the legends have been greeted with packed auditoriums at bases they have been allowed to visit. After all, it's not every day you get to meet the first man to set foot on the moon (Armstrong); the last man to walk on the lunar surface (Cernan); and Jim Lovell the man who brought Apollo 13 home against daunting odds. When you add Steve Ritchie and Bob Gilliland to the mix, you've got one of the most impressive groups of aviation heroes this side of the annual "Gathering of Eagles" at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.
But why would the White House want to keep these men out of Iraq and Afghanistan? After all, the aviation legends are no strangers to risk; as astronauts, test pilots, or combat aviators, they faced danger on a regular basis.
It's also worth noting that all volunteered for the trip, at a time when they could be relaxing. Jim Lovell is now 81; Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan and Bob Gilliland are in their 70s, and Steve Ritchie (the youngster of the group) is 67. But they all agreed to go, and show their appreciation to our military personnel serving in harm's way.
Yet somehow, this visit (apparently) rubbed the White House the wrong way. Some observers believe the administration was worried that one of the retired astronauts would publicly criticize recent cuts in the space program, or Steve Ritchie (a GOP activist and former political candidate) might criticize national security policies.
Obviously, those fears are unfounded. All of the aviation heroes are skilled at public relations and had no plans to politicize their trip to the war zone. But in their zeal to control the trip, the administration made it a political event, putting a group of aviation heroes in a difficult position and undercutting the morale of thousands of troops "down range."
In military terms, you could describe this as a SNAFU or FUBAR, take your pick.