A long-planned visit by aviation and space heroes to Iraq and Afghanistan is apparently on hold, only one day after it began.
The group, led by former astronauts Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan, Jim Lovell and Air Force fighter ace Steve Ritchie is currently stuck in Qatar, after being told it was "too dangerous" to travel to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Members of the delegation were given no explanation for the changing security situation. However, a member of the group said Monday the decision was apparently made in Washington, and not by commanders in the region.
Planning for the trip, dubbed the "Legends of Aerospace Tour," had been underway for more than nine months. Other members of the delegation include retired test pilot Bob Gilliland, the first man to fly the SR-71 Blackbird, and two distinguished members of the media: David Hartman, the original host of ABC's Good Morning America, and Time writer Jeffrey Kluger, co-author of "Lost Moon," Lovell's memoir of the ill-fated Apollo 13 lunar mission.
In a press release issued late last month by U.S. European Command, Jim Lovell said he was looking forward to the tour:
"I have been waiting my whole life for this opportunity to meet with our service men and women on the front lines. They are the real heroes. I'm truly looking forward to thanking them for their service in person and share some of my experiences with adversity during Apollo 13. I'm sure it's going to be an extraordinary experience."
The tour is being sponsored by Armed Forces Entertainment, the official DoD agency that provides entertainment for American troops around the globe. Other participating organizations include the Morale Entertainment Foundation (which conducted much of the planning for the event) and American Airlines, which provided logistical and transportation support for the delegation.
Members of the group are being accompanied by media crews from Morale Entertainment and Fox News, who are documenting the visit.
According to FNC correspondent Mike Tobin, the aerospace legends were greeted by a "packed auditorium" at a "forward airbase" on Sunday. That is probably a reference to Ali Al Salem AB, Kuwait or Doha, Qatar, scheduled stops before the group moved on to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Tobin's latest blog post (published yesterday) makes no mention of security concerns, raising questions about their basis and timing.
Indeed, the Legends tour was put on hold while millions of Iraqi voters went to the polls and voted in national elections. Despite scattered violence, relatively few security problems were reported. Security is even tighter at U.S. bases in the country, where members of the aerospace group would meet with American troops.
Spokesmen at the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command did not immediately respond to requests for comment. There is no information on how many visits to the war zone by entertainment or celebrity groups have been cancelled or postponed in the past; however, DoD has allowed hundreds of entertainers and VIPs to enter Iraq and Afghanistan over the past eight years, even during periods of heightened violence.
Additionally, the security situation in the region did not deter Defense Secretary Robert Gate's trip to Afghanistan. Mr. Gates arrived in Kabul today, but the visit was not announced in advance.
Danger was a constant for members of the aviation group during their long careers. General Ritchie survived dozens of combat missions over North Vietnam, shooting down five enemy jets and becoming the first Air Force ace since the Korean War. Jim Lovell's leadership saved his Apollo 13 crew from disaster after an oxygen tank exploded en route to the moon. Cernan went to the moon twice and was the last man to walk on the lunar service. Gilliland made the first flight in the SR-71, the legendary reconnaissance aircraft that set numerous speed and altitude records during its long career.
With U.S. officials offering no explanation of the security concerns, some believe that political concerns may have prompted the delay. The Obama Administration recently announced the cancellation of a $100 billion plan to return man to the moon. With three famous astronauts on the tour (and the press in tow), the White House--or the Pentagon--may have been worried about a new row over the space flight issue.
One member of the legends group also has strong conservative political credentials. After leaving active duty, Steve Ritchie ran as a Republican Congressional candidate in North Carolina in 1974. He lost that race, but remains active in GOP politics in his current home state of Colorado, where he has endorsed several candidates.
Late today, one of the legendary aviators--speaking for his colleagues--was encouraging Americans to call the White House, and demand that the tour continue. Without public pressure, they believe the visit will be cancelled, denying them the opportunity to meet with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and express their gratitude.
By one estimate, as many as 10,000 military personnel would have a chance to meet the aerospace legends during their visit to bases in Europe and Southwest Asia.
In case you're wondering, the number for the White House switchboard is 202-456-1414. At an age when many of their peers are fully retired, Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan, Jim Lovell and their peers volunteered for this trip to meet the troops. They deserve the opportunity to complete one last mission for their country.