North Island Naval Air Station, San Diego, late April: Tom DeLonge was at the airport at 6 a.m., with American flags sticking out of his pockets and red, white and blue paint on his face. DeLonge is the guitarist for Blink-182, but on that April day he was just the brother of a Navy lieutenant returning from the war in Iraq. His brother, Shon Kitchen, is with Navy Special Warfare. Or, as DeLonge says, "My brother always beat me up as a kid -- he's perfect for Special Warfare."
Also waiting at the air station for his own brother was Matt Heller, a film and television producer who had arranged a Middle East handshake tour for the cast of HBO's Band of Brothers. When he asked DeLonge if Blink-182 would like to do something similar, DeLonge immediately agreed -- and promptly forgot all about it. The next day, he got a frantic call from the band's manager: "What did you agree to? The Pentagon's been calling me!"
USS Memphis, docked in Bahrain,
August 25th, 09:10 hours
The members of Blink-182 stroll toward a nuclear submarine. Drummer Travis Barker is wearing baggy shorts, sunglasses and a T-shirt cut down to the waist on either side of his chest, exposing a multitude of tattoos. The band is greeted by a neatly pressed public-affairs officer with a military-issue pouch of water strapped to his back. Nobody bats an eye at anybody else's appearance. The officer says, "I'm Lieutenant Kasper, but call me Ghost and I'll roger up. Living on a nuclear submarine is like being on a tour bus with the windows blacked out for sixty days and never leaving." As the band members walk through the sub, they are full of questions, many derived from watching Discovery Channel documentaries on the military: "Is it cold on the bottom of the ocean?" "Do you drill in the middle of the night?" "Is this the door to outside?" Blink crowd into the sonar room, where young sailors show them the screens and their headphones, telling them that shrimp sound like Rice Krispies. "Basically, we sit around and do math all day," one says. Bassist Mark Hoppus crawls into a torpedo tube and mugs for photos. When he emerges, he looks at the three seats for the commanding officers and asks, "Where's your drink holders?" "Right next to the left leg," Kasper says. "Oh. Well, my joke's not funny, then."
The Manama Naval Base
in Bahrain, 19:00 hours
If not for the 120-degree heat, this military base could pass as a University of California campus. The band's stage is set up on the quad between the sandwich shop and the volleyball courts. There's a makeshift backstage area, a tent just to the side of the stage. On the deli tray, the cheese has melted, a casualty of the one-minute voyage from air-conditioned building to air-conditioned tent. The band isn't receiving any payment for its week in the Middle East, but the trip is costing the Navy's MWR department (Morale, Welfare, Recreation) and the Pentagon's Armed Forces Entertainment more than $200,000, which covers the group's plane flights (a Navy DC-9), accommodations (the Ritz-Carlton in Bahrain) and their road crew's salaries. At showtime -- 8 p.m. sharp -- an officer announces that moshing is not allowed by the Navy. The Navy has asked Blink to provide a "G-rated" show, but twenty seconds before they go on, DeLonge decides sailors have heard cursing before, and so the hour-long set begins with "Family Reunion," to which the lyrics, in their entirety, are: "Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits, fart, doody, twat."
Despite not being able to mosh, the crowd reacts with real passion. Many of the sailors are just eighteen or nineteen years old. They don't get much in the way of A-list entertainment; the last musicians to play here were Dexter Freebish and Dishwalla, months ago. They seem grateful in a way a paying audience never would be.
Between songs, the band tells the sailors how much it appreciates them serving under difficult conditions thousands of miles from home. Or, as DeLonge puts it, "My mom will sleep with everyone here. She says you gotta do what you gotta do to support the military."
Before finishing the show with "Dammit," Hoppus tells the crowd, "We're going to play one more song, and then I'm going to write my senator about getting you some more air conditioners here." As they leave the stage, they throw some custom-made guitar picks into the crowd. One side is emblazoned blink 182, the other I fought terrorism and all i got was this pick.
Manama International Airport,
Bahrain, August 27th, 09:10 hours
If you fly to an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Oman on an MA-23 helicopter, you pay attention to the safety briefing. If they've made you don life vests and safety helmets, you really pay attention. That's why the band is listening raptly to Navy pilot Cephas Taylor. "In the event of an emergency, don't inflate your life vest until you get outside," he instructs us. "Do not stand at the back of the helicopter -- there's a pretty big opening there. And if you do venture to the back, hang on. Any questions?" DeLonge has one: "Is there a train that gets us there?" The helicopter taxis forward, and 120-degree air washes in. "I was just on the phone with my girl," Barker shouts over the rotor noise. "She's nine months pregnant. I told her we were flying in a helicopter, and she started bawling. It broke my heart." The helicopter lifts vertically, about ten yards, and then lurches from side to side. Green industrial fluid drips from the ceiling. Everyone looks at one another with something approaching panic. The helicopter lands on the runway again -- and then glides into an elegant takeoff, banking over the blue waters of the Persian Gulf.
The USS Nimitz,
After signing thousands of autographs in one of the ship's four mess halls, the band relaxes in the captain's stateroom before the concert. DeLonge and Hoppus chat comfortably with the ship's officers. Hoppus shares some recent brainstorms. He has concocted a way to catch Saddam Hussein: Blanket western Iraq with broadcasts at a frequency above the range of human hearing but within the dynamic spectrum of audiotape, so if Hussein tapes a message, we can trace it to his location. He's also figured out a way to improve Nimitz morale. Every day, for an hour, have an officer walk through the hallways in an animal costume. Blink-182 say they support the troops, but I wonder how they feel about the war itself. Barker pleads a lack of knowledge, saying he doesn't even watch TV. Hoppus has an opinion but would rather keep it to himself. "It's not my place to say what we should or shouldn't do," he says. DeLonge supports the war. "Terrorism isn't about us being imperialistic," he says. "It's symptomatic of bad government. In order to make peace, you've got to let oppressed people have a comfortable life and not live under an overzealous regime." He concedes that wasn't how the war was represented by the Bush administration: "They didn't have faith in the American people to understand that concept. It's politics -- they needed to sell it."
The USS Nimitz
August 28th, 05:00 hours
The band members stagger out to the flight deck, where their plane will be catapulted at 3 Gs toward the United Arab Emirates, the first stop on the long trip home. None of them slept after the show; Barker got himself "juiced" by being injected with a cooling saline solution, just to see what it was like. On the plane, the guys assume the crash position for takeoff; smoke billows up around their feet, making them look like they're in a Stevie Nicks video. "I'll never do this shit again," DeLonge mutters. "I'll quit the band before they make me do it again." Then he thinks about the sailors he's leaving behind and says, "I almost feel like a dick, because I get to go home."