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Uncle Sam Wants Punk

On the USS Nimitz in the Persian Gulf with Blink-182

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,
18:00 hours

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.”

In This Article: Blink-182

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