By Spc. Alun Thomas
1st Cavalry Division public affairs
TAJI, Iraq - There are few occasions in life, if any, when most people could say they once met an Olympic gold medalist in the men's marathon and an astronaut who has traveled more than 4.5 million miles in space.
Soldiers in the 615th Aviation Support Brigade, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, Multinational Division-Baghdad, can say they have. In addition, they met them under one roof, making it even more special.
As part of a campaign to promote running and fitness, The Warrior Tours visited the 615th Aviation Support Brigade, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, Friday at Camp Taji, Iraq, north of Baghdad, bringing Olympic athlete Frank Shorter and astronaut Sandra Magnus among others, as they were afforded an opportunity to see soldiers conduct everyday operations at the Forward Arming Refueling Point and the Taji flight line.
The Warrior Tours came to Iraq to put the spotlight on deployed soldiers and their efforts to use running as a way to stay fit, said Rob Powers, sports broadcaster and founder of The Warrior Tours.
"It came down to me as the voice of running in America to take advantage of the platform I have and work with my friends in the sport of running to take our spotlight and shine it on our soldiers," said Powers, an Army veteran.
More importantly, Powers said, he wanted to take a message back home that soldiers in Iraq are running.
"Our soldiers are racing and doing it exactly the same way we do it in the U.S.," Powers said. "They just happen to be doing it in 120-degree temperatures."
This is Powers' third tour to Iraq, the only difference this time being the inclusion of well-known figures such as Shorter and Magnus, who he said were overwhelmed by the reception of the soldiers.
"Listening to Frank Shorter telling me this is one of the best experiences he has ever had in his life is the joy of being here," Powers said. "For me as the 'mayor' of running, this is the greatest running experience I've ever had."
Powers said it had always been an ambition of his and fellow Warriors Tour founder Bart Yasso to be alongside the 1st Cavalry Division, something they savored.
"It's a twofold joy for me," Powers said. "One aspect is being here and seeing my dear friends experience the same humbling experiences I have here in the past. The second joy is having the opportunity to hook up with my long time heroes, the 1st Cavalry."
Magnus said she made the journey to Iraq to thank the troops for their service.
"The sacrifices the soldiers make here allow me to do my job because they are taking care of the country in one area that allows us to move the country into another area," Magnus said.
Magnus said she also joined the tour to promote fitness, something she practices strenuously as an astronaut.
"I'm an avid runner and running is something the military does as a requirement, but for fun, too, and we're here to encourage people to keep running," Magnus said. "I run all the time for stress relief and it's a major part of my lifestyle and we're trying to carry that message; just run and have fun during a race."
"I came here because I wanted to see what it was really like, because often what you read in the media doesn't correspond to exactly what it's like there," Shorter said.
Shorter said he won his Olympic gold medal in 1972 shortly after terrorist attacks during the Games in Munich, causing him to run under danger, something he considered prior to the trip to Iraq.
"It's dangerous for everyone in Iraq and my choice to come here is like the choice I had in the Olympic Games in 1972, because my event was five days after the terrorist attack," Shorter said. "I had to think about that because I knew if the terrorists would do anything else, it would be on the marathon course."
"But just as today with all the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, if you let the fear of what someone might do, then they have won," Shorter added.