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Day three started at the airport in Bahrain.

Our flight was scheduled for a 12:45 am (that’s just after midnight) departure and it was on time. We had a stop in Addis Ababa on the way to Arba Minch (I know, I know–I was having to use MapQuest too), landing at 4 am and out again at about 1 pm. Arrangements were made to go to a local hotel and try to catch up a little on the sleep end of things. The Addis airport is an adventure in itself, but we managed to get out, then back in, then on to Arba Minch.

If you judge bases by acreage, Arba Minch wouldn’t impress you much. But if you judge by mission efficiency, I would stack this bunch up against anyone. With 61 military personnel and a handful of contractors, the total is still well short of 100. But these are highly specialized people that keep this installation humming along 24/7 doing some really cool stuff that I’m not allowed to talk about.

We stopped by the base straight from the airport and had a chance to see how everything is integrated. Sure, they have the usual support personnel, but the way they work so closely together–both literally and figuratively–is a model of efficiency.

With no formal event scheduled that evening we checked into our lodgings. (If you’re counting that’s three hotels in less than 24 hours a couple of thousand miles apart.) With limited choices for dining, we settled on the lodge restaurant. Since there is no on-base housing, all the base personal were here as well. So we ended up having dinner with about 20 from the installation. The guy across from me was from Phoenix (I live in Tucson) and that started a long University of Arizona-Arizona State University debate. As luck would have it, the Wildcats (U of A) were part of a feature story in last week’s Stars and Stripes newspaper after beating the Sun Devils (ASU), so we had plenty to talk about!

As I listened up and down the table, I could hear similar conversations going on. Everyone found common ground. Whether it was sports, cars, or family, they all found something to share, and I know all of us enjoyed the evening. I got the strong feeling that they did as well; it was so nice to bring them a little touch of home.

Time to meet our next guest.

Greg Anderson is a four-time NHRA World Champion in Pro Stock, but he started 2014 in the hospital. On the day when the rest of the NHRA community was running their first qualifying runs of the season, Greg was having to undergo heart surgery. The surgery and subsequent recovery would mean that Greg would not be able to compete in the first five events of the year. His team, however, picked up the slack with teammate Jason Line (who we will hear from in a day or two) winning the Winternationals, and Jimmy Alund, who filled in for Greg, winning the four-wide event in Charlotte.

Greg came back in Atlanta, and despite missing five races, came within just a couple of rounds of fighting his way into the Countdown to the Championship

“Can you believe that we’re in Africa?” That was the question Greg posed to me as we stood outside of our rooms looking out over the valley. My answer? “No, and I still don’t believe it.”

As he said: “This is a place I never thought I would see, and what you see on TV doesn’t do it justice. We have done a lot and seen some really cool things on this trip but so far Ethiopia has blown it all away.”

I asked him about the first tour: “At first when they told me about it I was a little apprehensive. But after that first trip, what you see and what you do–getting to meet the soldiers–you see how dedicated they are and how appreciative they are that we come to see them. But it’s their dedication to their job and country that allows us to race cars. It just blows me away and from day one of that very first trip five years ago, I’ve been hooked. And now it’s something I look forward to all year, getting to come back to another Operation Appreciation tour. And now here we are. It’s been another mind-blowing experience so far.”

The installation we visited has a rather unique format in that they run two shifts, 12 hours each. This allowed all the personnel an opportunity to get involved in one of the two separate meet-and-greet events: one for the day shift and one for the night shift. I couldn’t swear that every member of the base came by, but I assure you the vast majority did.

Some of these off-the-beaten-path places are amazing. In Bahrain, there is plenty for the troops to do when off duty, but as one of the guys here put it: “We just work and work out. There is no other activity, so it’s really nice that you guys came to visit.”

Trust me, these people are in terrific shape, and I hope some of them missed a workout just to break up the routine. After all, isn’t that why we’re here?

It was a special visit. And we even had time to fit in a little sightseeing of our own.

More on that tomorrow.

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Author: Alan Reinhart