Editor’s note: Sean Foreman and Nathaniel Motte are the members of the band 3OH!3. They were recently invited by Navy Entertainment to play for the U.S. troops in Bahrain and Djibouti. Their new album, “Omens,” is out now. They are on Twitter.
Djibouti has a sour taste. And I'm not speaking figuratively. I'm speaking of the mixture of sunscreen, bug spray, and copious amount of dirt that collects on your face. This second layer eventually melts under the African sun and becomes the metallic cocktail you smell and taste in your sweat. But with several cases of malaria outbreaks in Djibouti this past year, I wasn't about to leave out the bug spray.
To say Djibouti is hot would be a vast understatement. I'm not sure I've ever understood what “hot” meant until deplaning on the runway in Djibouti. If you want an idea of how it feels, hold a blow dryer about five inches away from your face and then go about your day.
But even the sauna-like heat couldn’t distract us from our objective. Our mission was to travel to the Middle East and Africa to entertain the Navy. In the end, I left having accomplished more than that.
Six months earlier, I was sitting in a locker room at a small college in Florida. Nat, my bandmate, and I were in the midst of a bunch of college one-offs and we were waiting for our cue to hit the stage. Ari, the promoter of the show, poked his head in the dressing room.
"Can I bother you guys for a second?" He was holding a couple of folders labeled Navy Entertainment. "Check these out," he slapped one of the pamphlets in my hand. "I think you guys would love doing this."
After months of logistics, travel info, and Ari's blessing, the 3OH!3 crew was sprawled out on an overnight plane to Bahrain. The whole trip was a lot for me to stomach and I found myself slumped over in my seat sipping on airline wine, thinking, “What do the sailors live like in Bahrain and Djibouti? What's the Middle East like? Is it safe?” Eventually, the wine won out, and I fell asleep somewhere over the Atlantic.
Before we knew it, we were standing in the main terminal next to a Papa Johns and KFC. A man in a thobe sat eating a personal pan pizza, and I had to remind myself that I was in Bahrain and not in the La Guardia airport. Karen, the executive of Navy Entertainment, and Hussein, our point person, met us with a van outside in the sweltering heat.
"This isn't even the worst," Hussein said. "The temperature during Ramadan gets up into the 120-130 degree range." We piled in the van and Hussein hopped the curb to get onto the freeway.
There's no manual for how to drive in Bahrain: Basically, size is king. Trucks weave in and out of traffic; skyscrapers and construction reach into the sky as if being built in front of your eyes. "This is reclaimed land," Hussein said.
"Reclaimed from what?" I asked.
"The ocean." I looked at what used to be the ocean floor. I was speechless.
At the base, a Tibetan man in a brown uniform motioned us through the gate. "You see that man?" Hussein asked. "He is called a Gurkha. He may not look dangerous, but that guy could whoop your ass." Much of the Navy's perimeter gates are outsourced to these specialists. Apparently, they are trained thoroughly in martial arts. I wasn't looking to test Hussein's claim.
We pulled onto the Bahrain base and scooted around the perimeter until we found a parking spot. It looked surprisingly like the campus of a small-town college. A few men and women in uniform walked along the sidewalk, but for the most part, the base was relatively empty. "Where is everyone?" I asked.
"Everybody lives off base, either by themselves or with their families," Karen explained. "This is one of the few bases where sailors are allowed to bring their families with them and live off base. Their money stretches a long way here."
Looking around, I realized there seemed to be a philosophy in the developing parts of Bahrain that “if you build it, they will come." The reclaimed desert was full of new skyrise loft buildings where the attendants outnumbered the residents. I was told that for the price of a one-bedroom loft back in Denver, you could have a five-bedroom apartment with a pool in Bahrain.
Our stage setup was simple but perfect. We were outside in the main courtyard surrounded by the main cafeteria and general store. We were to play at 6 p.m. so we could catch a lot of the sailors before they left to go home.
A few younger kids were milling about, asking us for pictures. They all went to a high school on base. Apparently, there were many kids in the high school excited to come out to the show. They told us that there wasn't a ton to do in Bahrain, and that it was really nice to have a show to attend. They asked us about Ke$ha and Katy Perry. They asked us what songs we would be playing. We asked them what songs they would like to hear. They were all very nice and polite.
We went on stage right on time, fighting through our jet lag, and had an amazing time. A wide range of people came out to watch us, from high schoolers to middle-aged men and women. And everyone was smiling.
After the show, we took photos and signed posters. This was the best time to get to know what life was like for the serving men and women. There was no common place of origin for all the people we met. They all had their stories of how they got to Bahrain and why. They would tell us about their significant other back home or a best friend who loved our band. They asked us if we had ever been to their small town and, in most instances, we had. We asked them what they did for work on the base and how long they had been deployed. They spoke openly about how tough it can be to be so far from home.
Driving back to our hotel that night, I thought about what supporting our troops really meant. When we were asked to travel to Bahrain and Djibouti to play for our troops, it wasn't even a question of whether we would like to do it — of course we would. We really wanted to give back to the men and women who had been working so hard for us.
But what was I really giving them? It wasn't only our music and entertainment that they appreciated. I think what they appreciated most of all was the piece of home that we brought with us.
After playing "My First Kiss," a guy named Travis approached me and immediately gave me a tight hug. "You have no idea what that song means to me," he told me. "My wife and I met at the Cincinnati Warped Tour the year you played, and you played that song." Whether Travis liked the song or not didn't matter as much as the personal significance and nostalgic value that song gifted him.
Providing this piece of home to our troops was the least that we could have done. When we were out in the field with these incredible men and women, we realized how hard they work regardless of the conditions. So a couple of days later, drenched in sweat in Djibouti, I sat in awe of the armed forces for what they do on a day-to-day basis. The amount they sacrifice to make their home — our home — a better place is truly inspiring.
I speak for myself and for 3OH!3 when I say that if asked to do more shows for the armed forces, we would immediately say YES!