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Price: Troops' Morale In Iraq Is High

If you assume the morale of United States forces serving in Iraq is low, your assumption is wrong, according to Dave Price.

The Early Show weatherman and features reporter just returned from a five-day trip, during which he joined the Charlie Daniels Band entertaining some 22,000 troops on four bases in Iraq and Kuwait.

On Tuesday, he gave his personal account of the trip, as well as recounting his conversations with soldiers and Marines.

Price said his chats with military personnel were "completely at random, with no coaching from the military" and "about their mission, their morale, and what it's like to serve in one of the most hostile places on Earth."

He readily pointed out, "There are people at CBS News who routinely cover the war in Iraq. I am not one of them. Truth is, I usually try to avoid places where you need to wear a flak vest."

Price looked squarely into the camera on a base at the start of the trip and said, "We're excited to perform and ready to go, but it's Iraq. It's Iraq."

"After I got home from Afghanistan last year," Price recalled, "I made a commitment to return to entertain the troops overseas. … I couldn't pass up the chance to go with Charlie Daniels … but I was a little apprehensive. Luckily, I never had time to sit and worry."

The best way to get around Iraq these days is by chopper: It's faster and a lot safer than traveling by land convoy. That's how Price and the band made it from place to place.

During the day, said Price, "We'd visit the smaller camps, known as Forward Operating Bases, such as the one at Habbinayah, and do shows for people who hadn't seen any entertainers in months, because getting there is just too risky.

An Army Maj. McSherry told Price, "It's one of the most dangerous areas in Iraq. (On) the stretch of highway we cover for Charlie Company, over 400 IEDs (improvised explosive devices) (have been found) in the last 10 months. About 75 percent of them they defeat, but about 25 percent go off and cause casualties."

They'd lost someone the day before Price spoke to McSherry.

"The people now serving in Iraq face death on a daily basis," Price says, "but if you think morale is low, guess again.

"My job was to try to cheer the soldiers up. But in most cases, they didn't need it. … It was an amazing experience. I went to Iraq looking to raise morale. But in the end, it was the soldiers who had done that for me."

Price observed to a Pfc. Meyer, "A lot of folks would say this is awful. You folks have to be here for so long. Is it hard?"

"It's hard being away from your family," Meyer admitted, "but we have a really tight group, and every day I wake up smiling. I'm happy to be here doing what we're doing. I really am; really excited about being here."

Of course, Price commented, morale was sky-high during the shows, "but what surprised me was what I heard after the music faded away."

One soldier told him, "I'm the senior enlisted here, and not one time since I've been here have I had an individual come to me and say, 'I don't want to be here. Not one time, 'What can you do to get me out of here?' I haven't had that happen one time. And that's pretty nice."

In base after base, Price said, most troops had a clear sense of mission.

Sgt. Mark Massey, an Army vehicle commander, is on his third tour. "They don't really hate us as much as we think they do," he told Price. "That's something I'm proud of, that I volunteered to train these Iraqis, because I got to see the culture and I got to see how these real people operate — not what you see on TV."

The war in Iraq has been described as unwinnable, Price points out, but, 'Many of the people I spoke with see things differently."

People such as a Staff Sgt. Ellis, who said, "Of course, we see bad stuff. We're hit with IEDs, we're shot at, things of that nature, but for the most part, the country's not bad. I'm sure, if you were to equate it to how we were when we were starting out as a country, there's still a little chaos, a little confusion, a lot of uncertainty, that's how it is here in Iraq."

To be sure, Price told co-anchor Harry Smith back on The Early Show set in New York on Tuesday, the troops in Iraq are "task-focused. All of them said, 'Don't talk to me about policy. I don't wanna tell you whether we should or shouldn't be here. That's not my concern. I'm here to do a job.'"

Price confirmed that entertainers aren't exactly flocking to Iraq to perform for the troops, saying, "Some of the areas we visited are dangerous and some very, very remote."

Then, a poignant plea: "I invite celebrities: Come along with me and we'll take a journey over there. We could really use the entertainment."

Overall, Price described his visit as "emotional, because, when you get on the chopper to leave, they have to stay. And that's a very difficult thing."