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Bill O'Reilly storms Afghanistan

Matt Sanchez

Editor’s note: Reporter Matt Sanchez, currently embedding with military units throughout both Iraq and Afghanistan, has been providing WND readers with a glimpse into the war on terror most Americans have never seen.

The difference between Fox News Channel host Bill O’Reilly coming to a war zone and all other media is the focus. Normally, media arrive to do stories about the situation on the ground, but when a bona fide celebrity like O’Reilly comes, he is the story.

As soon as I flew into Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan I saw a flyer on a window announcing O’Reilly was coming the following day. The base was abuzz. I checked into the Public Affairs Office, where all media are accredited, and found a very busy, small detachment of soldiers preparing for the DV – distinguished visitor – arrival.

King of cable news was issued a standard pillow and blanket at billeting, much like everyone else

What followed next happened so fast, it’s difficult to keep track.

“This trip was about meeting the troops,” said Army Capt. Peter Katzfey, who called the response to O’Reilly’s visit “overwhelming.” The 31-year-old native of Plymouth, Wis., coordinates media visits to Afghanistan, including the “big names” like Diane Sawyer, but has seen nothing like the O’Reilly visit.

Throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s fair to say that many troops feel poorly represented in the media, there is however one big exception – Fox News.

The Fox factor

“Fox News is the best, and I’m Bill O’Reilly’s biggest fan,” said Sgt. 1st Class Shirley Jacobs with the 96th “Heavy Truck” Transportation Company out of San Antonio, Texas. Sgt. Jacobs told me that as we crossed into Iraq from Kuwait earlier this year, but the opinion of Fox News and its popular program “The O’Reilly Factor” has not wavered among servicemen stationed abroad.

O’Reilly stepped into a war zone to answer question from callers. Airmen Staff Sgt. Tony Plyler ran a tight, professional ship fielding calls, e-mails and all the cameramen in the sound booth.

There are exceptions. Some servicemen, particularly among the officers, will even tell you they despise Fox News, for a variety of reasons, but most will grudgingly admit “Bill O’Reilly tells it like it is.” Especially when he unabashedly makes comments like this:

“People enlist in the military because they love their country,” O’Reilly said during a radio broadcast with Airmen Staff Sgt. Tony Plyler.

Plyler was finishing up his copy of O’Reilly’s book “Culture Warrior” and trying to pick out on-air material from the flood of questions the troops had sent in via e-mail.

There were some prank inquiries, but the great majority showed how much concern and interest members of the military had for the state of the country.

The age of the average servicemen in theater is about 19.5, but that didn’t stop a very lively discussion about who Bill O’Reilly was and what he represented. Copies of “Culture Warrior” were nowhere to be found just minutes after the boxes of complimentary copies were opened. For the hour O’Reilly was on the air, the questions and discussions about the issues didn’t stop. The war in Afghanistan, Hillary Clinton, steroids in professional sports, media bias and a divided American public are still being discussed after the O’Reilly visit.

“He packed as many visits and events [as possible] into a short period of time,” said Staff Sgt. Rick McNamara, the non-commissioned officer in charge, who manned the base Media Operation Center and coordinated communications and transportations for the blitz visit.

From the moment he hit the ground in Afghanistan, O’Reilly began to meet and greet the troops. Even on the flight line, he made an effort to meet jet fighter pilots and thank them.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say he personally met over 1,500 people in less than 48 hours,” said Katzfey.

At age 31, this Army captain would be more interested in the political atmosphere back home than his younger X-Box-engrossed comrades, but the generation that considers logging on to Facebook and Myspace a “meet and greet” was also excited to stand in line and shake the hand of a television personality who could have been their great uncle.

“All his meals were with servicemen and women,” said Capt. Katzfey. Servicemen flooded the chow halls, and some ran back to their quarters to pick up a digital camera, hoping for a souvenir of the visit. But the O’Reilly staff had thought ahead.

Pens, towels, “No-Spin” mugs, Fox News T-shirts and free copies of “Culture Warrior” were quickly distributed and have since become prized items.

The “meet and greet” at the Pat Tillman USO center (named after the former football player turned Army Ranger who was killed in action) was packed with so many people that more than 100 O’Reilly fans had to be turned away, despite the visit being prolonged an extra half hour.

Thirty extra minutes may not seem like much, but the man who has sometimes referred to himself as a bloviator had a full two-page schedule written in small fonts.

Just getting around the base can be an obstacle in itself. Traffic on Disney, Bagram’s main road, a thoroughfare once truffled with land mines, was booming since the biggest base in Afghanistan had secured “enduring status.”

The man the president referred to as “The Factor” made the journey to both the hospital and the less-frequented north end of the military mega-base.

“He stopped and made sure you got the picture,” said Capt. Brian Crowley, a veteran of both Iraq and now Afghanistan. “If he thought you didn’t get a good picture, O’Reilly would stop everything and make sure you got the picture you wanted.”

Just the line outside the USO center stretched to the tiny Marine headquarters, notable for its bright red door and prominently displayed eagle globe and anchor.

Marine Master Sgt. Bellini, originally from Carlstadt, N.J., cordially invited O’Reilly to stop by and visit the few Marines deployed in Afghanistan. Col. Joseph Lydon, senior Marine in Afghanistan, was surprised to see O’Reilly on his doorstep early the next morning, squeezing in one last visit before his flight back home.

“I admire someone who takes the time to come out all this way to see us. I really appreciate that,” said Marine Gunnery Sgt. Andrew Lucky of York, Ala. “I was even more impressed that he took the time out to specifically see the Marines.”

At age 37, with two tours in Iraq and 19 years of service to the Corps, York has seen a lot, but he’s hoping for more.

“I’d like to see Colin Powell come over here,” he said.

That request will have to come through official channels, but there’s no doubt the Bagram base was buzzing from the O’Reilly visit. After two months of preparation and all the obstacles one would expect in a war zone, Capt. Katzfey reflected on the whirlwind experience and was grateful the “No-Spin” master was “flexible and undemanding.”

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Matt Sanchez, originally from California, is a New York City-based writer currently embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq. His work has appeared in the New York Post, National Review and the Weekly Standard.

A corporal in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and a student at Columbia University where he’s working on degree in American Studies, Sanchez says his mission in Iraq is “to report on the stories that matter the most, first-person accounts by the men and women on the ground.” His blog, Matt-Sanchez.com, chronicles his work.