It's 'good night, Baghdad' for U.S. Army radio

U.S. Staff Sgt. Brad Ruffin works at Freedom Radio Iraq during its last hours before going off air forever.

Story highlights

  • Freedom Radio Iraq broadcasters turn off their microphones Friday night
  • They have been broadcasting to U.S. military personnel in Iraq for eight years
  • The end of the station is part of the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq
  • Music and news will continue but will come out of Europe
At the stroke of midnight Friday, the good music and bad jokes of Freedom Radio Iraq fell silent.
Army broadcasters who pumped out tunes, wisecracks and information to their fellow American military personnel in Iraq formally turned off their microphones after eight years.
"This is the radio station for our troops, and you know we are sad to see it go," said Army Staff Sgt. Randall "Jay" Townsend, one of the station's disc jockeys, before the final broadcast. "But at the same time, this piece is part of the big transformation that is going to happen over here -- so some sadness and some excitement as well."
So exciting that Townsend, from Arkansas, was up even earlier than usual -- 3:30 a.m. -- ready for a long day with his listeners.
"This station has been in Iraq for the troops the entire time, and this is their outlet to back home," he said.
The closing of the station is just the latest visible evidence of the deliberate, phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, all pointing toward an end-of the-year deadline. With the withdrawal clock ticking, the U.S. continues to talk with Iraqis about leaving some American forces behind for training and security. But Armed Forces Radio is over and out.
"The security agreement reached back in 2008 calls for all U.S. forces to be out of Iraq by December 31, and we are operating consistent with that guidance," said one of the officers in charge, Lt. Col. Freddie Mack. "So tonight will be our last night as Freedom Radio here in AFN Iraq."
The unit's motto is "serving those who serve," Mack said. "We all can't wait till the 31st of December to board planes, so some of that transition has to start now. The soldiers of AFN Iraq have certainly done their part in bringing to a close this chapter."
The station went on the air in December 2003, and the first song was Paul McCartney's "Freedom."
The transmitters will stay in place for now, but music and news will come from Europe.
Townsend said he thought long and hard about exactly how to sign off.
"I'm just going to say my thanks," he said Friday by video link provided by the Defense Department. "I'm not going to make it too complicated."
In recent weeks, the station's DJs asked their listeners for how to end the final broadcast. A Facebook poll narrowed it down to five songs:
Toby Keith: "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue"
Green Day: "When September Ends"
Saving Abel: "Miss America"
Daughtry: "Home"
P. Diddy: "Coming Home"
The final selection was revealed at midnight: Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue."
Townsend and his fellow radio jocks know they are part of a long line of other broadcasters in uniform.
They have a special place of honor for "Good Morning, Vietnam" radio DJ Adrian Cronauer, who came on Friday's show for an interview.
"Absolutely! There is not a military broadcaster who doesn't know who Adrian Cronauer is and the things he was able to accomplish and the lasting impact he had on military journalists and AFN radio stations around the world," Townsend said. Cronauer's signature sign-in "Good Morning, Vietnam" became part of that era, and the movie inspired generations of broadcasters like Townsend to sign up.
"I feel like we are part of an evolved set of broadcasters throughout the years," Townsend said. "We really do think we are part of that military journalism corps, I would say, passed down from those folks in Vietnam all the way back to World War II. So we know we are just part of that legacy just as much as anyone else."
Part of that legacy, reinforced by Cronauer and others, is to go right to the brink.
"My morning show, we push the limits as far as we possibly can to make the troops laugh, and if we don't get a complaint from somebody, you know, with some real rank on them every now and then, we don't feel we are pushing the envelope far enough to give the troops a real sense of a real radio station they would be listening to back in the states," Townsend said.
Both he and the brass were counting down to the goodbye Friday.
Said Townsend, "To be here at the end of that chapter -- too surreal."