By Marianne L. Hamilton
Los Gatos Weekly-Times
When Meena Shams and Ariel Ogilvie make public appearances, they’re almost always in uniform. As members of the Raiderettes, cheerleading squad for the Oakland Raiders, the Los Gatos residents are typically decked out in their familiar silver and black costumes.
Recently, though, the pair found themselves attired in bulletproof vests and Kevlar helmets. But to the soldiers they were visiting at military bases in Iraq and Kuwait, it was just business as usual.
On Jan. 28, Shams and Ogilvie — accompanied by fellow cheerleader Jovann Canada from Pleasanton — boarded a plane for Kuwait. The three were chosen to represent the squad by Raiderettes director Karen Kovac, who felt the trio brought a unique set of talents and life experiences to the task.
“Going on these trips is a huge honor, and the slots are highly coveted,” Kovac says. “Meena and Jovann are line captains, and have been with us for several seasons. They have plenty of experience with being in charge, being dropped into different situations at various events, and having to figure it out. They’re both very adaptable and knowledgeable.”
Ogilvie’s impending marriage to Marine 1st Lt. Mike Lamb also carried weight in the decision-making process, Kovac adds. “Having gone through tours to Bosnia and Kosovo myself, I knew that these types of trips really open your eyes in wonderful ways. I imagined this shared experience would help tie Ariel and Mike together. Also, being able to tell the soldiers in Iraq that her fiancÂŽ was in the Marines would be a nice connection.”
The Raiders organization has had a lengthy history of supporting the military. Kovac often sends members of the cheerleading team to disabled veterans’ events and to VA hospitals throughout the state, and the football team regularly hosts active and retired military on the sidelines at games. Just prior to the Iraq trip, Shams joined four other Raiderettes at Camp Pendleton, where they performed for 1,000 soldiers about to be deployed to the Middle East.
“We all get hooked on these events,” Kovac says. “Once you do something with the service personnel, you just want to do more.”
This year’s Iraq tour was orchestrated by the marketing firm Pro Sports MVP, which stages promotional programs and events featuring entertainment and sports celebrities. Along with the Raiderettes, members of several NFL teams made the journey to Iraq. For nine days, the players and cheerleaders toured bases and points of interest in the Middle Eastern war zone, doing a number of meet-and-greets and participating in several special events. Shams says their reception was enthusiastic, from the highest-ranking brass on down.
“We met with Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno, who’s in charge of the 4th Infantry Division in Baghdad; he reports directly to Gen. Petraeus, and was appointed by the President. He took the time to thank us for coming,” Shams notes.
Odierno also presented each visitor with a special commemorative coin, a fact that Shams says will come in handy should she ever happen to share an adult beverage with a member of the military. “The custom is that if someone pulls out a coin and challenges you, and you don’t have a coin or theirs outranks yours, you have to buy everyone a round,” explains Shams. “But if yours outranks theirs, they have to buy a round. I think each of us now has a coin that outranks 99 percent of all coins.”
Shams adds that it was a heady experience to leaf through the guest book the cheerleaders were asked to sign in Basra. Following tea with Maj. Gen. Andy Salmon, commander of British forces in the city, she and Ogilvie inscribed their signatures in the book. “Then we turned the page back and saw that [British Prime Minister] Gordon Brown had just signed. That was definitely one of the highlights of the tour,” says Shams.
The Los Gatans’ arrival “in-country” coincided with Iraq’s recent elections. Though the event went off peacefully, the Raiderettes’ military escort opted to keep them out of the way of any potential unrest.
“After we landed in Kuwait, we stayed at Camp Arifjan for three days during the election,” Shams says. “From then on, our itinerary was sort of decided upon on a daily basis.”
That schedule included daily meals and many hours spent chatting with the troops about their experiences. Shams and Ogilvie also took part in a re-enlistment ceremony, holding the American flag while military personnel signed on for additional tours of duty. Traveling between bases, their modes of transportation included Blackhawk and Apache helicopters, as well as a C-130 transport plane. They also went for a spin in an MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protection) vehicle, which is designed to survive roadside bombs.
Super Bowl Sunday found the Raiderettes watching the game with the men and women in uniform in Kuwait. Given the time difference, the game’s live telecast presented some logistical challenges. “We slept until 10 p.m., then got dressed and went out to the base,” says Shams. “The game started at 2 a.m. Kuwait time; it was over about 6:30, then we had breakfast and caught a helicopter for Camp Bucca in Iraq … and we were up until 10 p.m. that night. We were pretty exhausted. But the excitement of being on the trip, and knowing we were there to increase the soldiers’ morale, really kept us going.”
Once at Camp Bucca, where the cheerleaders were outfitted with the protective vests and helmets, Ogilvie says she was surprised at the friendliness of the environment. Located on the Iraq-Kuwait border, the facility serves as a prison for some 18,000 military detainees.
“It’s a very simple setting, but it’s very intimate,” says Ogilvie. “The group that took us around was very close-knit; we could tell by how they interacted with each other. We got a great feeling from them and really bonded with them. I actually cried when we flew away.”
Out of respect for the conventions of Middle Eastern culture, Shams and her colleagues left their regular cheerleading costumes at home. “We dressed very conservatively the whole time we were there, mostly in jeans,” Ogilvie says. “We also wore long-sleeved under-armor shirts, and T-shirts provided by Pro MVP.”
Despite the presence of uniformed troops — both American and Iraqi — carrying weapons of various descriptions, neither Ogilvie nor Shams say they felt afraid. Both were happy to entrust their safety to their escorts, and report that they were protected quite rigorously. Still, there were a few instances that reminded the pair that they weren’t exactly in Kansas anymore.
“At one point I felt a little jittery: We were out on the Green Zone, in an area that’s run by the Iraqi military, and we were swarmed by their troops,” Ogilvie says. “Another time we were staying in a hotel in Baghdad, right across from Saddam Hussein’s Al Faw Palace. I sat in a chair that was given to him by [late Palestinian President] Yasser Arafat. I definitely got a creepy feeling, being around things that used to belong to Hussein. But our escorts knew the best ways to keep us safe, and we basically did what they told us to do and we were fine.”
What led the Los Gatans to trade comfort zone for war zone? Says Ogilvie, a Los Gatos native and graduate of Los Gatos High School: “We’re in this beautiful`bubble’ in this town. I wanted to have a more authentic idea of what the world is like. When we got there, the military really took the time to educate us about their mission, they gave us the history of the bases, and helped us to understand why they’re there. I feel like I have a much clearer idea of what’s going on now.”
Adds Shams, “The soldiers were so appreciative of us taking the time to visit them. A lot of the time they think that no one remembers they’re there.”
Given their cover-girl looks and figures (not to mention the outfits they wear on game day), it would be far too simple to dismiss “Football’s Fabulous Females” as stereotypically vapid vessels. Not so fast: Shams, a graduate of Murray State University in her home state of Kentucky, is a sales and marketing executive for a line of skin-care products and antioxidant supplements, is a former member of the Northern California Women’s Hockey League and is active in several organizations dedicated to fighting breast cancer. Her personal life is active as well, as wife to Saratoga native and Sereno Group sales executive Ryan Iwanaga and stepmom to Iwanaga’s 11-year-daughter.
Ogilvie, a graduate of UC-Santa Barbara, where she was on the dean’s list, is pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology at Argosy University in San Francisco. After earning her Ph.D., Ogilvie hopes to work with underserved children in the Bay Area. For the near term she’ll be enjoying some welcome time with her future husband: After 12 years with the Marines and several tours of duty throughout the Middle East, including Afghanistan and Kosovo, Lamb will receive a medical discharge next month.
The cheerleaders’ achievements come as little surprise to Kovac, who herself holds a master’s degree in international business. As the Raiderettes’ chief choreographer for the past 13 years, and having served as the squad’s director since 2004, Kovac is never satisfied with merely adding another pretty face to the lineup.
“When a young woman auditions, which everyone has to do every year — even those who are currently on the squad — I look carefully at every application,” says Kovac. “I insist that a Raiderette must either be in school full time or hold down a full-time job. A few are moms, and if they’re doing that, more power to them. I want everyone to be fully engaged in some way, because they have to be strong role models for youths.
“Anyone can put on makeup and do their hair. What’s important is what’s on the inside.”
While they consider where their travels will lead them next, Shams and Ogilvie will both be taking part in the Raiderettes’ April 19 tryouts. Shams says the process is stressful for Iwanaga each season.
“He’ll call me on the day we’re supposed to hear whether we made it or not, and tell me that he’s pacing up and down and can’t focus,” Shams laughs. “He’s a huge football fan, and he also knows how hard I’ve worked to get here. I didn’t make it onto the team until my third try.”
Ogilvie, who says she rarely feels fear, admits that the process of auditioning is always daunting. But if she were asked to retire her pom-poms after this season, it appears that the Sunday afternoon lineup wouldn’t be the biggest thing she’d miss.
“It’s definitely cool being a cheerleader, because you have opportunities to travel and do things you’d never do otherwise,” she says. “But having the chance to support our troops was really an incredible experience.”
Raiderette auditions will be held April 19 at Club One in Oakland. Interested candidates can visit www.raiders.com/Raiderettes.