|Fred Greaves / Special to NFL.com|
|Andy Reid, Marvin Lewis, Brad Childress and John Fox pose with the medical team on a C-17 flight.|
The NFL is continuing this July its legacy of visiting U.S. military troops overseas. Forty-four years after the first trip, with more than 160 active and former players having traveled to more than 20 countries on USO tours, the NFL-USO partnership is continuing to break new ground. This current summer tour to Afghanistan represents the second time the NFL has brought a group of coaches overseas to visit the troops.
The NFL's Director of Community Affairs David Krichavsky is accompanying four current NFL coaches -- Minnesota Vikings head coach Brad Childress, Carolina Panthers head coach John Fox, Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, and Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid -- on a tour of U.S. military bases in the Persian Gulf.
Bagram Air Base, where we remained on Day 5 of the 2010 NFL-USO Coaches tour, can feel like a small city. With more than 10,000 coalition troops on base and a total population that exceeds 40,000 people, visiting Bagram can give you a false sense of security. Yes, you are in Afghanistan and fighter jets roar overhead all day and night, but you are surrounded by a stout perimeter and you have many of the comforts of home which troops "outside the wire" lack -- such as showers, hot meals, television and the Internet.
On Day 5 of our USO tour though, the realities of the war in Afghanistan and its very human toll hit home for the NFL coaches who had traveled overseas to spend time with the troops. But more on that later.
Our first stop after breakfast was the Pat Tillman USO Center. This facility was built with funds donated by the NFL and was dedicated in 2005 as a memorial to the late Arizona Cardinals safety and Army Ranger. The Tillman USO Center serves over 135,000 troops annually, providing our servicemen and women with a comfortable place to relax, get a warm cup of coffee, call or e-mail home to loved ones, or simply feel a touch of home.
The Tillman Center is an essential stop on any NFL-USO tour to Afghanistan. As soon as the coaches entered the building, it was clear that they understood the significance of the facility. The coaches gathered at the "Tillman wall," where Patâs military honors and legacy are depicted. They posed for photos beneath Patâs No. 40 Cardinals jersey, which hangs proudly on another of the Centerâs walls. The coaches also spent time with the troops who had congregated inside the Center. The four coaches signed autographs, took pictures, and chatted with nearly every service member in the building before departing.
The next stop on our itinerary was a visit to the Joint Theatre Hospital at Bagram. Just as we had visited Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany earlier in our tour, the hospital at Bagram is a major medical "hub" that serves patients who are wounded on the battlefields of Afghanistan. However, the hospital at Bagram is one step further upstream (i.e. closer to the battlefield) than Landstuhl.
For example, if a soldier is seriously injured in an IED (improved explosive device) attack in Afghanistan, the soldier will initially be treated in the field as best as possible and then medevaced to the nearest regional medical facility. Assuming that serious treatment is required, the patient will be brought to the hospital at Bagram to undergo surgery and all necessary urgent medical care. The goal is to get patients stable enough to transfer them from Bagram to Landstuhl as soon as possible. This often happens within just 24 to 48 hours.
|Carolina Panthers head coach John Fox spends some private time with troops at the USO Pat Tillman center. (Fred Greaves/Special to NFL.com)|
Like at Landstuhl, visiting the hospital at Bagram was a sobering experience for the coaches. There were a number of patients who had lost limbs earlier that day or the previous day, servicemen with bad shrapnel or bullet wounds, or multiple bone fractures. But the four coaches went room to room, chatting with all the patients stable enough to receive visitors. They also spoke with the staff at the hospital, including one emergency room surgeon who looked up in the middle of conducting a procedure as the coaches were walking by to shout "Go Lions!" Thankfully though, this surgeonâs love for the NFL didnât run so deep that he requested an autograph or photo mid-procedure.
Following the hospital visit, the coaches had the opportunity to spend time with a Special Forces unit. Visiting with Special Forces is always a rare and interesting experience, as the Special Forces (such as the Navy SEALS or Green Berets) are our militaryâs elite fighting units, and they are shrouded in a great deal of mystery. Their units are set off and separate from the rest of the military community, you canât take pictures with them or of their facilities, and the very existence of their units and their members' identities are supposed to be kept secret. That being said, it is often very easy to tell who is a member of the Special Forces. They have different uniforms than other troops. Unlike the rest of the troops, they are allowed to -â and often need to -- grow facial hair in order to blend in with the local population when they go out into the field. So the paradox of the SF troops is that, while they are supposed to be top-secret, they often stick out as non-conformists in a military that prides itself on conformity.
One non-Special Forces soldier who we met at the Special Forces compound we visited was Lt. Col. Jim Brown of Marietta, GA. He's an Army reservist and a high school football coach back in Marietta. As a result of his current tour of duty in Afghanistan, he's scheduled to miss his first season coaching high school football in 18 years this fall. "It's killing me," he said. "I love football. Iâm a purist. I love the game. I love coaching."
Lt. Col. Brown talked a bit of shop with the NFL coaches, comparing strategy and play-calling notes. He also mentioned that his tour in Afghanistan ends in November, and as a result, if his team makes the playoffs, he will return home to see the conclusion of their high school season. I bet there is a group of young people in Marietta working out very hard this summer to ensure that their coach gets to see them in the playoffs later this year.
Another stop for us was an "office call" with the Commanding General at Bagram AB, Major General John Campbell. General Campbell is responsible for all operations in the eastern portion of Afghanistan. Stationed out of Ft. Campbell, KY and the commander of the 101st Airborne Division, General Campbell gained command of eastern Afghanistan a couple of months ago. He invited the coaches into his office and gave them a thorough briefing on the situation in Afghanistan. He told the coaches that weâve made good progress but that this summer would likely be "highly kinetic" -- meaning that the fighting would be intense -- and that our success this summer would be an important litmus test for our overall efforts in Afghanistan.
General Campbell also invited the coaches to a Fallen Hero ceremony that would be taking place that evening. A Fallen Hero ceremony is when a service member killed in action (KIA) is given a "dignified transfer" and the body begins its journey home to its final resting place.
The soldier who had been killed and was being honored that evening was a 23-year-old private who had been hit by an IED. He was part of the 86th Infantry Brigade of out Vermont, a group that the coaches had actually visited earlier in the day. In addition, the coaches had seen two members of this battalion in the hospital at Bagram that morning. With a KIA and two serious causalities, clearly this unit had been hit hard recently.
|NFL coaches pose with workers below a framed Pat Tillman NFL jersey at the Pat Tillman USO Center at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. (USO Photo by Fred Greaves) (Fred Greaves/Special to NFL.com)|
In a Fallen Hero ceremony at Bagram, the casket of the deceased is brought down from the hospital to the flight line, where it is loaded onto a C-17 or C130 cargo plane bound for Germany and then on to Dover AB in Delaware, which is the U.S. entry point for deceased U.S. service members. There is a procession in which the casket -- draped in an American flag -- is carried down the flight line by members of the deceasedâs brigade toward the plane. Generals, enlisted service members, VIPs, and others who were close to the soldier also participate in the procession. A military band plays hymns in the background.
The four NFL coaches were invited to join the procession that followed the casket onto the C130. Initially unsure whether to accept this honor, they were assured by Command that it would be appropriate for them to participate. They trailed the casket down the runway and into the mouth of the plane. Once inside, the casket was set down in the middle of the aircraft, and a chaplain said a few words and led the congregated group in prayer. Everyone inside the C130 passed by the casket on their way out, spending personal time as desired.
The Fallen Hero ceremony clearly impacted the coaches. You could see it on their faces -- they appeared dazed following it. However, their emotions were still fresh and raw when Col. Benjamin, the doctor in charge of the hospital at Bagram, approached our group less than 5 minutes after the ceremony had ended. He told us that it had been a tough day in the field for U.S. forces and that there were more than 10 new patients in the hospital since the coaches had visited that morning. Did we want to come back tonight to see the new patients?
Yes, the coaches said. They had fulfilled every request so far; signed every autograph and posed for every picture; looked for every opportunity possible to have a positive impact -- even if it just made a difference for one soldier. They werenât about to change now, even if it was 10 p.m. and they had already visited the hospital once earlier that day.
The four coaches made two trips to visit wounded patients in the hospital and watched a Fallen Hero be sent back to his family. The realities of war hit home very hard on Day 5 of the 2010 NFL-USO tour.