Former NFL players eat their cake and have it too on USO tour

The NFL's Director of Community Affairs David Krichavsky is accompanying three former NFL players -- ESPN analyst Merril Hoge, ESPN and NFL Network analyst Matt Millen and Pro Football Hall of Fame member Anthony Muñoz -- to meet and greet members of the U.S. military for several days in the Persian Gulf.

Day 4

Day 4 of the 2011 NFL-USO tour began at Camp Marmal in Mazar-e-Sharif, in the north of Afghanistan. The plan for the day was to "FOB hop" to several bases in the region. FOB hopping -- which is a staple of NFL-USO tours -- is when you visit multiple small Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) in succession, flying by helicopter from one to the next. FOB hoping allows you to spend time with the troops on the front lines -- the men and women waging war in some of the most remote places on Earth. And given the remoteness of many of the FOBs in Afghanistan, it is an even bigger deal than usual when celebrities such as NFL greats show up.

Before beginning our day of FOB hopping, we had a meet-and-greet with the troops at Camp Marmal. This meet-and-greet was noteworthy for the friendly (at least I think it was friendly) argument that broke out between two soldiers to determine who is the biggest Steelers fan on base. Staff Sergeant (SSG) Boyd, a native of South Carolina, made his case first, noting that he has a sign at the front of his driveway at home declaring "Stop. Alert. You are in Steelers Country!" This is followed by a sign in his garage, "Parking Reserved for Steelers Fans Only." SSG Boyd told us that he hadn't missed a single Steelers game during his deployment, even though this required that he trade shifts and even take on extra shifts to adjust his schedule appropriately.

In the other corner, also claiming to be the biggest Steelers fan on base, was Specialist Isiah Phillips, who said that he could prove his love for the Steelers in one easy way. He then proceeded to remove his army uniform blouse and roll up the sleeve of his undershirt, revealing a massive Steelers tattoo that covered his entire upper arm.

Merril Hoge, who of course played seven years for the Steelers, was called in to settle the dispute. Merril was convinced by both parties' argument and diplomatically called it a draw. This decision may or may not have been impacted by the fact that both soldiers had their rifles in hand when Merril offered his judgment.

Photo gallery

Anthony Muñoz (R) joins goes "top-side" with the pilot and his crew while flying to their next destination. Get a glimpse behind the scenes with a photo gallery of the USO tour.

Following the meet-and-greet at Camp Marmal, our group divided up into two Blackhawk helicopters that would ferry us around northern Afghanistan for the day. Military helicopters always fly in tandem to provide support and protection for one another.

The first FOB we visited was Ghormach, a 50 minute flight to the southwest of Camp Marmal. During the flight, we had terrific views of the stark and rugged -- but beautiful -- Afghanistan landscape. Flying over the country, you really get a sense of why Afghanistan has been so slow to embrace modernity, and also why it is so hard to successfully fight a war there. The country is filled with jagged mountains rising up sharply from the land below. Usually several ridge lines separate one village from the next, with the villages only being connected by a dirt road, if at all. Afghanistan is a beautiful country though, with snowcapped mountains and splashes of greenery dotting the otherwise inhospitable landscape.

When we arrived at FOB Ghormach, we were greeted by First Sergeant (1SG) Franklin, who is the senior enlisted soldier on base. First Sergeant Franklin explained to us that his team had only taken command of the FOB three weeks prior. They were still working to build up the FOB and learn the terrain. There are currently 88 soldiers on base, but they plan to get up to 150 men.

We had lunch with the troops at Ghormach and then toured the base. Ghormach is a relatively primitive camp, where the soldiers sleep in tents. There are no cooking facilities; any hot meals the soldiers eat on base are flown in from other locations. The base lacks the "amenities" that most other bases have, such as workout equipment or an entertainment center with a TV and DVD player. And yet, you will never hear the soldiers at Ghormach complain, and they certainly don't let their austere living conditions impact their ability to accomplish their mission one bit. As Hoge said, "Man, this isn't easy living out here. I can't imagine living here for months at a time. But these guys don't even seem to notice it."

Following our visit at Ghormach, we hopped back in the Blackhawks and traveled to FOB Griffin. While still very remote, Griffin is bigger than Ghormach and has both Afghan and American troops on base. Upon arriving, the NFL players went to the MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) cabin where they snapped photos, signed autographs, and hung out with soldiers. The MWR cabin has a large book shelf from which troops can borrow books. USO tour manager Lonnie Cooper was browsing the offerings when he came across a signed copy of Rocky Bleier's autobiography. Bleier, of course, played running back for the Steelers and served in the Vietnam War, later returning to the Pacific for a NFL-USO tour in 1975.

Remember, we are currently on a USO tour with another former Steelers running back who has also written an autobiography (Hoge shares his life story in Find A Way). Merril had brought several copies of his book with him on tour and was handing out autographed copies to many of the Steelers fans he encountered in Afghanistan. When Bleier's book was pointed out to him, Hoge joked "Let me know where you found that. I'm going put mine on top of it."

Hoge, Millen and Muñoz spent the afternoon at FOB Griffin, chatting casually with the troops and getting a tour of the base. From there, it was back on the Blackhawks for an hour flight to Camp Spann. Camp Spann -- which like many bases is named for a fallen soldier -- is named for Mike Spann, who was the first American killed in the war in Afghanistan during our initial invasion in 2001. The NFL/NFLPA Disaster Relief Fund actually endowed a scholarship in Spann's name for college-bound seniors from Marion County, AL.

We ate dinner at Camp Spann's DFAC (which incidentally had the tastiest food of the tour so far), and then hosted a meet and greet that attracted a large group of troops. As per usual, the troops' excitement to try on Millen's four Super Bowl rings was only exceeded by the thrill Steelers fans got from meeting Hoge.

With the conclusion of this meet-and-greet, our long day of FOB hopping came to an end. We had visited four bases, ranging from the larger Camp Marmal to the tiny Ghormach. We had logged hundreds of miles on the Blackhawks. And most importantly, we were able to spend time and thank several hundred troops for their service.

"What a great day," Muñoz noted before going to bed. "I become more impressed with our troops with each day."

Day 5

Day 5 of the 2011 NFL-USO found our group "FOB hopping" once again, visiting several small Forward Operating Bases in northern Afghanistan. Our itinerary for the day was an aggressive one, with a goal of visiting five different bases spread across the region. If successful, we would reach thousands of troops in a remote corner of Afghanistan.

We began at Camp Spann, where we had spent the previous evening. Our quarters at Spann were tight, with Hoge, the two Millens (Matt and his son Lt Marcus Millen), Muñoz, and SSG Welsh all bunking in one room. The two young soldiers, probably exhausted from the six months they have spent conducting reconnaissance missions in southern Afghanistan, slept great. The three old guys tossed and turned for several hours, though, before deciding that their attempts to sleep were futile and engaging in conversation across the room. Matt Millen would later admit that he hasn't slept more than a few hours in the past three days -- and he wasn't feeling tired -- because he was so energized from seeing his son. Marcus Millen quipped the next morning, in reference to the chatty guys in his room, "Yeah, I slept great last night, aside from the teenage girls who chatted away all night like it was a slumber party."

After breakfast at Camp Spann, our group had a quick meet-and-greet with the Brigade Commander and Colonel who lead the troops in northern Afghanistan. CSM Grinston and COL Matlock thanked our guys for making the trip to Afghanistan and presented them with the 170th Brigade coin. The NFL greats reciprocated, presenting coins from their former teams and a limited edition Super Bowl XLV game coin from Highland Mint.

We then moved to the base's Helicopter Landing Zone (HLZ) and boarded Blackhawks to set out for the day's second stop, FOB Khelegey. Khelegey is home to Specialist Henry Trahan, who told us that his small base of 170 troops hadn't been visited by any other celebrity entertainers during the unit's deployment. Upon greeting Hoge, Millen, and Muñoz at the entrance to the FOB, Specialist Trahan said, "the guys on base are so excited to meet you guys. I can't wait just to see their faces when they see you."

Our group hosted a meet-and-greet at FOB Khelegy and toured the base, chatting with the soldiers at their stations. The players interacted with the troops so effortlessly, often asking guys where they are from back home and then going on to discuss the soldier's favorite college and pro teams. It seemed like every soldier from California was invited by Millen to drop by Anthony Muñoz's mother's house in Ontario, CA to try Mrs. Muñoz's famous tamales and other Mexican treats.

Following our visit to Khelegey, we were back on the Blackhawks and off to FOB Kunduz. Once again, we flew over beautiful terrain on our way over to Kunduz, with the FOB finally appearing out of nowhere after miles of uninhabited terrain. At Kunduz, we were escorted around the base by Captain Strand of South Dakota. CPT Strand and his unit just arrived at Kunduz three weeks prior and already have done a tremendous job strengthening and improving the camp.

Rather than having a staged meet-and-greet at Kunduz, CPT Strand escorted us around the large base, introducing our group to as many as possible of the 1,200 troops stationed there. We visited the soldiers working in the operations center, medical clinic, maintenance shed, and even the kitchen. Everywhere we went we met dedicated soldiers who looked to excel at every mission, whether it was tutoring the Afghan National Army (ANA) or cooking dinner.

FOB Hairatan was the next stop on our Day 5 tour of remote bases in northern Afghanistan. Hairatan is a small camp with approximately 150 troops, located as far north as you can go in Afghanistan -- right on the border with Uzbekistan. The troops at Hairatan went two months without internet or television when they first arrived. The recent addition of a satellite dish allowed them better connection to the outside world (albeit they are still in the middle of nowhere).

One of the soldiers at Hairatan, Specialist Brooks, should have entered the previous day's competition to determine the biggest Steelers fan. He asked Hoge to sign his Steelers comforter which the soldier hadn't used since the Super Bowl. Before Super Bowl XLV, Specialist Brooks pledged to sleep with the comforter for his entire deployment if the Steelers won the Super Bowl, but never sleep with it again if the Steelers lost the big game. Sure enough, Specialist Brooks brought the comforter over to Hoge in a plastic case, not having been touched since February 6.

Our next stop following FOB Hairatan was Deh Dadi II. Deh Dadi is the name of an Afghan town, and Deh Dadi I is the Afghan National Army (ANA) base located there. Deh Dadi II is the American base. The Americans at Deh Dadi II work hand-in-hand with the ANA on both military missions and humanitarian projects. Major Torrence Cleveland, who of course greeted us with his Terrible Towel in hand, noted that American forces recently built an elementary school for the local population in Deh Dadi.

During our visit on base, we had a quick dinner in the DFAC (Dining Facility), after which Hoge, Millen, and Muñoz walked around to every table to introduce themselves and say thank you. It was amazing to watch the guys work the room -- every soldier got individual attention. Muñoz actually bumped into a woman who had received a college scholarship from his foundation several years prior. She is now an officer in the US Army, stationed at Deh Dadi II.

After a couple of hours at Deh Dadi II, we were back on the Blackhawks and headed for Camp Marmol. Marmol is the first base we visited in Afghanistan, and it was where we would spend the night before beginning our trip back to the U.S. the following day. Marmol is the headquarters for all Coalition war efforts in northern Afghanistan, and we had the opportunity to meet the General who oversees the region (known as RC North), General Sean Mulholland, who asked about our experiences visiting the FOBs and provided a high-level overview of operations in RC North. He also coined the players and offered tremendous words of guidance to the two young soldiers traveling with us, Lt Marcus Millen and SSG Welsh.

The day ended with a special treat. It was Matt Millen's birthday and our MWR escorts who were leading us around base had planned a surprise. They said we had one more stop to end the day -- which had begun 14 hours earlier and had include visits at five bases. Our final stop was a conference room in the RC North headquarters building, where Matt was greeted with a round of "happy birthday to you" and cake. It was indeed a sweet day.

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