NFL greats building bonds on USO tour

The NFL is continuing its legacy of visiting U.S. military troops overseas. More than 180 active and former players have traveled to more than 20 countries over the course of the NFL's 45-year partnership with the USO.

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 1

The NFL and the USO have partnered for 45 years to bring professional football players and coaches overseas to visit the men and women serving our country abroad. Forty-five years is a long time. The first Super Bowl was played 45 years ago. Lyndon Johnson was President; "Star Trek" had its debut episode; and the Monkees were the hot band -- or so Google tells me.

Despite the passage of time (and music tastes), the NFL and the USO have continued to do goodwill tours together to boost the morale of America's troops serving abroad. The tours have changed somewhat. In the Vietnam era, NFL players would go overseas for three-and-a-half weeks at a time. One NFL player -- Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Andy Russell, who was also an Army veteran -- was given an M-16 and asked to serve guard duty when he arrived in Vietnam on a USO tour in 1968.

The latest installment of NFL-USO tours will not be a month long, nor will any NFL participants be asked to stand guard. But it should be no less meaningful or impactful than any of the previous editions.

An all-star lineup has been assembled for the 2011 NFL-USO tour. It includes former Pittsburgh Steelers running back and current ESPN football analyst, Merril Hoge; four-time Super Bowl champion and current ESPN and NFL Network broadcaster, Matt Millen; and one of the greatest offensive linemen of all time, a Pro Football Hall of Fame player for the Cincinnati Bengals, Anthony Muñoz.

The group assembled at Dulles Airport in Washington D.C. and boarded a 12-hour flight for our first stop, the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing in Southwest Asia. Twelve hours on a plane is a long time, so naturally USO tour participants look to sleep. The best sleeper in recent USO tour history is undoubtedly Larry Fitzgerald, who can fall asleep anywhere at any time. Well, I think Larry may have met his match in Hoge, who was out cold before the plane got off the ground and wasn't heard from again until the captain asked everyone to return their seats to an upright position.

Upon landing and clearing customs, we were met by Whitney Oliver, a native of Dallas, TX, who heads the MWR (morale, welfare, and recreation) function at an undisclosed military base in Southwest Asia. Whitney was the also the POC (point-of-contact) for the 2010 NFL-USO tour that had visited the base the previous year.

By the time our group arrived on base, it was past 9 p.m. local time. We were brought to our lodging and settled in for a restless, jet-lagged induced night of off-and-on sleep (for everyone but Hoge). There was no question that our group was ready for what lay ahead.

"It's great to be able to give a little something back to those who serve on our behalf every day," said Muñoz, before heading to bed. "I'm looking forward to getting this tour started tomorrow."

Day 2

The members of the 2011 NFL-USO tour were up early as we kicked off our first full day of activities at the base in Southeast Asia. The day began with breakfast with Colonel John Kubinec, who is the Commander of the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing based out of the military base. Colonel Kubinec, who is responsible for a team of 1,100 troops, gave our group a good overview of the base and its role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Located outside the two active war theaters (but a relatively short distance away), the base serves as a major logistical hub for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Supply missions, air refueling and maintenance, and surveillance are all conducted out of the base. Combat missions and bombing runs, providing critical air support to combat troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, also fly out of the base.

Our group's first stop after breakfast was the flight line, where we met the crews that fly B-1 bombers. The base is the only one in the region that flies B-1s. One B-1 crew that we met with had landed only minutes earlier from flying a 12-hour sortie over Afghanistan. It is not unusual for a team of four -- two pilots and two "wizzos" (or WSOs, weapons systems officers) -- to run missions that last 12-14 consecutive hours.

A second crew invited the guys to hop up into the cockpit of their B-1. As you can imagine, it was a tight fit for Muñoz, who stands 6-foot-6 and played at approximately 280 pounds. CPT Christine Jenkins of Oregon warned Anthony not to pull any levers or push any buttons in the cockpit. Apparently Terry Bradshaw touched something he should not have when he visited the base with FOX Sports a couple of years ago. Terry, in case you were wondering, that plane has been fixed ... you can stop worrying about it.

As Merril, Matt, and Anthony went from crew to crew along the flight line -- signing autographs, taking pictures and chatting with the troops -- it became apparent that Millen's four Super Bowl rings would be one of the star attractions of our tour. Millen let all comers try on his rings, which he won in Super Bowl XV with the Oakland Raiders, Super Bowl XVIII with the Los Angeles Raiders, Super Bowl XXIV with the 49ers and Super Bowl XXVI with the Washington Redskins. As one airman said after modeling Millen's jewelry on his left hand, "Trying on one Super Bowl ring is cool. Wearing four of them is unreal."

Following a morning of visiting troops on the flight line, our group headed to one of the base's DFACs (dining facilities) for a quick lunch. The next stop was a meet-and-greet at the Base Recreation Area, which is the central hub of social activity on base. One of the highlights of our afternoon was a visit to the 379th EMXS Munitions area, also known as the "ammo dump." This is the area that houses much of the ammunition on base, including hundreds of bombs and more than $2 billion worth of weaponry.

It was amazing to see the men and women at the ammo dump show off their craft -- building, testing and securing bombs and other ammunition. They take tremendous pride in their work, doing whatever is necessary to get the job done. That may mean working in 120-degree heat during the summer, when the metal equipment they use is too hot to touch without gloves. It also means triple and quadruple checking every screw and bolt on a bomb to ensure maximum performance and safety.

Following the munitions tour, our group had a few minutes of downtime followed by dinner and another meet-and-greet. This gathering was our largest of the tour to date, attracting nearly 200 troops. The session began with a Q&A during which the players were asked everything ranging from their favorite playing memory to who they thought would go No. 1 in the upcoming NFL draft. As always, Steelers fans turned out in full force, with Hoge being asked to sign more than a few Terrible Towels.

The 2011 NFL-USO tour hit its stride on Day 2, as our group saw much of the undisclosed military base and visited with hundreds of troops. But much more lay ahead, as Day 3 would find our tour heading deep into the heart of a war zone.

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