Note: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, joined by New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora, are participating on a seven-day, three-country summer USO Tour led by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen. Also on the trip are two members of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (Deryn Derbigny and Christina Parker), "Heroes" actor Milo Ventimiglia and former Marshall University coach Jack Lengyel. Pete Abitante, special assistant to the commissioner, is accompanying the group on the trip and will file daily updates.
"It is not lost on us that you have other things in life that require your attention on a daily basis. We appreciate you all taking the time out of your lives to visit us today. It may be hard for you to understand how much it means to all of us here. Thank you very much."
-- Lt. Col. Paul Calvert, Commander, FOB Caldwell
"I know it's tough on you to come this far but we can't thank you enough. We're all anxious for the football season to begin. With the Commissioner here today, I will now begin my campaign to start games at noon (Baghdad time)."
-- Lt. General Lloyd Austin, Commanding General, Multi-National Corps, Iraq
Well, the wind behind the sand quieted down enough to allow us to head out of Baghdad to visit three FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) today, all via Blackhawk helicopter transit.
With the temperature driving toward 120 degrees, all flights are with the doors of the craft wide open, which makes it important to securely fasten your four-point seat-belt ... after slipping into the 80 pounds of body armor. Drew had previously flown on F-18s three times but this was Osi's first ride in a "helo." It's difficult to get used to the noise and a 50-cal gunner sitting out each side of the craft, but Osi survived four such rides today.
Our first stop was FOB Normandy, located less than 30 miles from the Iranian border. This was described to us as a smaller FOB and, as such, one that rarely receives visitors.
Small though it may be, they are attacked at least once a week, according to Sgt. Major Fernando Torres, who hails from the Bronx, New York. They were attacked just last night -- an IED exploded in the path of a convoy of supplies just 400 meters outside the base. Two humvees were damaged -- one totaled -- but miraculously none of the five soldiers in the vehicle were hurt. So our visit could not have come at a better time.
From the outside it was your typical "meet-and-greet" but their appreciation was palpable and expressed by SGTM Torres: "Thank you so much for coming to see us today. This means so much to have you visit us and see what we do, all with great pride."
"We are all incredibly inspired by the work you do," answered Commissioner Goodell. "We're proud of you and wish you success and a safe return home."
You always feel guilty leaving one base for another, but you have to balance that with the thought that the next base deserves your time as well. Next stop -- FOB Caldwell.
The soldiers at Caldwell have made tremendous progress in rooting out insurgents in the Diyala Province of Iraq and no one is prouder of them than Lt. Col. Paul Calvert, who leads the base. He is always speaking with the soldiers as they pass by -- cajoling them, praising them, supporting them and sometimes even zinging them -- but all in good fun.
Another note from Day 2
I forgot to mention this one yesterday. Sgt. Nicholas Girou from Bethlehem, Pa. had attended every NFL Draft since 1983.
But when this Eagles fan, who also serves in the Pennsylvania National Guard, was called up and sent to Iraq, he was forced to miss the 2008 draft.
"The only thing I could think about was being worried that my name would not be on the list for tickets next year since I had to miss this year's event."
A poignant moment came when a young captain entered into the reception area where the meet-and-greet was taking place. The captain had to return home for a family emergency -- his father had suffered a heart attack. As the captain approached him, LTC Calvert threw open his arms and said, "It's good to have you back." This is an impressive family.
LTC Calvert calls what his troops are doing, "a Herculean effort."
Soldiers go out on a mission for three, sometimes four days. They live in abandoned mud huts or sleep in or on a Bradley Fighting Vehicle or in a ditch. Then they come back, shower, maybe call home, and sleep in their beds for a night. Then they get up and do it all over again. But everytime they come "home," I have a feeling the open arms of Lt. Col. Calvert are waiting for them.
I can't help but believe he would make a great football coach. Why not? His roots are in Athens, Georgia -- Bulldog country!
The most unique moment from our final FOB stop (FOB Warhorse) was the re-enlistment ceremony that took place during the meet-and-greet -- at the request of the soldier re-enlisting.
Sgt, Spruell, just 29-years-old but already with more than 10 years of service under his belt, asked us to take part in the ceremony. Commissioner Goodell and Drew held the American flag and all others stood witness to his oath of re-enlistment, which was read by Lt. Col. Brian Denny. So why did he ask to do this today?
"I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and I'm a Chiefs fan more than anything else," said the sergeant. "Even though I'm deployed, I never miss a game, even if I have to listen to the radio feed from FOX-FM in Kansas City."
We closed out the day with a special meeting with General David Petraeus, commanding general-multi-national force, Iraq and Lt. General Lloyd Austin at the Al-Faw Presidential Palace, which is now home to our local headquarters for the war. Each thanked every tour participant for making time to make a difference here in Iraq.
Day 3 could not have ended on a better note. See you tomorrow.