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.
We were awakened at our Frigate House accommodations at Camp Eggers by the sound of chirping birds. Springtime in Kabul? No, but it was a surreal scene with lots of greenery outside framed by barbed wire and jersey barricades ... and a war zone just blocks away.
A 6 a.m. workout in the Warrior Gym was followed by an 8 a.m. departure for Kandahar, aboard our now familiar C-17 cargo carrier.
The drive to the airport was in an armored van. We took a different route and narrower streets than when we came in ... and we were without a lead Humvee. But it was comforting to know that our driver, a sergeant who remained anonymous, learned how to drive in his hometown of New York City. He was on loan from Bloomberg where he works in their security department. He did an excellent job of driving with a purpose ... the NYC way!
Admiral Mullen joined us for the flight to Kandahar, which is home to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit. The Kandahar Airfield is also home to coalition forces from 10 countries. It is located southeast of Kabul and remains a hot spot. A USO show in April with Toby Keith was halted by a nearby mortar.
The field was incredibly hot -- had to be 120 degrees -- and humid. Admiral Mullen introduced each celebrity in the travel party and each gave a heartfelt message of thanks to the assembled group of 300.
We hustled back to the plane for the flight to Bagram Airfield and then got set for our helo rides to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Tillman.
Assisting us was Sgt. Ernest Beasley from Daytona, Florida. Afghanistan is his third tour after tours to Iraq in 2003 and 2005. He's a flight operations specialist who is a huge Vikings fan.
"Back in 2000, Marino just retired and Jacksonville was still kind of new, so I went outside the state," says Sgt. Beasley. "This means so much for the players to come over here to be with us. This is a double thumbs up!"
FOB Tillman is a 70-minute flight from Bagram. Thirty of us rode in a Shinook helicopter; the remainder in a Blackhawk. I mention this for reasons you will understand later.
The Afghan countryside is at times breathtaking -- with mountains and valleys -- and at other times flat with nothing but sand and some occasional mud huts and tents. Once in a while a patch of greenery will pop up.
We touched down at FOB Tillman, which is surrounded by mountains. One of the first things we saw upon landing was a picture of former Arizona Cardinal Pat Tillman, who left the NFL and enlisted in the Army in 2002 and was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004. The base is named in his honor.
Col. Mike Fenzel greeted us enthusiastically. FOB Tillman is so out-of-the-way that it is rarely on anyone's list to visit.
Like Tillman, Fenzel is an Army Ranger. He's closing out his 15-month tour of duty in a few days and speaks with great emotion about the 140 men under his care at FOB Tillman, which lies a stone's throw from the Pakistani border.
"I am so proud of these men," says Fenzel. "This is the height of the fighting season. We were hit by 15 rockets seven days ago. Our soldiers climb these mountains every day and put constant and relentless pressure on the enemy. I am so proud of the pride and honor they display every day."
Just the previous day, eight kilometers to the north, 70 soldiers were engaged in combat in an area known as the South Spera District.
Col. Fenzel also took us by a memorial area to the 12 heroes who were killed during his time at the base. He noted them all with great admiration, respect and honor.
One of the many soldiers happy to see us today was Sgt. Andrew Stone. He is from Delta Company-26 out of Fort Bragg. His job is guardian of the FOB -- to track incoming rockets by radar.
"We all appreciate you all coming out here," says Stone. "This is very exciting for us. It means so much to be remembered by people back home."
Stone has four family members serving in southwest Asia including two brothers in Iraq. And just as I was about to say goodbye, he said, "And I almost forgot, my brother-in-law is also here with me." Sgt. Gary Cooper is his brother -- through family and military ties.
Stone is looking forward to taking leave to be on hand for the birth of his daughter in October.
For the entire travel party and especially those from the NFL, the visit to FOB Tillman was very special.
Before we had to leave, Drew, who has an adventurous spirit, agreed to be tethered to the tail of the Shinook -- the back of the helo that stays down while airborne. It has a 50 cal machine gun mounted in the middle of the very edge. He was filming for NFL Network and pleasure.
We lifted off quickly and for the first 20 minutes or so the ride was fairly calm with only a couple of bumps. It was calm enough and the terrain open enough for Drew to pop off a dozen rounds or so on the 50 cal. Osi, who was sleeping, awoke wide-eyed. Later he said to Drew: "We're in a war zone, dude, and you wake me up with gunfire!"
Shortly thereafter we began to experience turbulence. Afghanistan is all mountains and canyons, so as we would fly around the corner of a mountain we'd get hit by winds from several directions. Updrafts, downdrafts, sideways. The pilot said afterwards he had never flown in such windy conditions before.
We had never been more pleased to put our feet on terra firma, but any euphoria was quickly dispatched when we learned that a Fallen Comrade Ceremony was taking place for two soldiers killed in action.
The entire base came to a halt and soldiers lined the path taken by the vehicle bearing the caskets of the fallen to the waiting plane to transport them home. Chilling.
After regrouping, everyone retired to the Pat Tillman Center for the final meet-and-greet of the tour.
It was an incredible day in so many ways. One measure of success might be a comment made by Admiral Mullen later this evening: "You brought smiles to their faces. Thank you."