NFL-USO Tour Day 6: Proud to say thank you

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.

There's an old saying about USO Tours -- you come together as strangers and go home friends for life. The more than 26 hours we spent together yesterday and today "commuting" home from Afghanistan would confirm that saying.

There are so many words one could use to describe the past six days, but "proud" and "inspired" would have to be near the top of anyone's list. Proud to be an American; proud to be associated with this tour; and inspired by the commitment and dedication of our soldiers to their missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Special thanks to Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for inviting and hosting us on this special visit. It was a privilege and honor to travel with you. We pledge to never forget the men and women serving our country and to always show our appreciation for their service at every opportunity.

NFL players are known for their charitable efforts and donation of their time. But not every player in the league could shoulder the demands of this tour. From jet lag to endless requests for photos, autographs and just plain conversation, to continual sleep deprivation, this is not a trip for someone less than totally committed.

Drew Brees and Osi Umenyiora made the league proud. The 15 scheduled appearances they made do not take into account the countless small group encounters with soldiers at meals, MWR centers or workout facilities on the bases. It is difficult to put a number on the total number of soldiers they touched, but I know this: They personally handed out every one of the 6,000-plus photos the USO brought along for their autographs. Without stretching too much, they easily met another 4,000 soldiers ... had to.

"USO" is all over this page and Rachel Tischler was all over the details of this trip. Every meet-and-greet was organized, or quickly rearranged when necessary, to ensure we met as many soldiers as possible at each stop. Thanks so much for making everything work so well, Rachel.

Dave Gatley probably took as many photos (or more) as the number of soldiers we met and stayed up into the early morning most days to send them home for this Web site. Thank you, Dave.

Tracy Thede delivered us all to Washington and returned us home, the latter with many changes. Thank you, Tracy.

The other fun part about these tours is meeting people from other walks of life that you may not get to know otherwise.

After seeing Milo Ventimiglia -- star of "Heroes" and my bunk-mate in Baghdad -- relate to the troops, I am a fan of his for life. And what about Jack Lengyel, the coach who revived the Marshall University football program and led the Naval Academy athletic department for 14 years? What a gentleman and pleasure to be around.

Deryn Derbigny and Christina Parker, members of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, you did the long history of your group proud on this, the Cowboys Cheerleaders' 66th USO overseas tour.

To Commander Vince McBeth and Commander Danny Hernandez of the chairman's staff, thank you for educating us throughout the tour and putting up with our endless questions.

Cmdr. McBeth provided one of the nicest compliments from the trip: "I like the way the Commissioner leads from the front." Thank you as well to Jermain Fox, Jim Batley and Roosevelt (Rosie) Glover also from the Chairman's staff. Please stop by our office any time.

To all our "handlers" in Afghanistan and Iraq -- the soldiers who looked after us and answered every request no matter the need -- thanks for taking such good care of us.

And finally, a heartfelt thanks to every man and woman serving our country. We are grateful to have you protecting our freedom. You make us proud. Thank you for your service to our country. Get home safely and Godspeed.

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