NFL-USO Tour: Pat Tillman's Afghanistan legacy

The NFL is continuing this March its legacy of more than 40 years of sending players overseas to visit with U.S. military troops. The NFL's Director of Community Affairs David Krichavsky is accompanying three NFL players -- San Diego Chargers defensive end Luis Castillo, Chicago Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris and Carolina Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker -- and Sports Illustrated/NBC journalist Peter King on a week-long tour to U.S. military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. As he has done before, Krichavsky will file a daily journal covering the trip:

Pat Tillman was a true American hero. The former Arizona State and Arizona Cardinals star felt compelled by the events of Sept. 11, 2001 to forsake his lucrative and envied life as a professional football player to join the elite U.S. Army Rangers to fight for freedom. Tillman never asked nor wanted to be singled out for his sacrifice and bravery. But after he died during a combat mission in Afghanistan in 2004, the NFL wanted to commemorate his legacy in some meaningful way.

Former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue came up with a fitting idea -- joining with the USO, the NFL's long-time partner in saluting the military, to build the Pat Tillman USO Center at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. NFL players Warrick Dunn and Larry Izzo officially dedicated and opened the Tillman Center in 2005. Since then, the Tillman Center has been serving as a place of rest and respite for Tillman's brothers and sisters, the men and women of the U.S. armed forces.

Last year's 12-day NFL-USO trip departed from the states with a primary goal of visiting the Pat Tillman Center. However, after spending a week in Iraq visiting the troops there, the group was stymied in its attempt to make it to Aghanistan due to bad weather. Almost exactly one year to the day after the 2007 tour attempted to make it to Afghanistan, the 2008 trip landed at Bagram Air Base, home of the Pat Tillman Center and the largest military base in Afghanistan.

There are currently 30-40,000 combat troops in Afghanistan, but there is a definite sense that the conflict here is the "forgotten war." As staff Sergeant Santiago from Binghamton, N.Y., told me, "All the attention is focused on Iraq. A lot of money is going to Iraq. But there's a lot going on here. We've done some good work here, but there is more work to be done. It feels like these NFL players recognize this."

After our group got settled and ate some chow at the DFAC (dining facility), we toured Bagram and met with as many of the soldiers as possible on the sprawling base. One of the highlights was meeting the soldiers who fly Apache attack helicopters and getting a tour of their choppers. Luis Castillo was quick to jump up into the cockpit of one Apache and marvel at the technology, including the fact that the gunner has a camera focused on his eye, and is able to aim his fire simply by looking at a specific location on the ground below.

The Apache pilots also took us to the flight simulator, where they train. Peter King and the players got to have a "virtual" experience of flying an Apache and firing its weapons. Lieutenant William Carrion, who is based out of Fort Campbell, Ky., and is a huge Tennessee Titans fans, told us that he uses the NFL schedule to mark the key dates of his tour. When the season kicks off in September, he'll have served over six months in Afghanistan. His current tour will conclude and he will get to return home right after Super Bowl XLIII in early 2009. It is for this reason that his 10- and 11-year-old kids have taken to asking him, "When's the Super Bowl? Is it soon, Daddy?"

In the evening, we did a meet-and-greet at the Pat Tillman USO Center. Peter led another roundtable conversation among the players, and then they took questions from the standing-room-only audience. It seemed like there was a strong contingent of Army soldiers in the crowd from the Chicago area, and they kept peppering Tommie Harris with questions about Rex Grossman, Brian Urlacher, Lovie Smith and the rest of 'Da Bears.

After the meet-and-greet, the group retired to our quarters for the evening. Finally, we were hoping to get more than a few hours of sleep. However, we were staying in a typical Army barracks accommodation. We were in a long room with seven bunk beds and no bathroom within spitting distance.

Exhausted after another long day, everyone hopped quickly into bed and the lights were soon off. Yet it would be a while before anyone actually fell asleep. Tommie broke the initial moment of silence by asking if anyone knew any jokes or stories. This led to a barrage of back-and-forth jokes, with Tommie and Peter serving as the primary comedians.

Peter's best offering: "A sandwich walks into a bar. The bartender says, 'Sorry, we don't serve food here.' "

Tommie's: "What do you call a deer with no eyes? I have no I-deer."

As you might imagine, I am recommending that we stick with our "football roundtable" format when trying to entertain the troops going forward, rather than switching to a standup comedy act.

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