USO Tour blog: A meet-and-greet session with soldiers

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 four NFL players -- Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, New York Giants linebacker Danny Clark, Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, and St. Louis Rams linebacker Will Witherspoon -- on a week-long tour to U.S. military bases in Iraq and Kuwait.

Witherspoon's blog from Iraq

St. Louis Rams LB Will Witherspoon wrote his own blog post about the trip so far, including the camaraderie between the players and soldiers in the Persian Gulf. More ...

The following is Krichavsky's Day 4 blog:

Last night was our first night sleeping on a military base on Iraqi soil. After a couple of nights in Western-style hotels in Kuwait, our group of NFL players got a much better sense of the life of a U.S. soldier or Marine in the Middle East.

Our meet-and-greet at Camp Al Taquaddum ended around 21:00, giving the players a bit of free time before bed. Jared Allen chose to go to the gym on base. Before Jared committed to going on this USO tour, I had to convince him of two things: 1) He'd be able to work out, and 2) He'd be able to eat well as per his "March diet." (Jared makes sure he is eating healthy to get his body in top shape beginning in March.) Well, NFC quarterbacks beware -- Jared appears to be preparing for another monster season. The Marines in the weight room last night reported that they had a great lifting session with Jared.

Danny and Will took advantage of the spare time to further tour the base and hang out with some of the Marines we had met earlier. They visited the base's rec room and played some pool, although I don't think they participated in the karaoke that was also taking place there.

As for Larry, he remained in the meet-and-greet room well after the session ended, chatting with all of his well-wishers who wanted to hear more about the Cardinals' exciting run to the Super Bowl.

Eventually, all four players made it back to their rooms to get some sleep. We were staying in the base's DV (Distinguished Visitors) quarters, which were considerably nicer than the Marines' accommodations, but certainly nothing luxurious. Each of us had a single room in a temporary, trailer-like structure. The rooms were approximately 15x12 feet and contained little more than a bed and a dresser. The rooms were comfortable and the toilets were only a short walk away -- no one was complaining.

The one thing I don't think I would ever get used to if I were a soldier in a combat zone would be lying down in bed at night only to listen to the sounds of war. Throughout our night at Al Taquaddum, cargo planes were roaring at takeoff and landing, helicopters were buzzing overhead, and perhaps even an occasional mortar round was fired off. Hearing these noises while lying in bed is a very stark reminder of the realities of war. The noises also don't make it easy to fall asleep or stay asleep as our group certainly noted at breakfast.

After breakfast we were back on the Ospreys for a 45-minute trip to the northwest at Camp Rawah. We held a lively meet-and-greet at Rawah as the troops were very excited to get guests at the remote outpost. One Marine brought his dog to the meet-and-greet. Not knowing that this animal was an attack dog, Will Witherspoon went to pet the relatively cute-looking dog. Needless to say, the dog nearly took off half of Will's arm, which wasn't as funny as watching Larry jump out the back door of the room in a move as quick and athletic as anything you'll ever see him do on the football field.

Our introduction to this attack dog, named Rex, led to an invitation for our group to come visit the K-9 compound after lunch. Our helpful escort, Srgt. Garcia, brought us to the K-9 area, where the dog trainers briefed us on the work that they do. The dogs that they train are not only military attack dogs, but they are also bomb-sniffing dogs capable of locating explosives in the desert.

Next it was back to the LZ (Landing Zone) at Camp Rawah to catch a helicopter to our next base, Camp Ramadi. Ramadi is the capital of the Al Anbar province and another one of the great success stories that exists in western Iraq. Ramadi, as recently as two years ago, was one of the hotspots of the Iraqi insurgency. It is now a city where we are working with the local governments to prepare it for autonomy.

At Camp Ramadi, we first had a "command call" in which we had an opportunity to visit with the senior officers on base, Colonel Ronald Capral and Command Srgt. Major Robert Sweeney. We exchanged coins with them, giving them both Super Bowl XLIII replica game coins. After dinner at the DFAC (dining facility), we hosted a meet-and-greet at Camp Ramadi's central gathering spot. For the first time on this tour, we resurrected a concept that had been very successful on last year's NFL-USO tour. That is, before signing autographs for the troops who assembled for the meet-and-greet, we hosted a "football roundtable" in which we moderated a panel discussion among our players about all things regarding the NFL-USO tour and NFL football. The troops also had the opportunity to ask the players things that they were curious about.

This roundtable format was very entertaining and enlightening for all. There were many highlights, including:

» Jared Allen on coming on this NFL-USO tour: It has been one of the best experiences of my life -- something that I'll never forget. We as players probably get more out of it than you do as soldiers and Marines.

» Larry Fitzgerald on the best thing about being a professional football player: Getting to work in a job that you absolutely love. I'm a football player and I love being a football player. They are probably going to have to drag me away from this game.

» Danny Clark on the best thing about being a football player: Being able to uplift people and help others. To come visit you guys, to do work in the community in my hometown of Chicago -- that kind of stuff keeps me going.

» Will Witherspoon on which branch of service he would join if he enlisted: I have so much respect for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. But my dad was in the Air Force for more than 20 years. I would have to stick with the Air Force. (This was followed by loud jeers from the crowd that consisted nearly entirely of Army soldiers and Marines.)

» Jared Allen on who was his favorite quarterback to sack, and who was the hardest quarterback to sack: Easy, they are the same person -- Peyton Manning.

Following the football roundtable discussion, the players signed autographs for all 250 of the service members who had come to see them. We were also able to hand out hats and T-shirts so that no one went home empty-handed from the event.

Our players did not go home empty-handed either, although some of them almost went home bare-chested. Jared went to the meet-and-greet wearing a Minnesota Vikings T-shirt that LCPL Ashley Meyer, who is a big Vikings fan from Duluth, Minn. complimented. Jared offered her the T-shirt off his back, an offer that she accepted only after she traded him a XXL classic gray Army T-shirt that fit Jared extremely well. Similarly, Will Witherspoon gave up the T-shirt that he had been wearing and autographed it for a Marine, replacing his shirt with an NFL T-shirt that we had brought along.

NFL players literally giving the shirts off their backs to support the troops -- it must be the annual NFL-USO tour.

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