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. Following is Krichavsky's Day 6 blog:
Witherspoon's blog from Iraq
Day 6 of the 2009 NFL-USO tour found us in the same location as Day 5, Al Asad Air Base in Western Iraq. The sandstorm that had prevented us from traveling further west the previous day grounded us on Day 6, but it did not deter us from having a great day and visiting with hundreds of troops, including one of the most elite fighting forces in the world. More on that experience to follow.
First though, it's worth pointing out that one of the upsides of having a longer stay at a single base, as we did at Al Asad due to the weather, is that you start to get a feel for the rhythm of life at the base and understand what the daily existence is like for an average soldier, Marine, airman, or sailor (every branch of service is represented at Al Asad). Even more special is you become "family" with the escorts who are assigned to take care of you -- you travel together, you share all meals together, and you come to rely on each other. Special thanks to our family at Al Asad, including: Cpt Joshua Daniels, SSgt Raymondhan Maeang, Gy Sgt Bobby Cirino, and Gy Sgt Rick Dengler. Gy Sgt Dengler was our host at our lodging quarters, a new VIP building designed to house everyone from the president to senators to Iraqi dignitaries. We didn't stay in the presidential suite, but rather very nice bunk rooms. The players slept in one, and the support team in a second. Sleeping in a bunk room led Larry to note, "Man, I can't remember the last time I slept in a room with four other people."
(An aside: You may be asking why "four other people," not just three other people -- Will, Danny and Jared? The answer is that the players were talking late into the night with a young Marine who was struggling a bit to find his way. This Marine had enlisted at age 17 and was now grappling with life in the Marine Corps and life afterwards. The four players were up chatting with him "just about life" until 4 a.m., according to Danny, and then told him to sleep on one of the extra beds in their room rather than have to travel back across the large base at that very early hour. These are the great stories that seem to emerge every day on a USO tour.)
One of the highlights of Day 6 was a delicious lunch that the players shared with a group of troops. As it turned out, there was supposed to be a high-level meeting that day on base between leading Iraqi generals and our top brass. Just as our USO group couldn't leave Al Asad due to the sandstorms, the Iraqi generals couldn't make it to the base because of the swirling dust that turned the air and sky pink. The meeting was cancelled, but a ceremonial meal had already been prepared. The decision was made to treat the NFL players and a group of approximately 30 deserving troops to this feast of lamb, chicken, beef, rice, and pita bread with all the fixings. "That DFAC (dining facility) stuff isn't bad, but I could really get used to eating like this," Danny Clark said. I could only imagine how much more the troops enjoyed the special treat.
After lunch, the players traveled to several different duty posts on base to say hello and sign autographs for the servicemen and women there. Stops included the radar center which monitors and controls the air space for all of Iraq, and a visit with a maintenance unit for the MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles, the heavily-armored fighting vehicles that our troops take on missions "outside the wire." The four players very much enjoyed getting to climb in and around the hulking machines.
From there, our group had the opportunity to travel to an undisclosed location to meet with a company of Navy SEALs. As per their reputation, SEALs are the best of the best. The training that they go through is legendary. And they are constantly tested by being given the most difficult missions -- and they nearly always succeed. Being a covert Special Forces team, the Navy SEALs live in a location unknown to the rest of our troops and the world. They have their own compound which has the latest information and communications technology. For every single SEAL on a mission there needs to be at least one person in a support role (not on the ground) providing help with intelligence, communications, logistics, etc.
Larry, Will, Danny, and Jared were clearly awed by the SEALs. As Will mentioned afterwards, NFL players know greatness when they see it, and the players recognized that they were in the presence of greatness -- guys who operate with absolute physical and mental precision in extraordinarily cohesive teams. The parallels to professional sports and particularly the game of football are very apparent. But the stakes are so very different, particularly with the high-risk missions that SEALs regularly execute.
While our guys were extremely impressed with the SEALs, the appreciation of greatness was surely going in both directions during our visit, as the SEALs were just as eager to get autographs and pictures from the four NFL players as all the other troops we had met with. We spent a couple of hours with the SEALs, swapping stories as the players signed autographs. And trust me, as interesting as it is to hear Larry talk about what was going through his head as he split the two safeties and raced down the middle of the field toward the end zone to score the go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes of the Super Bowl, it is even more interesting to listen to a Navy SEAL talk about previous missions, or the hairiest situations he has ever been in and what he did to get out of them. Needless to say, those are stories that cannot be repeated.
At the end of our visit with the SEALs, the commander of the unit gave the players SEALs coins (very cool), as well as official printed invitations to visit the SEALs' training complex in San Diego. There, our world-class football players have been challenged to compete against top SEALs in the obstacle training course. I'd like to see Larry go to head-to-head with their best after he's had a few practice runs through the obstacle course. I think it would be quite a matchup.