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USO Tour blog: Running into old friends in the middle of the desert

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 2 blog:

Day two of the 2009 NFL-USO tour began somewhere between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. for most of the members of the tour as the group struggled to adjust to the eight-hour time difference from Eastern Standard Time. And while I saw a few yawns today and even a couple of cat naps while we were in transit, fatigue did not deter the group from having a jam-packed day with the troops. (Note: Larry Fitzgerald is a world-class receiver, but he seems to be an even better sleeper. "The best talent God gave me is the ability to fall asleep anywhere, any time," Larry notes proudly.)

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2009 NFL USO tour

Our first stop on day two was Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, which is the largest military base in the Middle East. It serves as a major staging point for all troops and supplies going into Iraq for OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom) as well as many supplies going into Afghanistan for OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom). Arifjan is a small town in itself -- up to 8,000 troops are on the base at any time and over 57,000 troops pass through it per year. It is also a lucrative "town" for the U.S. Kuwait pays our government $500 million per year to maintain a military presence at Arifjan and at other locations in the country to deter potential enemies from invading the oil-rich nation, just as Saddam Hussein did in 1991.

At Arifjan, we first visited and received a briefing from Lieutenant Colonel Luis Jones, the chief of staff on the base and one of the most honest and generous officers around. Special thanks to Lieutenant Colonel Jones for going out of his way during our stay in Kuwait to assist our group. After we were "coined" by the Lieutenant Colonel, the players spent 30 minutes signing autographs, taking pictures, and chatting with the staff at the command center. Then we moved on to the hospital on base -- where nearly all injured troops in Kuwait are treated. This visit proved beneficial to all. Our four players signed autographs and brought a bit of positive energy to all of the patients and staff at the hospital. Will Witherspoon received some medical training -- which will prove helpful should he decide to pursue a career in medicine after his football days are over -- as he practiced applying sutures to a model arm (that appeared and felt very life-like).

Running a bit late on our schedule, our group opted to skip lunch and go directly to a pre-arranged meet-and-greet at the Arifjan Zone 1 MWR (morale, welfare, and recreation) Center. When we arrived (less than five minutes late), the room -- which was already filled with at least 150 troops waiting to meet the players -- thundered with applause. In total, over 300 soldiers or Marines came through the MWR Center during our meet-and-greet session, and every single one of them left with an autograph and a photo. Larry even graciously offered a handshake and a congratulatory "you guys played a great game" to Specialist Alexander Moultrie, a huge Steelers fan from Charleston, South Carolina.

It's a small world

One of the great things about NFL-USO Tours is that you always end up bumping into friends or NFL family members halfway across the world in the middle of a war zone. Last year, Bears DT Tommie Harris met an Army officer who had served with his father 15 years earlier. We also bumped into Robert Tagliabue, the nephew of former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

But day two of the NFL-USO Tour 2009 broke new ground in terms of fortuitous encounters. First, as our group of NFL players was crossing a paved road at Camp Arifjan, a car came to an abrupt stop in the middle of the road. There was no red light, nor any debris impeding progress. But rather, it was a friend of Danny Clark's who had lived in Jacksonville while Danny played for the Jaguars from 2000 through 2003. They hadn't seen each other in six years, only to meet up in the desert of Kuwait.

That was relatively tame compared to the meeting between Larry Fitzgerald and his cousin Emelda Hadley, a defense contractor stationed in Kuwait whom Larry had not seen in several years. Although Miss Hadley mostly remembered Larry as "the boy who would run around and get in trouble," she was sure to emphasize how proud she was of the success that Larry had achieved on the football field and the man that he has become off the field, especially in the way that he has kept his late mother's legacy alive. Larry and Miss Hadley parted ways after a long conversation, promising to see each other at the next family reunion in July.

One experience after another -- they kept coming on day two. From Arifjan, we traveled by SUV to Kuwait Naval Base (KNB), an installation that is operated by a unit of sailors who nearly all hail from Hawaii. Our Pro Bowl players were right away at home with the greetings of "aloha!" and expressions of "mahalo". There was plenty of agreement on both sides that the Pro Bowl should have a future on the beautiful islands of Hawaii.

Adrenaline rush

After receiving a briefing about KNB, the players were able to get a ride on one of the Navy's smaller, quick strike boats. This vessel, a 34-foot CR-Sea Ark with a special jet motor, was captained by E5 Rob Kohl, a Broncos fan from Los Angeles. E5 Kohl first gently piloted the boat out of the harbor for us and then revved up the engine to perform a few training tactics which included accelerating the boat to top speed (40 knots) and making sharp turns in either direction. E5 Kohl also gave the players a chance to pilot the boat, an opportunity that Will Witherspoon and Jared Allen jumped at. Jared was a natural in the cockpit right away, and Will only needed a few tries to figure out how to maneuver the vessel.

Our group signed autographs and took pictures with the entire crew and dock staff before departing. The boat ride was a definite highlight of the day. It got the players' adrenaline pumping again when fatigue and jet lag might have kicked in.

From the dock it was over to the DFAC (dining facility) for a quick dinner and then off to our evening meet and greet. Dinner tonight was the group's first meal at a DFAC. Nearly all of our meals from here on out will be on military bases. Reviews that came in after our first chow with the troops ranged from "better than expected" to "pretty good." We'll see how the reviews fare later in the week.

The day ended with a meet and greet at Camp Patriot that saw more than 150 troops come to see the players. The evening started with autographs and photos but ended with our players throwing long passes to troops to see who could reenact the best Larry Fitzgerald touchdown catch. Towards the end I heard one naval officer say that it was getting too easy so he suggested adding a Jared Allen pass rush, or putting Will Witherspoon or Danny Clark in underneath coverage.

These sort of unscripted interactions are really what the USO tours are all about. The NFL recognizes that our games provide a great deal of entertainment and diversion for troops during the season. Srg. Christopher Cleighorn said of Camp Arifjan earlier today, "Football is how we get through the fall and winter. It's how we relax and have fun. When the games come on, it's how we mark that another week has passed."

Our USO tours during the offseason attempt to serve as a personal extension of that, but I think our troops on the frontline know that we support them throughout the year and that we'll be there to support them until the mission is done.

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