USO Tour blog: After long trip, NFL stars arrive in Kuwait

Published on March 7, 2009 by     Seahawk Fanatic

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Following is Krichavsky’s Day 1 blog:
Touchdown

“Welcome to Kuwait” flashed the neon lights as we exited Kuwait International Airport. And with that, the 43rd annual NFL-USO tour had finally begun.

Our group made it to Kuwait after a long day and a half of travel, but we were grateful to have all made it to the Middle East together and safely.

The four players who decided to give up time during their offseason to be part of this great NFL tradition of visiting our troops overseas are Jared Allen of the Minnesota Vikings, Danny Clark of the New York Giants, Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals, and Will Witherspoon of the St. Louis Rams.

The plan was for our group to meet at Washington Dulles International Airport and then fly together on the 12-hour flight to Kuwait. Despite the recent snow all across the northern U.S., Danny Clark and Will Witherspoon had no problems making it to Dulles from their Midwestern points of departure of Chicago and St. Louis, respectively. However, Larry and Jared — who were flying on the same flight from the desert city of Phoenix — had their flight cancelled. Luckily, we were able to reroute them through Los Angeles such that they made the flight from D.C. to Kuwait on time — although with little time to spare.
The team

Putting together a USO tour is a bit like putting together a football team — you need the right ingredients and you most definitely need team chemistry. And although it is probably not fair to judge this group after just one day — just as a coach isn’t going to declare his team Super Bowl-bound after a Week 1 performance — this group has a tremendous amount of potential, especially due to the players’ deep ties to the military and strong commitment to honoring our armed forces.

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Will Witherspoon is a self-described “Air Force Brat.” His dad served 20 years in the Air Force, stationed at various bases across the country and around the globe. Will spent eight years of his childhood living in Germany when his father was stationed there and speaks fluent German. Will’s uncle also spent his entire career in the USAF. Will and his wife had their third child shortly before Will departed for the USO tour. As we were waiting in the airport lounge to make our connecting flight to Kuwait, Will said, “I have a lot going on right now. I packed at 4 a.m. after I was up with our newborn. I figured that as long as I threw some underwear in a bag, I would be OK. But I wasn’t going to pass on the opportunity to make this trip.”

Danny Clark of the Giants has two twin brothers. They will soon turn 24. Danny’s brother Joshua, who is a Marine, will deploy in April for his third tour in Iraq. Danny’s other brother, Jason, is in the Air Force. He recently reenlisted after having served a tour in Afghanistan and he is currently doing a one-year tour in Korea. Danny spent the day before departing for the USO tour with his brother Joshua, listening to all of his war stories and making sure to pay particular attention to Joshua’s list of dos and don’ts while overseas.

Jared Allen’s military roots run deep as well. His grandfather, Ray Allen, was a Marine for 23 years, rising from the rank of private to captain and serving in World War II. Jared’s uncle just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq where he served as a medic. And perhaps closest to home for Jared, his younger brother Ronald Allen, Jr. recently enlisted in the Marine Corps. He is currently in boot camp at Camp Pendleton in California. Jared told me that “the only reason I’m not a Marine is because I could play football. Same with my dad — he played football rather than becoming a Marine. But my brother decided to quit football in order to serve.”

The fourth and final player on this year’s tour is Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals. Larry’s grandfather was a Lieutenant in the Army who won a purple heart for his service in Korea. In addition, his aunt and uncle, Paul and Sam Jones, are both Lieutenant Colonels in the Army. Larry even received a military-style education when he attended Valley Forge (Pa.) Military Academy for one year after high school. Larry’s commitment to the troops, as with the other players, runs deep. One of his goals for the trip is to make sure that our men and women overseas know that “we haven’t forgotten about them back home.”

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Coming off his record-setting postseason, Larry’s presence on our tour certainly adds to the star power of our group. Just walking through Dulles Airport in D.C., Larry was greeted every step of the way by well-wishers: “Congrats on a great season, Larry!” “We were rooting for you in the Super Bowl!” ” Are the Cardinals gonna re-sign Warner?”

My favorite moment came when Larry was trying to eat a quick sandwich during his very brief layover in D.C. An airline employee approached Larry to ask for a photo and autograph. Despite the fact that Larry was in the middle of his sub, he graciously obliged. The airline employee, perhaps realizing that he might be intruding a bit, decided to give Larry a bit more space and offered to pay for the photo op and autograph. Larry quickly declined the offer, but the peanut gallery — in this case Jared Allen, Danny Clark, and Will Witherspoon — quickly chirped in “how about first-class status for life for all four of us?”

I guess our team chemistry is coming along just fine.
Reporting for duty

As the first day of the 2009 NFL-USO tour concludes, we have arrived safely in Kuwait. Our body clocks say that it is morning, but the electronic clocks (and the night sky) say that it is evening. We are staying in a nice hotel tonight, although we know that we have military barracks as accommodations in our near future. More than anything though — even more than the fatigue after the 36 hours of traveling — we all feel the excitement and expectation of what is to come.

The NFL partners with the USO because we want to honor the service and recognize the sacrifice of our nation’s servicemen and women. The four players on this year’s tour have joined us because there is nothing they’d rather do with a part of their offseason than see what it is like to be a member of the U.S. Armed Forces and shake the hands of the people who are on the front lines. Our mission, which begins tomorrow, will be to see as many troops as we can, bring as much good will to them as possible, and make sure that they know that we support them.

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.)

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.

Day 3 of the NFL-USO Tour began with a 5:30 a.m. wakeup call, as our goal was to travel from Kuwait to Iraq and still have a full day with the troops in-country. We accomplished our mission and then some, but more on that to follow.
Clark’s blog from Iraq
New York Giants LB Danny Clark wrote his own blog post about the trip so far, and explains why teamwork in the desert means so much more than on the gridiron. More …

After a short ride to a military airbase outside Kuwait City, our group was fitted with body armor. Fortunately, the military makes XXL Kevlar vests that fit the players. We then headed to the flight line to board a C130 airplane to Iraq. At the flight line, the players signed autographs and took pictures with the crew before boarding the plane. Jared Allen found himself in a conversation with Cpl. Matt Van Ens (Call sign: Cashmere) of Lowell, Mich., a Detroit Lions fan, and Cpl. Steven Glenn (Call sign: Most Def) of Brooklyn Center, Minn., a fan of Allen’s Minnesota Vikings. The three were soon discussing the now-infamous play from a Lions-Vikings game this past season when an Allen pass rush helped cause Lions quarterback Dan Orlovsky to run out the back of the end zone. Van Ens, the Lions fan, continues to have faith in his hometown team.

The players had been briefed regarding the C130, but they didn’t fully grasp what it is like to ride in one until they entered the plane and were airborne. First, flying a C130 is loud. The four propellers cause a constant drone; it is for this reason that the crew hands you earplugs upon boarding. Riding in a C130 isn’t particularly comfortable. The “seats” are vinyl benches that are suspended from the side walls of the plane. Nevertheless, the C130 has remained the workhorse of the U.S. Military for 50 years, transporting troops and supplies wherever they are needed.

After getting settled, Larry jokingly asked Staff Sgt. Rob Hurley, one of the very hospitable crew members, about the in-flight food and beverage service, adding that he would prefer the beef entrée to the fish option. Staff Sgt. Hurley was up to the challenge, though. He came back with a handful of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) ranging from beef and broccoli to chicken pot pie to vegetable lasagna. Larry passed on the MRE, but Jared (as always) was game.

Following the direction on the MRE package, Jared added water to the entrée and waited a few minutes for the dehydrated food to constitute itself. Soon thereafter, Jared had a “breakfast” of Cajun rice, beans and sausage. “It’s awesome!” Jared explained. “If I had these [MREs], when I was in college, I would have been all set. I’m going to grab a chicken and noodle one for my dad for later.”

While Jared was enjoying the culinary delights of the U.S. military back in the hull of the C130, Danny Clark and Will Witherspoon had been invited to the cockpit to experience takeoff from the front of the plane. Will ended up staying in the cockpit for the entire 1½-hour flight. When I popped my head up there to check on him, I saw him sitting in the co-pilot’s seat. When I asked him after we deplaned if he flew the plane at all, his response was “Can’t tell you. I don’t want to get anyone in trouble.”

One thing I failed to mention about a C130 is that it is a painfully slow aircraft. Because our trip had us traveling the entire width of the country of Iraq, from the eastern border with Kuwait to our destination on the far western boarder with Syria and Jordan, we thankfully only took the C130 halfway to our destination. We made our “connecting flight” at Al Asad Airfield in central Iraq, just west of Baghdad. There, we picked up a CD Osprey Marine helicopter that zipped us to our destination, Camp Korean Village.
In the suburbs of nowhere

Camp Korean Village (CKV) is pretty close to the middle of nowhere. It sits at the far western edge of Iraq, at the country’s three-point border with Syria and Jordan. In every direction you look from CKV, sand colors the horizon.

The one landmark at CKV is a major highway that cuts through the landscape. This highway is a very strategic thoroughfare because it serves as a major transportation route for commercial goods and sometimes arms and other black-market goods. In fact, the reason CKV got its name is because Saddam Hussein brought in indentured Korean workers early during his rule to work on the highway construction project. Those Korean workers lived in the same modest cement structures that now house our Marines.

Upon landing at CKV, our group was very graciously welcomed by the base command and escorted to lunch. The DFAC staff had reserved a large table for us in the center of the room, hung football pictures and figures from the ceiling, and designed an impressive model Lombardi Trophy as our table’s centerpiece. The festive decorations were matched by the excellent chow (Mexican day: fajitas and tacos) that was declared our best DFAC food yet.

After lunch, we held a meet-and-greet for the 500 or so Marines on base. About 150 to 200 turned out to get an autograph and a photo with the players. This had to be almost every Marine who wasn’t on patrol and was free to stop by and say hello. In fact, even the battalion chaplain, the inspirational Lt. Cmdr. Kobena Arthur, stopped by to thank Jared, Danny, Larry and Will for making the trip, and he offered a prayer for their safe travels. Even the chaplain, though, didn’t leave before getting autographs and a photo with the players.

One final note on Camp Korean Village: The 2007 NFL-USO Tour actually visited this remote outpost with Tennessee Titans tight end Alge Crumpler, New England Patriots tight end Ben Watson, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Shelton Quarles and former Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Will Shields. I also was part of that tour, as was USO tour manager Jeff Anthony, who is with us again this year. Jeff — a former Marine who is not only great at his job of managing the logistics and operation of this tour but also has a deep reservoir of knowledge that he is willing to share — is a veteran of more than 50 USO tours, including at least four NFL tours.

Returning to CKV two years later and listening to the Marines’ description of their jobs made it clear to Jeff and I how much progress the U.S. has made in this region of Iraq. Our Marines are no longer participating in combat missions in most of Anbar province. The work that the Marines are doing is primarily helping the Iraqis find “Iraqi solutions to Iraqi problems,” as Maj. Byron Duke told me at CKV.

As an example, our Marines have helped the Iraqis develop local police forces, established school systems to help educate both boys and girls, worked on civil-engineering projects and helped establish government Web sites. When U.S. combat forces pull out of Iraq in August of 2010, as President Obama has indicated, these elements of civil society will be needed to support Iraq.

From Korean Village, it was back to the osprey helicopters for a wild ride back east to Camp Al Taqaddum (TQ). I’m not sure if the chopper was practicing training with us or trying to show us a good time, but the dips and twists on this flight brought both stomach discomfort and calls for more from the players.

We eventually landed at TQ (no air-sickness bags needed) and were escorted to the command center, where we met with Gen. Juan Ayala, the top-ranking officer on base. The players not only received traditional military coins from the general but also American flags that had previously been flown on the base. Our group reciprocated by giving the general a limited-edition Super Bowl XLIII game coin, a replica of the one that General Petraeus used before the game in Tampa, Fla. We also presented Gen. Ayala with an NFL football autographed by our four USO stars.

Our day ended at TQ with a meet-and-greet and the MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) center on base. After dinner, we saw a line of at least 100 people deep waiting for our players. By the end, this evening’s session attracted well over 250 Marines, each one getting time to chat with the players, take pictures and just hang out.

As the last five or so Marines came through for autographs, I looked at Larry, Jared, Will and Danny — still shaking hands, smiling and chatting away with the same enthusiasm as they had this morning. They had been up since 5:30 a.m. They were still jet-lagged. They had signed hundreds of autographs today and thousands in the past few days. They haven’t said no to a single autograph request, and I feel like they have said hello to every single service member whom they have walked past. I couldn’t be more proud of them. These guys have demonstrated over the past few days the commitment, dedication and passion for which the NFL stands.

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