Members of the 810th Military Police Company, based in Tampa and currently stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan, were given the special opportunity to connect with Buccaneers center Evan Dietrich-Smith, linebacker Dane Fletcher, defensive lineman Will Gholston, linebacker Ka'Lial Glaud, and defensive back Keith Tandy through video games and skype, providing a memorable experience for both parties, foreign and domestic.
"My brother was in the military and so was my sister, so anytime I get a chance to do anything with the military, I'm always more than willing," said Tandy. "But the fact that it was video games, it's the era we grew up in, so it's a way for us to connect with them. We all play video games, so it was kind of the perfect situation."
Pro vs. GI Joe, established in 2008, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to coordinating real-time, interactive video game sessions between professional athletes, celebrities, and troops stationed all over the world. Though previous collaborations with the nonprofit group had taken place at One Buccaneer Place, Tuesday's event was the first Pro vs. GI Joe session hosted at the USO Welcome Center at Tampa International Airport.
Through a strengthened relationship with USO Central Florida, the Buccaneers have supported the center through "Welcome Home" greetings, team merchandise, and other unique efforts. The Buccaneers-themed lounge, complete with framed jerseys, a wall-sized photo of Raymond James Stadium, and a Buccaneers-USO welcome mat, offers complimentary food and beverages, gaming stations, children's activities, and rest areas for military members, veterans, and their families as they travel through Tampa International Airport.
"This is an absolute first for us," said Amy Phillips, Center Operations and Programs Manager for USO Central Florida. "To have this reach across the world, thanks to the Buccaneers, is amazing, and to see how it lifts the spirits of those troops that are deployed and who are risking their lives for us overseas, to let them have a little brief respite and fun with players that they respect, it is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
That experience surely rang true for one family in attendance, as Kristina Hill, invited to attend the unique event, watched alongside the Buccaneers players as her husband, Captain Dana Hill, participated live from Afghanistan. A Tampa police officer also in the Army Reserves, Hill has been away since May while serving his first deployment.
"I think it's really great," said the wife and mother of two. "It gives him a break. He's been working a lot, but it's good. He likes video games and the Bucs, so it's a good thing.
The morning was equally memorable for Arquavious Brown, a 24-year-old raised in St. Petersburg, FL. Brown, patiently waiting for his flight to Fort Benning, GA., to start Basic Training in the Army, was pleasantly surprised when five Tampa Bay Buccaneers walked into the USO Welcome Center as he embarked on his journey.
"I was shocked," said Brown. "I wasn't expecting that. I watch those guys and look up to them. They work hard at what they do and entertain us."
The Bucs visited the USO Welcome Center at Tampa International Airport to connect with Tampa-based troops serving abroad through Pro vs GI Joe video game sessions between athletes and troops stationed all over the world.
Along with the USO Welcome Center, USO Central Florida serves as the team's primary charitable conduit to the local military community, working closely with the Buccaneers in securing the team's military "Hero of the Game" and "Salute to Service Suite" honorees, as well as helping to distribute complimentary tickets each season to Tampa Bay military members and their families.
"Our job at the USO is to be a link between the community and the military," added Phillips. "To be able to help the Buccaneers integrate with our military community and to let our military see the appreciation that comes from this organization and how much they support what our local troops do, it is outstanding."
For Brown, who had the opportunity to play the video game "Call of Duty: Ghosts" with Dietrich-Smith for more than half an hour, the wait for an important flight turned to be significant in and of itself.
"I was nervous about going to basic training, but seeing these guys come in, it calmed me down and motivated me to go through basic training," said Brown. "I'm not as nervous now."