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Changed Lives

NFL-USO Blog: The NFL’s traveling USO party – which included Buccaneer LB Shelton Quarles – felt the appreciation of the troops they’ve visited, and returned it in kind


Attack dog Kisma quickly wiped that smile off Shelton Quarles' face by

On Sunday, March 4, Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Shelton Quarles embarked on the trip of a lifetime. For 12 days, Quarles accompanied Atlanta Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler, Kansas City Chiefs guard Will Shields and New England Patriots tight end Ben Watson on a USO tour of U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. The tour continues an NFL legacy of more than 40 years that has included some of the league's greatest stars. Their mission is the same as it was in 1966, when future Hall of Famers Willie Davis, Frank Gifford, Sam Huff and Johnny Unitas visited Vietnam on the first NFL-USO tour: To say thank you to the men and women serving our nation overseas.

Also making the trip with the quartet of gridiron standouts was David Krichavsky, the league's director of community affairs, and a USO photographer. Krichavsky filed a daily blog, excerpts from which you will find below. Like his first installments, Krichavsky's second round of missives from the Persian Gulf included the thoughts of the traveling players as they moved from base to base over the weekend on their fast-paced tour. Click here and here to view some of the images sent back by the photographer.


2007 NFL-USO Tour

Day 5 – Many Stops, Much Learned

Pro football commentators have offered numerous theories for the American Football Conference's recent dominance over the National Football Conference. After all, the AFC has won the last four Super Bowls and eight of the past 10. Well, I'd like to add one new theory to the mix: the AFC is the more studious conference, while the NFC is more sociable.

This theory is based on my observations last night. When we arrived at Camp Korean Village yesterday, MSgt Gallegos and GYSgt Tomaselli showed us to our living quarters. We were given a comfortable three-room structure, and the officers at Korean Village had kindly determined our rooming assignments for us. One bedroom door had a big red sign that read AFC while the adjoining room had a blue sign marked NFC. Will and Ben would be staying in the AFC room, while Shelton and Alge were in the NFC room. The NFL and USO personnel were assigned to the third room.

Fast forward now to 2200 hours, and the players had just completed their evening meet-and-greet. After debriefing with CO (Commanding Officer) Lt. Colonel Ross for a few minutes, I returned to our lodging. Will and Ben were already in the AFC room—Will was reading and listening to music, while Ben was writing down some of his thoughts in a journal. The NFC roomies, Shelton and Alge, were nowhere to be found. I learned that they had headed off with some soldiers that they had befriended to go get haircuts. Figuring that there was little trouble that Shelton and Alge could get into on a military base, I soon thereafter went to bed, thinking that they would be back in the room as soon as I shut my eyes and dozed off.

I should have known better. Shelton and Alge ended up spending a good portion of the night with their new friends, getting haircuts, playing cards, and even turning on a couple of DVDs. According to Shelton, he and Alge did not make it back to our room until 3:00 AM. Meanwhile, Will and Ben were in the middle of a restless sleep. It might be worth remembering this, I noted to myself, next time I wonder why the AFC teams have such a high winning percentage against their conference rivals.

One thing that I've thought a lot about over the last few days here have been the many analogies that are often made between the game of football and war. The use of military lingo in our sport is well documented—there are "blitzes," "bombs," "shotgun formations."

Those of us in the football world always discourage strong parallels between what takes place on the gridiron and what takes place in a battle zone. One is a sport played for amusement; the other is a matter of life and death.

Yet as I have been in Iraq, and speaking with so many soldiers here, I have been taken back by the number of times that these soldiers have likened what they are doing and this theater of war with what happens on a football field. Yesterday at Camp Rawah, Will, Ben and I were eating with the CO at the Camp, Lt. Colonel Renforth. Colonel Renforth played football at the Naval Academy under Steve Belichick, the father of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Col. Renforth later went on to coach at the Naval Academy and served on coaching staffs with the likes of Ravens coach Brian Billick, former Dolphins coach Nick Saban, and others with strong ties to the NFL.

I sat and listened as Colonel Renforth, Will and Ben described their craft and what it takes to be successful in each: teamwork; leadership; having a good game plan and trusting in those calling the plays; repeatedly practicing with your colleagues to the point where you know what they are going to do before they even do it; and having the courage to persevere when you are tired, weary and even a little bit scared.

While I didn't walk away from the conversation thinking that football is in any way equivalent to war, I was very much surprised by how the language was so similar, as are the attributes needed to be successful. Here were three people at the very height of their respective professions -- Will and Ben as professional football players and Lt. Colonel Renforth as a CO in the U.S. Marine Corp, and the way they conversed about their jobs, you would have thought they were in the very same line of work.

When Friday morning arrived, the group was up early and on helicopters for what would be a busy day to include four stops in Anbar Province. The first was FOB (Forward Operation Base) Waled, which is at the far western edge of Iraq on the Syrian border. There are 120 Marines stationed at the FOB, and no VIPs have ever made it to this far edge of Iraq before to visit the troops.

I could only imagine what life is like for the Marines stationed here. All you can see when you look out in any direction is empty desert. Each day has the same rhythm to it: Six hours in a border patrol tower, six hours inspecting vehicles at the border. Six hours serving as part of a QRF (Quick Reaction Force) in town, and six hours of sleep. The Marines at Waled repeat this schedule day after day. As Cpl. Conner of Newport News, Virginia told Shelton and Ben as he was giving them a tour of the base, "I can't even get my parents to understand what it is like where I am. Unless you have been here and seen it, there is no way you can understand."

After receiving a tour of the base and doing a meet-and-greet with the Marines, it was time for lunch and we were in for a very special treat. The American troops in Waled have established very good relationships with the Iraqis there, and the Iraqi police have done a good job of taking control of the area. Because the base was receiving special guests from the NFL today, Colonel Hansen of Waled arranged for the Iraqis in the village to bring over a traditional Iraqi meal for us.

The Iraqis, led by Colonel ABD-AL-Areem Taled Muhammed of the Iraqi Army, brought curried goat, rice, a tomato and bean salad, and traditional Iraqi flat breads. The Iraqis then joined the NFL guests and the American Marines for the feast. I know that I have written this before in my blog, but it needs to be said again…these are the kinds of stories that we don't hear enough about back home.

After lunch we were back on the choppers, with our next destination being Al Taquaedum, a large Marine and Army base where 500 troops are stationed. Al Taquaedum (or TQ) is back toward central Iraq, located about 45 minutes west of Baghdad by chopper. It was a long two-and-a-half hour flight from Waled to TQ with our group stopping briefly to change from CH-46 choppers to C-53 Deltas.

When we arrived at the airstrip at TQ we were greeted by Brigadier General Kessler. He welcomed us to the base and we were brought over to a central gazebo where we staged a meet-and-greet. Especially after being at so many remote outposts in Western Iraq, being in TQ felt like being in a large city. It had a coffee shop, a large PX (post exchange) where troops could shop, a full basketball court and workout facility, and many other amenities.

The four players signed autographs and snapped pictures for well over 200 soldiers, Marines and even a few airmen and sailors. It was then off to the DFAC for some chow. While military food might get a bad rap, one would be very impressed by the range of options and the quality of the food at a large and well- supplied base like TQ.

After dinner we boarded a chopper for a quick flight to Ramadi. We intentionally traveled to Ramadi at night, as the city has been one of the more active areas of the insurgency and it is not completely safe to fly a chopper into Ramadi in daylight. Ramadi was scheduled to be a quick stop for us, as we would actually be spending the night back in TQ. That being said, the four players took full advantage of the couple of hours they spent in Ramadi, chatting with soldiers at the DFAC, signing over 100 autographs, and posing for countless additional photos.

We also toured the medical center where the players met a Marine who had been wounded in the arm while on patrol earlier today. This Marine's staff sergeant wasn't as lucky as he had been killed in the fight. It was hard for us to fathom it, but it is the daily reality around here…life can be lost in just a fleeting instant.

I hate to end the day's dispatch on such a somber note, but there is no escaping reality in a war zone.

Days 6-7: Weekend Review

The weekend found the NFL-USO tour en route from Iraq to Afghanistan, or in terms of conflicts, going from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation Enduring Freedom. Our transition wasn't the quickest or smoothest journey ever, but more on that to come.

Our journey from Iraq to Afghanistan was scheduled to travel through Kuwait. Geographically, the distance from Iraq to Afghanistan isn't all that great. But a straight shot trip would require flying over Iran, which is not considered friendly airspace right now. Hence, one has to fly south of Iran over the Persian Gulf and then back North to Afghanistan.

If only it had been that easy for us. Our trip began on Saturday morning with a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call at Camp Al Taquaddum (TQ) where we had stayed the pervious night. We had to be on the flight line for our scheduled trip to Kuwait City at 6:00 a.m., and given that we hadn't returned from Ramadi and gone to sleep until 1:00 a.m. the previous night, the guys were definitely feeling tired.

Once on the airbase we waited for our plane. And waited some more. Over five hours passed between when we arrived at the airstrip and when our plane arrived. Fortunately, the lounge where we were waiting had ESPN which allowed Alge (a University of North Carolina alumna) to catch part of the Tar Heels' basketball game in the ACC conference tournament. However, by the time we left that waiting room, we had watched replays of the same SportsCenter so many times that we could recite the hosts' lines before they said them.

Our plan was to spend the night in Kuwait City, rest up, and then depart to Afghanistan in the morning. We would arrive in Afghanistan by late afternoon and visit the Pat Tillman USO Center at Baghram Air Force base in the evening.

We were on schedule to do just that until we woke up on Sunday morning only to learn that our flight had been "bumped." The C-17 that was scheduled to fly from Afghanistan to Kuwait City to drop off supplies and then pick us up for the end trip wouldn't be coming to Kuwait at all. The only explanation we received was that the plane was needed for another mission.

As I mentioned in this blog after our travels had been delayed in Baghdad, it is very hard to complain when you are in a war zone and a plane gets redeployed for military reasons. The next flight from Kuwait City to Afghanistan wasn't until 2:00 a.m. Monday morning. This meant that we would be flying overnight and would need to hit the ground running when we landed in order recapture as much of the lost time as possible.

It is worth noting that the very first question or comment that I got from any of the four players when I gave them the news that our flight to Afghanistan had been pushed back 14 hours to 2:00 a.m. was Alge's concerned inquiry, "We're still going to be able to visit the Pat Tillman center, right?"

For me, that question perfectly summed up how these four men have approached this trip - they wanted to see as many soldiers as possible, regardless of the sacrifices that were required from them. Alge's question also gave me a good preview of the connection that these NFL players feel to Pat Tillman, the former member of their football fraternity who joined another and perhaps even more exclusive fraternity, the U.S. Army Rangers.

Travel difficulties aside, our stop in Kuwait between the Iraq and Afghanistan portions of our trip was a natural time for us to take a step back and reflect. All eight members of our traveling party went out for a nice steak dinner (our first non-DFAC meal since the trip began) on Saturday night, and the conversation naturally centered on what we had seen and experienced.

"It has been amazing to see how much the soldiers appreciate our visits," Will Shields said. "Just an autograph or a picture makes their day. I feel lucky just to be a part of a trip like this."

Ben Watson echoed the sentiment when he told us of a young soldier he had met at one our stops in Iraq who grew up just outside Boston and was a lifelong Patriots fan. This soldier had e-mailed a picture that he took with Ben to his parents back home. The soldier's parents in turn forwarded the e-mail to the Patriots with a note saying that their son's e-mail, in which he told of meeting Ben, was the single most positive piece of communication that they had received from their son since he had been deployed.

"It was a good thing that the Patriots forwarded that e-mail from the kid's parents along to me," Ben confided in me later. "I was starting to get tired, but that e-mail gave me a new source of energy. It reminded me of why I decided to come all the way out here."

A couple of themes emerged from our group's conversations at dinner, but one seemed to stand out: gratitude. The gratitude our four players have to be able to experience this kind of trip; the gratitude that they have to be part of the NFL family, which gives them the platform to have a significant impact on others and also enjoy the material comforts that so few around the world possess; the gratitude the troops have for our players traveling halfway around the world to say thank you; and the gratitude that we should all have to be Americans and enjoy the freedoms that we do.

Despite the travel inconveniences and our new departure time of 2:00 a.m., we were determined for Sunday not to become a lost day. Although it was hard to cobble together plans on a Sunday when many U.S. army bases in non-combat areas such as Kuwait take the day off, we were able to set up a meet-and-greet at an undisclosed military base located just a short drive from Kuwait City by car. This base serves as a major transport hub for troops and supplies heading into or out of Iraq.

Even without any advance notice, the turnout for the meet-and-greet was very good. We set up an autograph line at a rec center by the barracks and word seemed to spread quickly that NFL players were on site. There was a steady line of troops for over an hour-and-a-half, and every single one walked away with an autographed mini-football, picture or t-shirt.

The highlight of the visit, though, came after the formal meet-and-greet was over and everyone had received an autograph. The NFL players spent the next couple of hours hanging out with the troops at the rec center. Alge challenged any and all takers in ping pong, while Shelton worked the pool table. Will and Ben could be found talking to groups of soldiers and then a large game of cards broke out (spades was the game of choice). The interaction between the players and the troops was so natural, just four guys hanging out with other men and women, passing time on a lazy Sunday night.

In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if some young soldier from Kansas City sends an e-mail to his parents tonight and it begins, "Guess what happened to me today! Will Shields visited our base here. I played him in a game of chess, and…"

And as Sergeant Thomas of Dallas, Texas told me, "We weren't expecting this visit at all, but it is a welcome diversion from the daily grind for us."

Well, we weren't expecting to make this visit either. But those of us on the NFL-USO trip were all very glad to be able to make it happen, pushing forward on our mission to bring as many smiles to as many troops as possible.

Final Blog

The final leg of the NFL-USO tour found us at Manas Air Force Base in the former Soviet Republic of Kyrgyzstan. Manas is a major staging point for troops and supplies heading into and out of Afghanistan.

Truth be told, we didn't just visit Manas AB; we made it our home. As a result of travel difficulties, we remained in Manas for three days, hoping for the weather to clear and a flight to materialize that would get us to Afghanistan, and in particular, to the Pat Tillman USO Center at Baghram Air Base. The Tillman Center was funded in part by the NFL and dedicated in 2005 during the NFL- USO trip with New England Patriot Larry Izzo and Atlanta Falcon Warrick Dunn.

While circumstances didn't align for us to make it to Afghanistan, the upside is that we became fully integrated into the daily routine of a GI at Manas. "Man, this place feels like home at this point," Ben Watson explained.

We lifted weights with the soldiers at the gym on base, we got to know the cooks at the DFAC, and we even learned which showers had the best water pressure. Most important perhaps, the players formed real relationships with the troops on the base, with their interactions going far beyond just the usual handshakes and smiles. "We really got to know some of the men and women there," Alge Crumpler said. "It was disappointing that we didn't make it to the Tillman Center. But being in Kyrgyzstan for a bunch of days gave us the opportunity to learn what life is like on a base."

One of the "mission critical" locations on base -- at least for the troops stationed there -- is Pete's Tavern. Pete's is your typical bar, except that patrons are limited to no more than two alcoholic drinks in any 24-hour period. Despite the limitations put in place by the military though, the troops at Manas consider themselves lucky. None of the soldiers stationed in the Persian Gulf have any access to alcohol at all due to the Islamic nature of those countries. The NFL players spent two consecutive nights at Pete's, although they never got around to having their two drinks per night due to all the "meeting and greeting" that they did.

We also got to do a number of different, interesting things at Manas, due to our extended time there. The players toured the flight line, where we got a demonstration of how KC-35s perform mid-air refueling missions. The squadron that flies the KC-35s is based out of Fairchild, Washington and includes a number of big Seattle Seahawks fans. In fact, the members of the squadron have demonstrated their support for the home town team by adorning their planes with large Seahawks logos. Furthermore, some of the pilots in the squadron had been stationed at Manas at this time last year, when Seattle Seahawk Bryce Fisher visited as part of the 2006 NFL-USO tour.

Another stop we made on base was at the K9 center, where the Air Force trains attack dogs. Upon our arrival, the trainers at the K9 center told us that they intended to do a demonstration for us and asked for a volunteer to serve as a "decoy." I've never seen four guys drop their eyes to the floor faster than our "fearless" NFL stars. "I made it through Iraq and mortar attacks. I'm not messing around with attack dogs," Ben Watson said in response to why he was not willing to volunteer.

Shelton finally built up the nerve to quote, "take one for the team," and participate in the demonstration. He put on a full body suit of protective clothing, as the attack dog barked and quivered at the thought of going after him. Needless to say, Will, Alge, and Ben had great fun at Shelton's expense as he suited up, telling Shelton that the dog was going to "house" him. TSg Paille, who heads the K9 unit, had told the guys that it was called getting "housed" when the attack dog drops the "decoy" to the ground.

While Shelton may be used to colliding with ball carriers on the football field, the force of the impact with Kisma, the attack dog, indeed "housed" him. Shelton hit the ground and Kisma began dragging him through the dirt with the grip of her teeth as the other NFL players cheered her on. "I used to be a dog lover," Shelton said when he finally made it to his feet. "But it is time for me to reevaluate that."

At every stop that the players made at Manas Airbase they were greeted by appreciative troops who welcomed the "slice of home" that the players represented. As Sergeant Zach Palmer of the 376 Expeditionary Air Force Maintenance Squadron (or the "West Coast Tankers" as they have dubbed themselves) said, "These guys don't have to be here. It is their offseason, and I bet there are 1,000 other things they could be doing right now. This means a lot to us." The thanks went both ways though, of course. Nearly every autograph that Shelton signed included the inscription, "Thanks for doing what you do to keep us safe." (Of course, he also often found the space to scrawl, "Go Bucs!")

The players had the final evening of the tour to themselves before departing for the airport at 3:30 AM on Thursday morning. Our long trip home would begin in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, travel through Moscow, and then on to points in the United States including New York; Washington, DC; Atlanta; Tampa and Kansas City.

Just like a player who says it will take weeks, months, or perhaps longer to really assess what it means for him to win a Super Bowl, I don't think that any of us will be able to accurately assess the meaning of this trip until we have the benefit of time, distance and perspective. But I do think that it's safe to say that we are all changed individuals for having seen what we have seen, heard what we have heard, and experienced what we experienced.

There is no question that many images from the 2007 NFL-USO tour will remain in our memories for the rest of lives. There is such a range of images to choose from, with so many memories to recall. After all, we traveled by C-130, C-17, Chinook and Sea Stallion Choppers, Humvee, tank, and even fire truck.

The players signed thousands of autographs and took hundreds upon hundreds of pictures. Countless Patriots fans tried on Ben's Super Bowl ring, while nearly as many talked North Carolina hoops with Alge. Will took a picture with a soldier who had KC tattooed on his forearm and signed numerous pieces of University of Nebraska paraphernalia for fans of his alma mater in Lincoln. Shelton even met a group of airmen who had been at a Bucs preseason practice at MacDill Air Force base in Tampa this past season

The NFL-USO group stayed in relative luxury in Kuwait city, as well as relative squalor in some of the remote FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) in Iraq. We walked through the "moon dust" in Barwanah, and we listened as snipers described their craft to us in Al Qaim. We ate Iraqi food on the Syrian border at Waleed, barbequed with the soldiers at Camp Rawah, ate steak in Kuwait City, and plenty of DFAC "chow." We witnessed a marine's reenlistment ceremony, as well as a memorial service for Corporal Ellis. We got "coined" by the commanding general in Baghdad, General Odierno.

The list of memories could go on forever…

The players sat on Saddam Hussein's throne (which was a gift from Yasser Arafat), and they sat on metal folding chairs in concrete airplane hangers. The players competed with soldiers in pool, ping pong, basketball, poker, spades chess; and in many cases, the NFL players came out on top. Shelton volunteered to take on an attack dog, and he most decidedly lost. Our travels were delayed as a result of weather and mechanical problems. (Hint: if you ever want a tour of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, ask Alge, Shelton, Will or Ben.)

But more than anything else, I think we will all remember the troops we visited and the smiles we brought to their faces. If only for a few minutes, we helped many troops forget that they were in a war zone. We brought a piece of home to the soldiers, and we made them realize that folks back home had not forgotten about them.

If is only fitting that one of the players has the last words in this blog, because without their commitment to this trip, none of our successes would have been possible. On behalf of all four players, Shelton reflects on the past 12 days:

*As I reflect on our USO tour of Iraq, Kuwait and Kyrgyzstan, I realize there are only two words that accurately describe our time overseas: life changing. My life will be forever changed because of the things we witnessed. The troops' dedication is unparalleled. They make sacrifices every day to keep us free and provide freedom for others. They spend time away from family and friends, live in conditions that we wouldn't ask an enemy to brave, and eat just enough to make it to the next meal. I constantly found myself in awe at their commitment to each other and to our country.

There are many analogies made between football and our military. One in particular that summed it up the best, centered on "gameday." As football players, we have one game a week that we must prepare for, but for our troops, every day is gameday. If they are not prepared as they enter the battlefield, lives will be lost.

I felt a closeness to a few of the solders I met that I didn't expect. We have already e-mailed each other several times since meeting, and we plan on connecting again once they get stateside. I believe that we are taken certain places and go through things in life for certain reasons. I know that the people that I bonded with overseas were put in my life for a reason – life changing.

In closing, I greatly admire the courage and determination of our troops. We will pray for their safety and victory daily.*

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