From March 14-21, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph took part in an NFL-USO tour of the Middle East, bringing support, encouragement and a taste of home to U.S. troops serving abroad. Part of a star-studded crew that also included Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, Cleveland Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, Broncos linebacker Von Miller, Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith and Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, Joseph carried on a morale-building tradition that some of the NFL's biggest icons have participated in over the last 45 years.
For security reasons, players were not allowed to disclose where their itinerary was taking them during any part of the trip. However, now that he is back stateside, Joseph has sat down with Buccaneers.com for an exclusive question-and-answer session that provides an exhaustive look at the tour experience.
In Part I of the Q&A, Joseph relayed details about military travel, his first interaction with U.S. troops and a harrowing stop at a base in Afghanistan. Now, as he continues his account of this once-in-a-lifetime eight-day tour, the discussion turns to living conditions for the troops, the experience of flying in Black Hawk helicopters and an unforgettable meeting with a very brave combat engineer. Please return to Buccaneers.com next week for Part III of this exclusive Q&A as Joseph discusses his first experience with MREs, what it's like to be on military time and making friendships that will last a lifetime.
Buccaneers.com: Aside from the fact that you were surrounded by armed forces on a military base in the desert, what else about your first couple days in Afghanistan made you realize just how far away from home you were?
Joseph: "Our first real demonstration of how the war against terrorism is going was in FOB [Forward Operating Base] Masum Ghar. That really is the birthplace of the Taliban. Troops have the task of trying to control what they call the Horn of Panjwai. They're in charge of trying to keep the rebel forces from being able to grow opium and marijuana in the lands of the Horn. They are established where the Taliban used to be, but they get a lot fire and a lot of action in the summertime when the Afghanis come back to farm their land. We really had an up-close look at how they are fighting against the IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices] that are planted just about all over the place, and ones on roads that they have to be able to defuse or blow up before guys get hurt. We met a dog named Timber. Timber is what they called a 'TED' [Tactical Explosive Detector] dog. He was basically the main dog there that goes on a lot of missions to find IEDs before the troops get hurt by them. That was my first real experience in seeing the fight against terrorism and how it's actually being fought."
Buccaneers.com: What were some of the ways that you interacted with the troops?
Joseph: "We were able to interact with the troops in a lot of different ways. Whether it was informal meet-and-greets, taking pictures in the cafeteria where we were eating with the guys or a more formal dinner that we had with some of the higher officials at the base in Kandahar, we were able to see so many men and women. At FOBs in Kandahar, and even in Kyrgyzstan, we were either doing meet-and-greets, signing autographs or eating breakfast, lunch and dinners with troops. We were even invited to dinner parties with some of the higher officials. We attacked it from all different angles and every day was a different deal."
Buccaneers.com: Did anyone of you guys get a chance to play football with the troops while you were there?
Joseph: "Well, I'm an O-Lineman, so I'm not quite as exciting to play football with. I think some of the guys had a scrimmage with some of the troops the first day we got there, but not all of us got into it. You saw a lot of the players really interacting in different ways though, whether it was playing pool, playing cards or playing cornhole."
Buccaneers.com: You said one of the first servicemen you met was a Buccaneers fan. How many others did you meet overseas?
Joseph: "I didn't even get in half of the pictures of all of the Bucs fans that I met there. A lot of people were either at one time based here in Tampa, were from Tampa or were just Buccaneers fans. You saw so many people that were happy to see a Buccaneer and it was an awesome feeling to know that we have so many fans there and so much support there. It was like no other feeling and I really didn't expect it, but it was a pleasant surprise to meet new Bucs fans."
Buccaneers.com: A lot of your community outreach with Buccaneers fans in Florida has been focused on supporting youth athletics and youth arts programs in schools, but how important is it to give back to our military?
Joseph: "The military is something that's really important to our country. We have the biggest and strongest military in the world. We have a great country and the backbone of our country is our military. Without them, we wouldn't have the rights and the freedoms that we have now, have the security that we have now. Our country is built on the military and brave young men and women that serve, so it's highly important."
Buccaneers.com: After this experience, do you have a new perspective on what our military sacrifices and what kind of services they are performing?
Joseph: "Once you sit down and talk to a lot of them and you hear their stories about how they got into the military and about the grind that is their life, you have a ton of respect for them and the sacrifices that they have to make. Not knowing if they'll make it back home, missing their family and even the quality time that they miss with their young ones, their wives and their parents. They sacrifice a lot to be able to serve our country, so of course you have a ton of respect for them."
Buccaneers.com: One of those sacrifices involves living accommodations. Just how 'distinguished' were the DVQs [Distinguished Living Quarters] in which you were housed?
Joseph: "The DVQs were like dorm rooms, like college dorm rooms. My roommate on the trip was J.J. Watt, and it really humbles you to know how much hard work [the troops] put in and they don't even have a full-sized bed. We're talking about a twin-sized bed here, we're talking about community bathrooms, showers and facilities, so it's tough living for them and it's a real humbling experience. Of course football players, we travel and we're complaining when we don't stay at a four-star hotel, and these guys and the way they are living day-to-day is on the level of one-star, and those are the nice places. We're not even talking about the tents. For the guys that are on the front line and the guys that are working on base, their living situation is less desirable. You really have a ton of respect for how they do their job and knowing how they're living when they're over there."
Buccaneers.com: How big *were *these beds that you and J.J. were staying in? Did you have trouble sleeping?
Joseph: "I'm going to be nice and say we were both in full-size beds. We're talking about some tight fits where you didn't have much room to toss and turn. We were in some tight spaces, but I made it happen. When it comes to sleeping, I can make it happen anywhere. There was no complaining coming out of my mouth. We were in the nicer rooms, so there was no complaining. If you did complain, they could kick you out and put you in the tents if they really wanted to, so there was no complaining here."
*Buccaneers.com: You had the chance to fly in a Black Hawk helicopter, correct? What was that like? *
Joseph: "When they told us we were going to be flying on Black Hawks, I immediately got excited about that. It was strange because they originally asked us what our favorite military movie was, and mine was 'Black Hawk Down.' That same day they said, 'Oh yeah, you guys are going to fly on a Black Hawk,' and of course I couldn't help but think about the Black Hawk going down. Thank God the Black Hawk stayed up so we were good on that part. It was cool because we would use the Black Hawk to jump from FOB to FOB and visit different military bases. It was just cool to see how functional it is and it really lets you know that it's a serious flight. We're not flying over any neutral grounds; there were gunmen on both sides ready to go and we're taking off and we're flying over some hostile territories. It wasn't like some kind of helicopter tour over the desert. This was a serious operation so it was exciting knowing that it's realistic and this wasn't a little fairy tale ride. This was the real deal."
Buccaneers.com: Was that your first time flying in a helicopter?
Joseph: "That was my second time on a helicopter. First time in a helicopter with weapons aboard? Yes."
Buccaneers.com: So you traveled in Black Hawks to visit the different military bases that over there. Did you visit multiple bases in a day or would you spend one day on each one?
Joseph: "The first day we went to one base – Qalat City. That was a big base between Kandahar and Kabul. There, they have a lot of traffic because they have one highway that has all of the traffic, called Highway 1, that goes through Qalat City. They are very busy there and so that was the first base. The second day we hit two bases in FOB Masum Ghar."
Buccaneers.com: What's one thing that surprised you the most about this experience?
Joseph: "The part that surprised me was that it was kind of like that saying, 'The few, the proud.' That's something that you hear and something I didn't really appreciate until I met a guy named Specialist Richard Ross. He is a combat engineer, which is another name for a guy that searches for IEDs. While we were there, he and his group were out clearing roads and looking for IEDs when their commander stepped on an IED and had both of his legs taken off. The blowback concussed just about the majority of the group. They were able to save the commander's life and he was taken care of in Kandahar but was sent off – I'm guessing to go home. For the other guys that were concussed and got blown back and had debris hit them, they were getting treatment at the hospital and the rehab center. I talked to him (Ross) and he told me about his story and how he got into the military. Even though he was concussed and hadn't slept for 50 hours, the guy was ready to go back to work. It's amazing to see a guy whose command leader just had his legs taken off and yet he's ready to go back to work. To see the determination and the drive but also the bravery was surprising. That's one guy that really made an impression on me."