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. In Part II, he described the living conditions for troops stationed overseas, reported on the experience of flying in a Black Hawk helicopter and shared an unforgettable meeting with a very brave combat engineer. As he concludes this exclusive interview with Buccaneers.com, Joseph touches on his first experience with MREs, what it's like to be on military time and making friendships that will last a lifetime.
Buccaneers.com: What kind of time schedule were you on throughout the tour?
Joseph: "The joke of the entire trip was, 'Hurry up and wait.' I swear, everything we did was, 'Hurry up and wait.' We got rushed out of our rooms in the morning to, 'Hurry up and wait.' We rushed to the flights to, 'Hurry up and wait.'
Buccaneers.com: Can you compare being on 'military time' to the daily schedule at One Buccaneer Place?
Joseph: "Here it's not, 'Hurry up and wait,' it's, 'Hurry up and let's get it going right now.' With the Buccaneers, if you're five minutes early, we're going to take advantage of every one of those five minutes. In the military they like to have everybody in place way before you actually get around to doing something. That's where we got the, 'Hurry up and wait.' They rushed us to make sure we were on time for everything just to, 'Hurry up and wait.' That's how they do it and I understand when you're working with a big group of people, sometimes its better just to get out there. You tell them seven o'clock when you really don't have to be there until 7:30."
Buccaneers.com: You have team meetings that start at a specific time, practice starts at a certain time, and everyone is on a set schedule. Compare the potential consequences of being late or running the risk of being late in the military versus being late in the NFL?
Joseph: "Well, they weren't as tough on the players as they were on the military members, but there still wasn't really any 'running late' because we tried to respect their schedule… and 'running late' doesn't really exist over there. But you're going to wait once the time comes that you're supposed to be there. Here, when you're on time, you're still probably the last guy in the room, which isn't a good thing. If you're early, that means you start early. It's a little different, but in all respects it's how we run the building."
Buccaneers.com: You have mentioned eating at military base cafeterias while you were in the Middle East. Is that where you had all of yours meals?
Joseph: "Oh, no… we need to talk about MREs. An MRE is a Meal Ready-To-Eat. They are for the troops to take with them in case they get somewhere and they can't eat a real meal, so to speak. These 'meals' come with a food substance in them, but you still kind of make your food. All of the players wanted to try them, and I wanted to try them too, so the military got out a pack of MREs and had different flavors – from Buffalo Chicken to Vegetarian Pasta. Well, they're not that bad if you get the right flavor. Unfortunately for J.J. Watt, he had the Buffalo Chicken. You cook it by basically putting water in a package and it triggers this heating device inside so it gets really hot and the food cooks."
Buccaneers.com: That's considered cooking out there – just adding water?
Joseph: "Yeah, exactly. You take maybe four ounces of water that you're going to pour into this package. You stick the food from the MRE in it and it'll cook. Basically, you have to wait about five minutes for the water to get hot and then it's ready. No joke, J.J.'s Buffalo Chicken smelled like vomit. I didn't taste it because it was his, but it probably tasted something close to it. I had the spaghetti and meatballs and it was pretty good – I could actually do it. Peanut butter and crackers was pretty good. The pound cake was excellent, and their Kool-Aid sports drink was pretty good. I smelled how bad an MRE can be and I tasted how good it can be too. That was my MRE experience."
Buccaneers.com: What kind of consistency is this food? Are we talking about a solid food item that you pour into water that cooks itself?
Joseph: "They pack it so you don't pour the water in the actual food package, but you pour the water around the food package. There is this thing that's going to heat up, the water is going to get hot and basically cook the food. The closest thing I can compare it to is like canned food. Some canned food is good and some canned food is really bad. J.J. picked the worst one that he could possibly pick. They have a grilled hamburger flavor, but I think if you had a grilled hamburger in a can, it would be something similar to that. The spaghetti was okay."
Buccaneers.com: How often do troops eat MREs?
Joseph: "I guess this is what they eat when they're in basic training or in FOBs. They don't have breakfast, lunch and dinner. MREs get them through and all troops know about them. They couldn't believe that we wanted to try them, and they were happy to serve it up to us. Master Sergeant Taylor looked out for me and gave me the right advice on the spaghetti and meatballs. Some other guys got set up for failure. They chose something that sounded really good. Master Sergeant helped me out. My MRE experience wasn't as bad as some of the other guys."
Buccaneers.com: You've mentioned Master Sergeant Taylor and Specialist Richard Ross. Who else did you get to know during the tour?
Joseph: "Someone I want to mention is Colonel Bill Spangenthal, and he wanted me to pass along his thanks to the Buccaneers players that made a special visit to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg last season. His son needed surgery for a birth defect and the surgery was done at All Children's Hospital. It just so happens that the Buccaneers were there for a visit and he said the players were really great playing with the kids and really interacted with a lot of them. It was a couple of days after the surgery for his son, so I'm not sure his son was able to participate with all that was going on, but he was highly impressed by guys getting out there, going to All Children's Hospital and visiting the kids. He just wanted to say thank you to the Buccaneers organization for being involved with the community. He is based out of MacDill Air Force base and calls Tampa his home, so he just wanted to say thank you to the organization for their work in the community."
*Buccaneers.com: It sounds like you made a strong connection with a lot of military members over there. *
Joseph: "After the trip, you really feel like you got to know a lot of the people, so the people that I've mentioned, you feel like you've formed a lot of friendships. It's not just going over there and doing a meet-and-greet. We were able to spend some time with some very special people and some people that I can consider my friends now after that trip. I just really want to say thank you to a lot of them. People always think of athletes being these big figures that are almost bigger than life. To go over there – and some of the guys we have in our game are big-name guys – to go over there and be regular people, sit down and play cards and talk, I really think it did something for the perception of football players to the people that serve us. It's a mutual feeling amongst the guys that went, is that we are willing to do that anytime. After that experience, knowing that we felt like we really helped is something that we are all about doing again. We've come away from the trip making friends and learning about the people that really make our lives possible.
"It's a humbling experience to see what goes on there, how they live, how they work, how they survive and it really makes you grateful for what we have here in America. You feel like you've made some real friends. It was almost like we didn't want to leave. I made some friendships. Sergeant First Class Ortiz, Captain Meyer, Sergeant Major Adle, Corporal Maurice Mendez, Deputy Army Civilian Marc Bierman, Sergeant Ashley Bell, Major Michael Epper, Master Sergeant Taylor, and my BFF, Senior Master Sergeant Deborah Betz – it was tough saying goodbye to them. Even though you're exhausted and getting ready to go back home and see your family, it was tough. We formed some friendships with those people and we all exchanged email and contact information. I look forward to staying in contact with them. I told them any time they want to come to Tampa to let me know and I'd definitely love to have them come to a game. Like I said, we formed real friendships with these guys."
Buccaneers.com: So if you had the chance to do this again…
Joseph: "My son might not be happy with my decision to leave for a week, but I would definitely do it again. No question."