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 this Q&A below, Joseph discusses the logistics of military travel, the first servicemen and women they met and an eventful trip into Afghanistan. Please check Buccaneers.com in the coming days for more of Joseph's description of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
*Buccaneers.com: The NFL and the USO were very selective with who they picked to participate in this tour. What did it mean to know that you were considered for this opportunity? *
Davin Joseph: "I was surprised to get the invite and all I can really say to the NFL and the USO is thank you. Being selected was just really an honor because a lot of guys will never get an opportunity like this."
Buccaneers.com: What was your initial reaction when you found out you had been selected by the NFL to represent the Bucs and the league on this tour?
Joseph: "Let me answer a similar question: 'What made me say yes to this tour?' When I got invited on the NFL USO Tour to the Middle East, I did some research, talked to a couple of guys and they said it was a life-changing experience and a first-class operation. I knew that an opportunity like this wouldn't come again and the likelihood of being able to go again would be slim to none, so I had to take it. It's really something new for me and my charitable outreach. It's a different experience and something unique. Initially, I was excited and of course I said yes after a couple of days of doing my research and talking to a couple of guys. And I'm really happy I went."
Buccaneers.com: Talk a little bit about the other NFL players who shared this experience with you.
Joseph: "The NFL selected the right six guys, they really did. From their personalities to their charitable outreach to their play on the field and their work in the community, you really couldn't have selected a better six guys. Down to earth, willing to do whatever to make the troops smile and really a mixed group of guys that complemented one another in many shapes and ways. They did a great job of selecting the right six."
Buccaneers.com: For security purposes, very few details were disclosed about the tour before you took off. Can you give a little overview of the trip?
Joseph: "For starters, it was a LONG trip there. Coming back wasn't that bad, but it was a very long trip there – 28 hours of flying to get to where I was going to be, in Kandahar, Afghanistan. We took four commercial flights and one military flight to get there, so the total flying time was 28 hours. I flew from Thursday afternoon, leaving Nassau, Bahamas until Saturday afternoon when we arrived in Kandahar, Afghanistan."
Buccaneers.com: Where did you stop along the way?
Joseph: "We went from Nassau for the NFLPA meetings to Charlotte; Charlotte to Washington D.C.; Washington D.C. to Turkey, Istanbul; from Turkey to Manas, Kyrgyzstan; and from there to Kandahar, Afghanistan. The travel was intense, but luckily I had a great first-class seat. The highlight was hopping on a C-17 from Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan, my first time going on a military flight. It was cool, but it was definitely a little different."
Buccaneers.com: Explain the major differences between flying on a military flight as opposed to flying commercially?
Joseph: "We went from flying commercial and sitting first-class where there was lots of leg room and a brand new plane, as pretty as can be, to a military plane where it just looks great on the outside. When you get inside, anyone in the military will tell you that it's worse than flying coach. The seats are tight and old, so you want to sit on the side of the plane where there's a lot more leg room but you are stacked on top of each other. If you happen to fly on a full military flight, just beware. Envision this monstrous jet, this monstrous airplane, where its real use is to transport cargo, so there's not much that's glamorous about it. There's no overhead storage, there's no leather seats. We're talking about being on there strictly for business, and then you're off, plain and simple. I must say that it's a smooth flight, though. Way smoother than a commercial jet."
Buccaneers.com: Were you able to get any sleep on the military flight?
Joseph: "I slept like a rock. By the time we got on that plane, we were already flying for 22 hours, so that part was just exhausting. When we were on the flight from Kyrgyzstan to Kandahar, I was out cold."
*Buccaneers.com: What was your first experience when you arrived in the Middle East? *
Joseph: "When we first got to Manas in Kyrgyzstan, we were met by Major Michael Epper, Master Sergeant Steven Taylor and Senior Master Sergeant Deborah Betz. They knew we were tired, so they did as much as they could to make us feel comfortable and get us going because they had to also prep us for another flight. So when we got to the first air base, we were eager to get rolling. We went through customs, we got our bags and everything and then we had to get our armor – our vests and our helmets. In Manas, the second person I met was a Tampa Bay fan, a young lady who grew up in Tampa and was serving in the Army for the last seven years or so. When I met her, the appreciation tour really started. From the time we first got there, probably about an hour in, we were mingling with troops just about everywhere we went. Everything – the vibe, the energy – was so exciting that it really woke us up. We were meeting troops who were either getting fitted for gear, registering or just taking pictures with us in the cafeteria where we would eat. It was nonstop love and respect, for us and from us back to them, and that's how the trip really got started."
Buccaneers.com: So how long were you in Kyrgyzstan before arriving in Afghanistan?
Joseph: "We were only in Kyrgyzstan for about six hours. We were there to get our gear, register, eat, shower, and try to squeeze a nap in… but that didn't happen what with being around all of the troops while we were waiting for our flight, taking pictures, signing autographs, talking and conversing. They wanted to talk football and we wanted to talk military, so it was just awesome hearing the different aspects of how they got involved in the military, about where they were from, who they're football fans of and really their plan after the military just like our plan after football. It was pretty exciting to hear all of them and their different stories about life. Even when we were on a plane…I sat next to a guy from Texas and we talked for three hours straight – before I fell asleep – just about life and the challenges he faces as a Marine and the challenges that I face as a pro athlete. They were just great, genuine people. When we got to Kandahar, Afghanistan, we were met by Sergeant Ashley Bell, Corporal Maurice Mendez, Captain Meyer and Sergeant First Class Ortiz.
Buccaneers.com: And how did Kyrgyzstan differ from Afghanistan?
Joseph: "Manas was a place where they transport troops to Afghanistan. Not much danger there at the Air Force base, and there was a majority of Air Force guys and it was pretty relaxed. When you go to Afghanistan it's a different world. We're talking about a desert, danger – where the fight really is. The morale of the troops going from Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan was definitely different in that most of the guys that were stationed in Kyrgyzstan serve in a different way. They are there to assist, mainly by refueling the jets, transporting the troops and cargo. Their mission is to help build the city of Bishkek, which is the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Now you go from there, to now we're in the warzone. We are where it really goes down."
*Buccaneers.com: What did you feel as soon as you landed in Afghanistan? Was the armor necessary? *
Joseph: "The armor was necessary because we did get a rocket attack while we were over there. Yes, that was real. So the armor was necessary."
Buccaneers.com: Wait, you experienced an attack? How were you protected?
Joseph: "Yeah, and we ran to the bunker. It was at the end of the day and the guys were so exhausted. Thank God that nobody got hurt, but yeah, the base did get attacked while we were there."
*Buccaneers.com: "What's going through your mind when this happens? What's it like over there? *
Joseph: "It was almost like being in a movie, like what you see on TV. It's overwhelming to actually know that this is for real. This is not some base that they don't get much action and you're close. No, we were in it. Everything that I thought it would be, everything that I thought it might be like, was real. I think the eye-opening moment of the trip was when Captain Meyer asked us, 'Have you guys been briefed on what to do when you get a rocket attack?' Our reaction was like, 'Uh, a rocket attack?' She was dead serious, so that was our moment – Captain Meyer asking us if we knew what to do in case of a rocket attack. There was a bunker right outside of our DVQs (Distinguished Visitor Quarters). There was a bunker right there."