For James Lee, the decision was a no-brainer.
Just a month into the New Year, at a time when many NFL players are relaxing and recharging after a long season, Lee was presented with an opportunity to do something much more active…and impactful. The opportunity was a trip overseas with one mission in mind: raise the morale of servicemen and women working hard to defend the United States.
The trip, coordinated through Armed Forces Entertainment and Pro Tour Productions, brought together current NFL players with American troops stationed in Central America, a part of the world not often recognized for U.S. military activity. In early February, Lee boarded a plane for Tegucigalpa, Honduras alongside Buffalo Bills cornerback Drayton Florence and Washington Redskins fullback Darrel Young as part of AFE's Super Bowl Player Tour. There, the NFL players spent several days with sailors, soldiers and airmen stationed outside the country.
As the official Department of Defense agency for providing entertainment to U.S. military personnel stationed abroad, Armed Forces Entertainment hosts more than 1,200 shows around the world each year, reaching more than 500,000 personnel at 270 military installations. From simple meet-and-greet visits to show-stopping extravaganzas, the various tours bring a piece of home to those toiling far away from friends and family.
The first of two stops on the tour was with Joint Task Force-Bravo at Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras, located about two hours outside of the nation's capital. Joint Task Force-Bravo, one of two task forces under United States Southern Command, organizes exercises and operations for counter narcoterrorism, humanitarian assistance and regional cooperation and security in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America.
But before even reaching the air base, Lee realized just how far away from home he really was. A simple stop for food quickly turned into a strategic mission of sorts, as the military guides explained that "safe" restaurant options within the city limits were somewhat few and far between. Even a short trip inside a fast food spot required the assistance of a local security guard, who was offered a small financial incentive to look after the group's belongings while they ordered.
"It's dangerous; we were in some of the most dangerous countries in the world, and I learned that it's for real, it's no joke," said Lee. "Our U.S. troops put their lives on the line each and every day. At any time, you never know what's going to happen or when something could happen, and they're ready at all times."
The group was greeted upon arrival at Soto Cano by Colonel Ross Brown, commanding officer on base. Colonel Brown, who oversees more than 600 servicemen and women, explained the base's military missions and offered his thanks to the visitors. The group then enjoyed dinner at the base dining hall before spending the evening visiting various soldier "hooches," a slang term for temporary military housing. The mood was lively and upbeat, and it was apparent that anticipation of the players' visit had been high.
"Everybody had smiles," said Lee. "From when the van pulled up until it left, I think we really had an impact on those soldiers and brightened their lives. I think we built a relationship with them, being there, interacting one-on-one, and just having a good time. It was nothing but smiles."
The mood turned adventurous the next day, when Lee volunteered to help demonstrate the expert training carried out by the base's military working dogs. After squeezing into a full-body protective suit, Lee took part in several different situational exercises with the Soto Cano canines. Despite his size and strength, he was no match for the German Shepherds.
"The best part of the trip was getting attacked by the dogs," said Lee. "I learned that those are some very smart dogs, really intelligent. Especially when the officer came to search me, and I pretended to attack him, the dog ended up protecting him by attacking me without the officer having to say anything. That showed how much respect the dog has for his owner and how he's always alert. He's on his job, he's there for one reason, and he's going to get it done."
The day's schedule also included an interactive tour of the base's helicopters (Lee's radio request to the flight tower to temporarily "borrow" a chopper was denied), a visit with the Soto Cano Fire House (where the Buccaneer O-lineman playfully soaked those on duty with the fire hose), and a private meet-and-greet with the base's Special Forces team (who refused to divulge any details on their top-secret duties, despite Lee's pressing requests).
The end of the group's Honduras visit coincided with Super Bowl XLVI, during which the players toured the various base clubs to sign autographs and watch the game. While there didn't appear to be a team preference on base, the close game between the New England Patriots and New York Giants brought some added excitement throughout camp.
The following day, Lee, Florence and Young traveled to Cooperative Security Location (CSL) Comalapa, a small U.S. Naval base stationed in nearby El Salvador. The location is headquarters to 24/7 critical logistics, security and infrastructure support to U.S. aviation units involved in counter-illicit trafficking operations and navy-directed humanitarian missions, among other efforts.
In El Salvador, the players were given the chance to visit the U.S. Embassy, tour the planes at CSL Comalapa, and host a cookout for the roughly 100 members on base.
"I was really excited to learn how their planes worked," said Lee. "The technology they have on there, from the cameras to how they fly throughout the night and watch over the waters and protecting our country, I was really impressed by how it operates. A lot of those guys are in the Navy, but they all have different jobs. It takes so much to run it; just like football, everybody has to do their job for the offense to make progress and score. So with everybody on the plane, everybody has to do their job to make a mission complete."
Along with meeting base Commander Jason Goodall, the players also led more than two dozen servicemen in a friendly touch football game. While the players enjoyed the good-natured competition, Lee made note of the similarities between their roles in the NFL and the Navy.
"The time we were playing football and we actually took the troops through some personal training, we put them through a warm-up similar to what we go through," said Lee. "I told them that they're really doing the same thing that we do, because everybody's depending on somebody, just like we're depending on the guy next to us to do his job, they're depending on the next soldier to do his job."
In the end, those similarities brought the players and military members closer together. And they helped the NFL representatives gain an even greater appreciation for all that the servicemen and women of the U.S. military do.
"We told them that we really appreciate what they do for us, because I saw the passion in some of their eyes, and hearing them talk about going into war and doing the different things that they do, those guys are for real," said Lee. "It's not a joke at all. So it was a great trip overall, and we have a lot to relate to."