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NFL-USO tour Day 1: Touching down in Baghdad

"Are we there yet?" "How much longer will it take?"

Note: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, joined by New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora, are participating on a seven-day, three-country summer USO tour led by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen. Pete Abitante, special assistant to the commissioner, is accompanying the group on the trip and will file daily updates.

"Are we there yet?" "How much longer will it take?"

Many a parent has been the target of similar questions from the back seat of the car at one time or another. They usually emanate from restless youngsters, eager to join their friends in something more exciting than whatever they are doing with their parents.

There's an element of this that's oddly part of a USO tour in that the participants want to "get there now" to begin meeting the men and women serving our country. There is great excitement and anticipation and such was the case today -- Day 1 -- of this special summer USO tour. And this tour is "special" for many reasons.

For one, our participation came at the invitation of Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Second, the attendees included Drew Brees, Osi Umenyiora and Roger Goodell, the first commissioner in any sports league to make such an overseas USO trip to visit the troops.

The plane is a converted Boeing 757 that seats a bit more than 40 plus an executive area for the chairman. It is operated and staffed by the Air Force and the staff made everyone feel right at home -- as did the chairman, who made it a point to say hello to everyone during the flight.

Our itinerary began at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, where we departed from late Sunday morning. After nearly six hours of flying time, we landed in Shannon, Ireland to refuel. Then it was another six hours to Kuwait City. "Are we there yet?" But as quick as you could say "Saddam Hussein," the three league dignitaries were taking part in a "meet-and-greet" session at the airport, joined by two Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, actor Milo Ventimiglia, who stars in the hit NBC series "Heroes," and Jack Lengyel, the former head coach of Marshall University of Huntington, West Virginia, who helped the school and town recover from the devastating loss of the team in a tragic plane crash in 1970.

By the time the commissioner and players entered the "Wing Theatre," the reception area for the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing, shortly after 8:00 AM, the line of soldiers was already several hundred long. Each visiting participant said a few words and welcomed the troops.

"We appreciate the sacrifices you and your families are making and just want you to know that all of us in the NFL are appreciative of that and proud of the work you are doing," said Commissioner Goodell. "You talk of our players as heroes -- and they are -- but you are the real heroes."

Osi's introduction was met with rousing applause and it was tough to tell which showed a brighter gleam, his smile or his ring from Super Bowl XLII. Leading the charge were two New Jersey natives.

Eddie Altunian, who grew up in North Bergen, N.J., but is serving his third tour as a member of the Oklahoma Air National Guard, waved a rather large Giants flag while singing Osi's praises. When he finally met the Giants' defensive end, he wasn't shy about trying on Osi's ring. "I can't believe this!" yelled Eddie.

Tom Fech, whose wife Carrie is a Cowboys fan ("I pled temporary insanity," he said), called this one of the greatest days of his life. "Bring that (Super Bowl trophy) back to Jersey next year," said Fech, who lives in Neptune, N.J. "That is one beautiful ring."

All told, the commissioner, Osi and Drew made contact with 500 soldiers at this first stop.

After almost two hours, though, it was time to move to the flight deck for the third leg of our journey, which, if you are keeping score at home, was now approaching 17 hours since we left Andrews. Baghdad is only an hour away, so we boarded a C-17 cargo plane out of Charleston, S.C., for the flight north to the Iraqi capital.

It's always amazing to take a trip on these mammoth birds. For this particular flight, the center was filled with approximately 40 coach seats with numerous additional soldiers and security officials sitting in the mesh seats attached to the cabin walls. Add in several palettes of cargo and luggage and you have a full load. But the sensation of having 30-40 feet of open space above your head (all right...maybe it's only 20-25) and no widows to look out of, makes for a different sensory experience.

For instance, pilots perform a "military landing" in Baghdad. It consists of a very steep descent, followed by a leveling off and then another steep descent until wheels are on the ground. It's an amazing experience to see (pun intended) how much of a role your vision plays in your sense of well-being. It wasn't like we were going to crash -- certainly not -- but it's a sensation that takes some getting used to.

Upon arrival at the VBC (Victory Base Complex), we were taken to the JVB (Joint Visitors Bureau) where we checked into our rooms -- all in buildings (mini-palaces and hunting lodges according to USO photog Dave Gatley) that once housed members of Saddam's family, Ba'ath party members and other loyalists. The buildings appear opulent at first but upon closer inspection, many of the details are faux in nature. We are taken to a room which sleeps about 10, many in bunk beds. This should be fun.

Collectively, we are beginning to hit a wall. So we move on to the next "meet-and-greet" with members of the 4th Infantry Division, whose motto is: "Mission, Soldier, Family, Team." The area we are taken to is decorated with college football memorabilia. which is very telling about the 4th's commanding officer, General Hammond.

After an hour posing for photos with every soldier in line, we are escorted to the General's office. He appears extremely fit, friendly, yet serious. He begins by thanking everyone for coming to Baghdad, presents each person with his commander's coin (fittingly, a football helmet) and asks that we keep all our soldiers and their families in our prayers because they are doing incredible work and making progress.

There was another visit tonight after dinner and General Hammond summed up the reason for this visit -- to thank our soldiers first-hand. We'll be doing a lot of that for the next few days and we'll keep you posted.

It's now past midnight here in Baghdad -- 30 hours into this incredible trip -- and time to sign off. See you tomorrow.

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