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. Also on the trip are two members of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (Deryn Derbigny and Christina Parker), "Heroes" actor Milo Ventimiglia and former Marshall University coach Jack Lengyel. Pete Abitante, special assistant to the commissioner, is accompanying the group on the trip and will file daily updates.
» Day 1: Touching down in Baghdad
Only in a place like this can your day be "sanded out."
A sandstorm moving in from the west grounded any plans to visit some FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) today. But there's a silver lining in every sandstorm and our USO leader Rachel Tischler and Lt. Colonel Scott Rainer, who heads up the JVB (Joint Visitors Bureau) here, came up with an aggressive Plan B that filled the day with meaningful visits in the Baghdad area.
Sand in general is not good on machinery, whether it is of the airborne or four-wheeled, ground-based variety. The sandstorm never seemed very windy or oppressive in our area. But the sand here is very fine, almost of a talcum powder consistency, and it can get in anything. In addition, it became increasingly difficult during the day to see much in the distance. Good decision to stay put.
First stop was the headquarters of the 10th Mountain Division, out of Fort Drum, N.Y. Colonel Clark greeted our group, noting that the building that houses the 10th Mountain's operations is where Saddam printed his money. No evidence of any extra Iraqi dinars around but several hundred soldiers turned out to meet and greet Roger, Osi, Drew, Coach Jack, Milo, Deryn, and Christina.
It's always amazing how quickly participants from all walks of life bond on a tour. Today's camaraderie has already surpassed Day 1. Everyone laughs easily and is not afraid to poke fun at someone else in the travel party whom they met just 48 hours before.
I took a very unscientific survey and found that the soldiers from Fort Drum hailed from California, Missouri, Texas, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, New Jersey and Oklahoma. Wasn't anyone from New York, home of the division?
Sergeant Chris MacHarrie was one of the more interesting Mountaineers. He grew up in Kenosha, Wisc., so he had to be a Packers fan. Well, yes you could say that but, "I was a follower but not a band-wagoner," said the sergeant. who has moved his family nine times in the past seven years. "I also rooted for the 49ers... loved coach Walsh. Lately I've rooted for the Patriots. I went to visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame in February. I wanted to stay for a second day but my wife wouldn't allow it. Visiting that place was not just a planned trip, it was the goal of my life."
(An aside: Military lingo of the day while driving through Baghdad -- "Roger that... Roger." "What?" asked the commissioner from the third seat.)
After lunch at an Air Force dining facility (DFAC) -- noted by all as the best chow in the military -- we move to the headquarters of the storied 101st Airborne Division. One of the first soldiers we meet is Major Harold Riggins, a "distant, distant cousin" of Hall of Fame running back John Riggins. This group exudes pride, determination and anything else you care to say about this historic military operation.
Two cases in point…
Command Sergeant Major McCord is 10 months into his fourth tour in Iraq and 23 years into his Army career. He made his first tour 17 years ago in Operation Desert Storm. He recently returned home to attend his son's high school graduation -- his first and last trip home during this tour. CSM McCord also has a 15-year-old daughter and a loving wife at home. He has obviously missed some time at home but his son apparently has not held that against him: he's decided to enlist in the Army.
Then there is Major Siry, a West Point grad who returned to the U.S. Military Academy to teach history following deployments to Haiti and Bosnia. He has four children, the youngest of whom is three months old. She will have to wait to meet her dad for the first time when he returns home later this month.
Each of these men tell their backgrounds with great pride, seeking no ounce of sympathy, and exuding the commitment to duty that is absolutely widespread here.
"The commitment of our troops is truly inspiring," said the commissioner, whose father, U.S. Senator Charles E. Goodell (N.Y.), served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and the U.S. Air Force in the Korean War. "Just as Chairman Mullen said the other day, our men and women are incredibly upbeat and committed to the task at hand."
Traveling base to base is not for the weak of stomach. The roads are bumpy at best and require a deft touch at the wheel. We travel in several armor-plated suburbans and a small bus. Other than that, the only difference is that gas is cheaper than at home.
We move on to Camp Striker, another base of the 101st (street intersection of the day: "Band of Brothers" and "John Wayne Lane" in Camp Striker).
After posing for photos, etc., we are invited to take a ride in an "MRAP," which stands for Mine Resistant Ambush Protector. This massive vehicle -- about 20 tons worth -- has helped the military successfully combat roadside bombs known as IEDs (improvised explosive devices). The vehicle carries several soldiers and Osi and Drew take turns riding in the turret. Gas mileage is in single digits, so I don't think there is any chance of MRAPs coming to the states soon.
The day concluded after 9:00 p.m. with a birthday cake for Milo, with the group marking his 31st year with a rousing round of "Happy Birthday." Milo, the star of NBC's "Heroes," said he did not want anyone to know it was his birthday because he did not want to take away from the purpose of our tour - saluting the troops.
And off the first two days of the trip, said Milo, "on my birthday, there's no place else that I would rather be."
That summed up the whole day perfectly.
Good night from Baghdad.