David Krichavsky, the NFL's Director of Community Affairs, is accompanying head coach Andy Reid and three other NFL head coaches - Minnesota's Brad Childress, Carolina's John Fox and Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis - on a tour of U.S. military bases in the Persian Gulf. Here he shares some of what he's seen with the coaches in their first two overseas ...
"The 2010 NFL-USO Coaches tour began with this year's coaches traveling to Washington, DC, where the group met up and took a commercial airline flight to Frankfurt, Germany. After clearing customs in Frankfurt, the group was met by military escorts who brought us by bus to Ramstein Air Base, approximately an hour outside Frankfurt. Ramstein is a major US military installation, with 75,000 troops stationed there. Ramstein is also home to one of the busiest and most important hospitals in the world, Landstuhl Regional Medical Center (LRMC), which serves US and NATO forces injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. Landstuhl is frequently where our most severely wounded come after getting stabilized in the battlefield hospitals of Iraq and Afghanistan, and before being sent home to the US for further treatment at Walter Reed Medical Center or Bethesda Naval Medical Center.
"We arrived at Ramstein mid-morning, and after having a bit of time to clean up and eat lunch our group was off to Landstuhl to visit with the patients and staff. Visiting the medical hospital could have been a depressing experience, as we saw patients with gruesome injuries such as bullet wounds, broken backs, severe burns, and lost and shattered limps. But no one we met in the hospital had a shattered spirit. In fact, nearly all the injured troops we met with expressed a fierce desire to heal and get back on the battlefield. As Marvin Lewis said, 'the attitudes of the guys, to want to get back out there with their brothers, is absolutely remarkable.' Photo Gallery : Andy Reid's USO Trip To The Persian Gulf
"'Thanks' and 'appreciation' were persistent themes during our visit at Landstuhl – as is often the case on USO tours. The NFL coaches couldn't express their gratitude enough to the wounded warriors they met at Landstuhl who had sacrificed so significantly for our country. But at the same time, the troops kept telling the coaches how appreciative they were for the visit. Corporal Richard Cecil of Kentucky, whose femur had been broken in multiple places after a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) hit his truck in Afghanistan, was like nearly all the troops in thinking about others rather than himself, 'I appreciate you guys stopping by. But they'll really appreciate it even more downrange [in the active war theater]. It'll be a real taste of home for them.'
"There were also moments of levity at the hospital. The coaches visited with a group of Australians (as the hospital treats US troops and those of our allies) who had been seriously hurt in a helicopter crash. With all four of the coaches in the room, one of the Aussies mentioned that he didn't like American football and indicated that he thought the best athletes played rugby and Australian Rules Football. 'Hey, what about Sav Rocca!' quipped Andy Reid, referring to his Australian kicker.
"The coaches were lined up to take a picture with some nurses at Landstuhl when our ace USO photographer, Fred Greaves, asked everyone to stay still a moment longer because he wanted to snap a second photo. Andy Reid spoke up again, 'Hey, no second tries. It's 3rd and 2 every time here!'
"After leaving the hospital, the coaches went to the USO Warrior Center that is adjacent to Landstuhl. This newly built USO center is unique in that it specifically caters to wounded warriors and their family members. After receiving a tour of the facility, the coaches mingled and signed autographs for all those at the center. One soldier/fan was so brave as to show up in a Cowboys jersey and still ask Andy Reid for an autograph and picture. 'Go Birds!' Coach Reid said while smiling for the camera with his new Cowboys friend.
"Our itinerary for this USO tour was designed to maximize our time with the troops – not to maximize sleep or comfort. Following the USO Warrior Center visit, our next scheduled movement was to the flight line at Ramstein for our second consecutive overnight flight. This flight, via a C17 military cargo plane would be long and uncomfortable, bringing us 'downrange' into an active war zone.
"We boarded the C17 around 8pm as planned and chatted with the amiable flight crew once we were onboard. The pilot invited the coaches up to the cockpit to experience take-off from that unique vantage point; however, the pilot noted that there was only room for one person in the cockpit to be able to really see what was going on. All the coaches were interested in going upfront, but they finally decided to give the choice seat to Coach Reid, as he is the longest-serving head coach in the group.
"Everyone then settled into their seats, and our plane headed down the runway and got airborne. After climbing in the sky for only 30-60 seconds though, there was a solid thump on the right side of the airplane. Then the 'load masters' (airmen who are responsible for the cargo in a plane) who were in the cabin of the C17 with us started running around the plane and looking out the windows a bit frantically. Something was clearly amiss. A minute later, one of the pilots came on the load speaker and announced, 'We hit a bird on take-off. We don't know what damage has been done to the plane. We are currently circling and will be landing back at Ramstein soon.'
"Although 3 of the 4 coaches were up in the cockpit and none of them – including Coach Reid – had any control over the plane, Coach Reid got all the abuse for this accident. As soon as the head coach of the Eagles descended from the cockpit, the group was ready for him: 'Who let Captain Eagle up there? . . . Nice work, Birdman. . . Reid is done; no more flying for him!' I think I even heard Coach Fox mention that it was a good thing that we didn't have to call in Sully for the emergency landing.
"As a result of our avian accident, our C17 was grounded and we were stranded for the night in Germany. Our travels further 'downrange' would have to wait. Brad Childress summed it up best, 'I guess a USO tour really is like a football game. You go in with a game plan. But to be good, you have to be flexible, know how to deal with ambiguity, and adjust.'
"Perhaps one of the reasons that the interactions between the service members and the coaches on this tour are so effortless is because all four coaches on the 2010 NFL-USO Coaches tour come from military backgrounds. It is not uncommon for one participant on a USO tour to have military roots, or maybe two. But for four of four to come from military families is remarkable. Andy Reid's father served in the Navy in World War II.
"No recounting of Day 2 of our USO tour would be complete without revisiting when our attempted flight to Afghanistan was aborted due to a bird flying into our plane's engine during takeoff. As noted in the Day 1 blog, Eagles coach Andy Reid quickly became the scapegoat for this quirky accident, largely because he was in the cockpit during takeoff and because of his team's nickname, 'The Birds.'
"Coach Reid continued to take significant abuse from the other coaches on Day 2 of the tour, such that anything that went wrong was immediately ascribed to Andy. The story about the bird got even funnier though on Day 2 when a couple of additional details about the incident emerged: 1) Where was the pilot flying our plane from? Philadelphia, of course. 2) What did the co-pilot yell over his headset to the pilot and crew just after we took off and the danger became evident? 'Bird Alert! Bird Alert!' Maybe Coach Reid and the Eagles did bring some bad karma to that flight after all.
"On Day 2 of our tour, we had an improvised itinerary, but our goal remained true to the NFL-USO tour mission – meet as many troops and shake as many hands as possible. We accomplished this goal by touring nearly every corner of Ramstein and meeting with troops at their posts, as well as visiting some of the other US military installations in the area. The US military community in and around Ramstein has the largest concentration of Americans citizens anywhere outside the US – which certainly enabled us to meet our goal.
"Some of our top stops on Day 2 included the Control Tower, which commands and controls all planes taking off and landing at Ramstein; the C130 hangar where we met with the maintenance crew that works on the cargo planes; the Contingency Response Group (CRG) whose motto 'Light, Lean, Lethal' makes sense given this group's vital role as the initial team on the ground to secure airfields and open new bases for our troops. We also visited Vogelweh Military Complex, where the coaches got to test their skills on the same simulator our troops use to take target practice. We met with the troops at the Warrior Preparation Center, led by Col. Scott Manning, which uses simulations to train troops and prepare them for battle in the deserts of Iraq and mountains of Afghanistan.
"After a day of crisscrossing Ramstein Air Base and the surrounding region to visit with several hundred troops, our day ended with our military guide escorting us to a traditional German biergarten and restaurant. Just as the food that we had ordered arrived, Coach Reid's phone rang. Sitting before us on the table were plates of bratwurst, schnitzel, spätzle, and other local specialties. 'Coach, I'm in Germany right now, and guess who I'm here with?' Andy Reid said into his cell phone. 'Brad Childress, John Fox, and Marvin Lewis. We're on a USO tour – hanging out with the troops. Trust me, you'd love to be here with us right now.'
"Who was it on the other end of the line? John Madden. I don't think the Madden Cruiser goes to Germany, let alone to Afghanistan. But given the all-American day that we had, and the German feast that sat before us, it did feel like a fitting scene for Coach Madden."
-- Posted by Chris McPherson, 1:46 a.m., July 2