My trip to the Middle East to support the troops started out in my mind as a chance to see a part of the world I would never see if it was up to me. I mean, really, who wakes up and says they want to go to Afghanistan? But after we arrived there, I saw that a hand shake, a couple smiles, some old fashioned eye contact and mutual respect go a long way.
I left Los Angeles on a Monday for six-hour flight to Washington, D.C., followed by a 15-hour flight to Kuwait. When I landed in Kuwait, there was no one to greet me until I secured my luggage and went outside. As such, I didn't have much self-confidence while navigating the airport in what I perceived to be unfriendly territory. As I began to speak to the locals and ask for help, everyone there was willing to assist me and made the transition easy as I went through customs. I saw my friend Aaron, an American face and retired military guy who helped put the trip together. He took me to the Radisson Blu Hotel in Kuwait. The hotel was beautiful with all the amenities – ocean views, weight room, yoga studio...it had everything. Going overseas, my biggest worry was food! I am a very picky eater, so I thought I was going to starve when I got over there. But guess what was next to the hotel?! One of my favorite restaurants – THE CHEESECAKE FACTORY! It was an 11-hour time difference for me, so when I got to the hotel at about 9:00 pm, I was just in time for dinner and was happy to spend my first night eating at the Cheesecake Factory. Granted it had a slightly different taste to it, but I walked away very satisfied.
The next morning, I woke up and met the rest of the crew – Isaac Keys (retired NFL linebacker), five Washington Redskins cheerleaders (Christa, Rachel, Teleza, Maddy, Tedi), and one team mom who was the mother hen of the cheerleaders, Vicky. We all met in the lobby ready for the adventure. At that time, we also met six of the coolest guys who would be joining us: our security team Ed, Ryan, Steven, Joe, Gary and Ellis. As we walked out of our hotel into a 1970 Scooby Doo-looking mini bus, they went to work, looking out for everything, head on a swivel just in case we were in some kind of danger. But we weren't in danger because Americans are very welcome in Kuwait. While traveling from Point A to Point B, we had two security guys on the bus with us who were in constant radio contact with each other. We also had another vehicle five feet behind us, one more about 50 yards behind that one and another one in front.
I had never visited any type of Armed Forces base while in America, and here I am thousands of miles away going to my first one, half anxious and half nervous. Our trip was about a 40-minute ride so it gave me a chance to check out the scenery of a beautiful city that I had been brainwashed to think would be nothing but dirt roads and camels. The reality is 75% of the families in Kuwait are millionaires. Crazy, right? They had Subway, KFC, Johnny Rockets, IHOP. We also passed some of the largest oil fields in the world, which seemed to have extended for miles and miles. We then turned on a dirt road and proceeded deep inland where no form of civilization was in sight. Then we pulled up on Ali Al Salem Air Base, better known as THE ROCK. We pulled up to the first security check point and we all had to get out of the vehicle so they could sweep all the vehicles from top to bottom, very thoroughly pat us down and go through our belongings. Going in, we passed a few more check points and headed to the chow hall. As we entered and walked around, everyone warmly greeted us and welcomed us. I started to feel this is why we are here, and it's so worth it. Humbled and grateful, I just shook hands and thanked them over and over for what they are doing for our country. They took us around as much of the base as they could fit in for us to see in one day, including the K-9 unit, where we got to see how they train dogs to sniff out bombs and assist soldiers when looking for enemies in the mountains and the city. I even got to put on the big padded suit and have the dog attack me. Considering I am kind of terrified of dogs already, that was hard for me but I did it. We walked around, met colonels, generals, and various men and women who are serving our country. Everyone was appreciative of us making the effort to come put smiles on their faces.
That night we did our first show. The show consisted of Isaac and I going on stage to get the crowd hyped before we brought out the cheerleaders. We would tell them about ourselves and answer questions about playing in the NFL. Then the cheerleaders came out and the guys went crazy. You would think Jay-Z had come on stage! After they cheered their butts off, we would invite various servicemen and servicewomen to participate in our dance competition. That was fun and very entertaining. Some could really dance and some just had a little wiggle, but it was all fun and just a way for them to escape their reality for a moment. We then signed autographs and took pictures. Those few hours at the show, you would think they were all diehard fans rooting on their team in the Super Bowl. It was heartwarming, real, enthusiastic love from people we had never met. It felt great to be a part of something that brought smiles to so many people's faces. We then left that world, and went back to our reality of comfortable bed, showers, and good food, and I was actually feeling kind of guilty.
We got back around midnight. I slept for maybe two hours and then was wide awake at 4:00 am because my internal clock was off. At 6:00 am, I went and worked out for about an hour in the hotel gym. As I walked back from the gym, I saw a huge ship and I decided to sneak on it and found out it's a museum – the AL-HASHEMI-ll, the world's largest wooden ship. As I snuck around, I met a man who spoke very little English and actually had all the keys to the ship. Since it was so early and no one was there yet, he gave me the VIP tour, checking out all the nooks and crannies of this huge and majestic masterpiece. After an hour of walking around and listening to his stories, I thanked him and went on my way.
Breakfast and then Day 2 began. We went back on our "Scooby truck", with security everywhere, for another 40-minute trip, this time to Camp Arifjan, which houses Air Force, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard. Again, everyone was elated by our presence as if we were Santa Claus and had come with gifts. It was nothing but love. We tried on bomb suits and I got in my first army vehicle. I even got to put on the 60-pound military vest with all the fixings and raced a guy on the obstacle course they run every morning at 5:00 a.m. Not only did I lose and lose bad, I almost died with that thing on! It is heavy, bulky and hard to maneuver around in, but a necessity in their world. Another show that night and an eventful day was in the books. Back at 10:00ish, then to Cheesecake Factory to eat…to bed, my 2-hour nap and waking up at 4:00 a.m.
Up all night again, I met the team in the lobby in the morning, and we were off to Camp Patriot on Kuwait Naval Base. This trip put us around a little more water than I would like but I managed to move around these huge ships still in awe. I was up on the deck, looking through the binoculars and even sounding the ship's horn like we were heading for battle. I played a little Madden video game with one of the fellas, signed more autographs, met more impressive people, finished up another great day and that was our last day in Kuwait. Later that night, security took us back to THE ROCK since that is where we were flying out of at 1:00 a.m. wishing those guys could come with us, we begged the whole security team to come but they were obligated to other duties and they had to send us on our way. It was only four days, but I guess you build a quicker bond with someone who genuinely is putting your life in front of their own. We were missing them and we hadn't even left yet.
That night at 1:00 a.m., we had a flight to Afghanistan. This was not a commercial flight though; this was a military plane. Big, bulky, cold, hard seats that did not recline, no first class, no pillows...that was what this was. Did I mention loud? They gave us ear plugs but they didn't work very well, which meant Operation No-Sleep was in full effect! We landed at roughly 5:00 a.m. at Bagram Airfield, where we would be staying for the next four days. We went straight into a room to get briefed, and the first thing the woman said to us was, "You are IN AN ACTIVE WAR ZONE." Yep, it just got real. I thought: "I need to listen to her, I think." She gave us the protocol for when the sirens go off on base and the meaning behind the different sounding sirens. The Afghanis would shoot over a rocket or a missile, and it would either hit the base or, depending on how close it came to the base, the sirens would go off. Yep, that's Afghanistan. No more hotel rooms, no more hot showers, nice pillows. We had a military dorm room, about 100 square feet, a dorm bed, bathrooms in the hall, and periodic bombings. I thought: "What the heck am I doing?" It's was about 6:00 a.m. and I went to eat and got back to the room to nap for two hours before we were up again to meet everyone, including U.S. Army General John F. Campbell. Circulating throughout the base, we got to see Apache Helicopters, F16 fighter jets, and Special Ops teams, and we toured the secret rooms where they decide key military strategy. I even wrote my name on a bomb! That night I was actually sleeping pretty well, until at 5:12 am I was woken up by the siren...yep the siren was going off. A rocket landed close enough to the base that it triggered the siren. That day they we took Blackhawk helicopters to Kabul, smack dab in the middle of the city. But as we were seconds from taking off, we were grounded on the runway for an hour. We came to find out they sent a second rocket at the base and this time it hit the other end of the base on an open runway. This was the second time they tried bombing us now. My life is getting interesting, don't you think? Finally, we took off to Kabul, flying low so we could see exactly how the locals were living. Clothes hanging outside on lines drying in the wind, sandy, dirty, cold...more like the images in my head. We made it safely to Kabul. As we landed in Kabul, two shooters flanked each side of our chopper, doors open, wind blowing, soldiers scanning the area below as they look for any mischief on the ground with their fingers on the trigger. I was ready though; they gave us all helmets and bullet proof vests for the trip. I talked to some cool people, sat in some secret rooms and was showing love to everyone we could touch. Finally, they whisked us away and we headed back to Bagram safely for our nightly show.
The Super Bowl was the next night, which began at 4:00 a.m. our time, and I decided to play in a Madden tournament prior to that. The Super Bowl party actually aired at the beginning of the Super Bowl broadcast, live from Bagram Airfield. They showed the troops and the rest of us all in a big triangular formation. It was a great night and I was having fun, but when halftime came, which was about 6:30 a.m., I had to go to my room and get some sleep because it finally hit me. I got in about five hours, which was not ideal but I took it.
The next day was our last in Afghanistan, and they definitely saved the best for last because we got to go to the shooting range! I shot everything – AK47, 50 caliber off the truck, everything. I felt like Rambo, and the Special Ops guys made it happen. I can't thank them enough. That night at 2:00 a.m., it was again time to get back on that big, bulky, cold, no pillow Air Force plane. This time, many more soldiers were on our flight, going back to Kuwait with us. Ahhh, Kuwait….I never thought I would be so excited to get back to Kuwait! That nigh we saw some crazy lights in the air, an F16 taking off and gun fire from afar. It was all so surreal as we were about to leave a live combat zone (which I must say, I never thought I would be in one of those in my lifetime). I was leaving that world, and going back to my reality.
Wait, it is all reality, isn't it? The reality is that there are people who choose this as their reality. In our world, we rarely get to see and meet people that do not think about themselves first, people that literally will die for you and I even though they have never met us. I can't say thank you enough to the noble and dignified men and women of our Armed Forces. I can say how much I appreciate you and that it is not going unnoticed that you all leave your wives, husbands and kids so that we can wake up every morning with no worries. We don't walk around and worry about getting bombed, kidnapped, shot, blown up…we don't have those concerns on a daily basis, and we owe that to you all. From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank each and every one of you. Alive and lost ones, you are truly living legends and heroes in my eyes and my life will always be indebted to you. The humility and appreciation each person showed us gives me chills, thinking that I could be that much of an uplifting spirit to someone. I hope I didn't disappoint anyone and I hope I left somewhat of a lasting positive impression on some of you as you all did on me.
Ten days half way across the globe in the most dangerous part of the world…this experience was one of the best in my life. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, US Coast Guard, you will never get enough credit, nor do you want the credit. You just do what few people in America are willing to do, and that's be in the military to defend our freedom.