USO Tour Day 2: A time of transition in Iraq

[Editor’s note: The NFL is continuing its legacy of going overseas to visit U.S. military troops with the NFL USO Coaches Tour. The current summer tour to Iraq represents the first time the NFL has brought a group of coaches overseas to visit the troops, as three current and two former NFL coaches — New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin, Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher, Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, retired Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher and former Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden — are on a tour of U.S. military bases in the Persian Gulf.]

Our first full day in Iraq began with an 06:00 wake-up call. After breakfast, our first stop was the office of General Ray Odierno.

Odierno is a four-star general who commands the entire coalition war effort in Iraq. That is the first thing you should know about him. The second thing you should know about General Odierno — a former tight end on the Army football team — is that he is a huge Giants fan. A resident of Rockaway, N.J., General Odierno wrote a letter to Coughlin prior to the 2007 season, wishing the Giants good luck in the upcoming campaign. This letter led to a strong friendship between the coach and the general, with General Odierno now having visited and addressed the Giants several times.

Gen. Raymond Odierno (R), escorts New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin around at Mosul Airfield in Iraq on Thursday. (Mike Theiler / USO Photo)

Gen. Raymond Odierno (right) escorts Giants coach Tom Coughlin at Mosul Airfield in Iraq on Thursday. (Mike Theiler / USO Photo)

In his office on the morning of Day 2 of our trip, General Odierno gave the coaches a briefing of the current situation in Iraq. Now is a time of great transition here, as June 30, 2009, marked the date that U.S. troops withdrew from Iraqi cities. Nevertheless, 130,000 U.S. service members remain in Iraq outside the cities in U.S. bases. General Odierno’s message to the coaches was the same as he has been giving major news outlets in recent days — that tremendous progress has been made in Iraq, but there are still good days and bad days and a need to proceed with caution.

From the general’s office, our group, which included the coaches and General Odierno, boarded Black Hawk helicopters for a quick two-minute flight to the nearby airfield. From there, we boarded C-35 and C-12 airplanes headed north to Mosul.

Mosul is located in northern Iraq, in the Kurdish dominated area of the country. The five coaches were welcomed by hundreds of cheering troops when they walked into the meet-and-greet room. For two hours, the coaches tirelessly signed autographs. Their efforts seemed to have the desired effect.

“This is huge. It makes a big difference for us,” specialist Steven Whitmore said. “These coaches didn’t have to come here. It really shows that they care.”

From Mosul, we flew southeast to Kirkuk, where we visited Forward Operating Base (FOB) Warrior. Upon entering the Dining Facility (DFAC), the coaches were presented with “Infantry One” football jerseys. They then hosted a two-hour meet-and-greet that included a rousing visit from the base football team.

Following the meet-and-greet, the coaches ate with 33 hand-picked troops who had served with great distinction. It was then back to the planes and back to Baghdad.

After cleaning up, the coaches finished their day with a reception at Al Faw palace. Only this wasn’t your typical reception. Three or four hundred troops showed up to mingle with the coaches, listen to the Army’s house band and enjoy the view from the patio of one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces. The evening began with a Q & A from the crowd with the panel of coaches. This led to a number of terrific exchanges, such as the one in which Bill Cowher declared Iraq “Steeler Nation” because of all the Terrible Towels he had seen and signed so far on tour. Another great exchange occurred when a young sergeant asked Tom Coughlin if he would soon consider retiring like both Cowher and Jon Gruden had. This led Gruden to quickly interject: “I didn’t retire. I was fired! If you know any good high school jobs or if you need a coach out here, I’m your guy.”

It was a long day and a tiring day. It was very hot — temperatures topped 120. But it was a day that typified what an NFL-USO trip is all about — get out and spend time with as many troops as possible to express our thanks and gratitude for their service.

— David Krichavsky

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