USO Tour Day 3: Sleeping in Saddam’s former palace

[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.]

So, what are the accommodations like on USO tours? We always stay in “DV” quarters, which are on-base accommodations for “Distinguished Visitors.” These quarters can range from having an extra pillow on a standard-issue Army cot in a barrack-style room to comfortable single rooms for each member of the tour.

At Victory Base Camp (VBC) in Baghdad, where the 2009 NFL-USO Coaches Tour was based, the highest-level DV quarters were located at the Joint Visitors Bureau (JVB) Hotel. This is the same place that President Barack Obama stayed in April on his surprise visit to Iraq. The JVB Hotel is a former palace of Saddam Hussein, and it has large ballrooms, sparkling chandeliers and gilded fixtures.

When we checked in, we were told that the coaches would stay in one room with bunk beds. “I haven’t bunked up since I was a graduate assistant,” Harbaugh remarked. Gruden quickly agreed. Coughlin got the one single bed in the room because of his seniority. With three bunk beds in the room, one coach would have to sleep on a top bunk. Gruden drew the short straw because he was the youngest among the group. Of course, he reminded the other coaches of his suffering over the course of the entire tour by referring to himself as “Little Johnny from the top bunk.”

The question you might be asking, which is a good one, is, why were the five coaches all put in one room? Since we were in a former palace, shouldn’t there be room for the coaches to at least stay two per room? On a normal occasion, this would have been the case, but this wasn’t one of those instances. Vice President Joe Biden was staying down the hall from the coaches, and the rooms between them were needed for Secret Service and key VP staffers.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (C) poses with NFL coaches (L-R) Jon Gruden, Bill Cowher, Jeff Fisher, Tom Coughlin and John Harbaugh during a quick break of a week-long USO tour. (Mike Theiler / USO)

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (center) poses with NFL coaches (from left to right) Jon Gruden, Bill Cowher, Jeff Fisher, Tom Coughlin and John Harbaugh during a quick break during their week-long USO tour. (Mike Theiler / USO)

In fact, shortly after Biden “checked in” to the JVB (trust me, the Secret Service checked in long before he arrived on site), the VP walked down the hallway to say hello to the coaches. This led to a nearly one-hour exchange between the two parties.

Harbaugh was sure to thank Biden and the state of Delaware for producing such a great person and terrific QB in Joe Flacco. The Vice President spoke with great pride about the progress we’ve made in Iraq and the preparation, commitment and execution of our Armed Forces. It didn’t go unnoticed to anyone that these also are the qualities necessary to play winning football. Biden’s son, Capt. Beau Biden, a member of the Delaware National Guard who’s currently serving in Iraq, joined his father in talking football, politics and war with the coaches.

On Day 3, the group was scheduled to meet with troops at Al Asad Air Base in Western Iraq. That didn’t happen, however, because sandstorms grounded all aircraft. We instead spent the day meeting with troops at VBC, the largest installation in Iraq. Given that 56,000 U.S. soldiers are stationed at VBC, there were definitely plenty of service members for us to visit there.

Our first stop was a meet-and-greet at Camp Slayer. Here, a trend that had emerged on the previous two days finally reached the tipping point. Plenty of Giants fans wanted to see Coughlin, Titans fans were eager to see Fisher, Raiders and Buccaneers fans chanted “Chucky” in honor of Gruden, and Ravens fans came out to meet Harbaugh. But the most popular coach, the one who always seemed to have the longest autograph line, was Cowher.

On more than one occasion, when we entered a DFAC or recreation center for a meet-and-greet, a mass of Steelers fans huddled together, waving Terrible Towels and chanting, “Here we go Steelers, Here we go!” This was never more the case than when we had a meet-and-greet with a unit comprised of the Pennsylvania National Guard. Yes, folks, Steelers Nation extends to Iraq.

After spending time with the troops at Camp Slayer, our escorts showed us a few of the main sights at Camp Victory. These included the “Flintstone Village,” a large playground that Saddam built for his grandkids out of guilt after he had their mother executed. Another stop was the “Victory over America” palace, which Saddam built after the first Gulf War as his way of claiming Iraq had won that war. At the beginning of the second Gulf War, we bombed the palace (though it wasn’t a strategic target) to remind Saddam who really was in charge.

After lunch, we did three consecutive meet-and-greets in which we went through approximately 1,200 autograph cards. Each coach signed between 1,500 and 1,800 total autographs that afternoon since many service members also brought footballs, hats, photos, towels and other paraphernalia for signatures. As we walked out of our last meet-and-greet, Gruden’s arm and hand were hanging limp as he dryly noted that we should recommend that coaches bring arm braces on next year’s tour to protect them from injury.

While the coaches’ hands were probably a bit fatigued, they had a very good grasp of the impact and importance of what they were doing. In addressing the troops before a meet-and-greet at the Dagger’s Inn DFAC that day, Fisher said: “Every soldier we’ve met since we’ve been here has thanked us for coming over here. But this is backwards. We are here to thank you. You are the ones who are sacrificing. You are the ones who are serving. You are the ones who deserve thanks.”

After the afternoon meet-and-greets, the coaches headed back to their quarters to clean up. It isn’t common on a USO Tour to have any dinner plans beyond going to the chow hall to eat with the troops. But on this night, the coaches had been invited to General Odierno‘s home to have dinner with him and about 10 of his top generals. It was a special evening for the coaches, an opportunity for some of the best leaders in the NFL and the some of the best leaders in the U.S. military to learn from and enjoy the company of one another.

– David Krichavsky

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