USO Tour Day 4: One to remember

[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.]

When the planning for this trip was in its early stages, one thing that was most important to us was having the opportunity to spend the Fourth of July holiday with our troops who are serving overseas in harm’s way. I think all five coaches on the tour would agree that July 4, 2009 was a day they will long remember.

Former NFL head coach Bill Cowher of the Pittsburgh Steelers (R) is greeted by an excited service member holding a 'Terrible Towel' to be autographed during a USO meet-and-greet, at Camp Liberty in Baghdad, Iraq on July 4, 2009. (Mike Theiler / USO)

Retired Steelers coach Bill Cowher (right) is greeted by an excited service member holding a Terrible Towel to be autographed during a USO meet-and-greet at Camp Liberty in Baghdad, Iraq on July 4. (Mike Theiler / USO)

The day began with an early wake-up call and a trip over to Al Faw palace, home of the Multi-National Force headquarters. General Odierno had invited the coaches to join his weekly “Battle Assessment Update” with his top commanders. As you would expect, the coaches had to sign a confidentiality agreement before attending the meeting, which covers all the major elements of the Iraqi war and reconstruction efforts.

During this meeting, various generals and staffers briefed General Odierno on topics such as insurgent activity, the Iraqi legislative process and economic development. The general often asked follow-up questions to his staffers when he needed more information, keeping all of the members of his team on their toes. The coaches later said this isn’t dissimilar to how they or some of their mentors or colleagues run staff meetings with their coordinators and position coaches. Of course, the information shared at the “Battle Assessment Update” had much more serious implications than any game-planning session.

After the meeting, the coaches had an office call with Lt. General Charles Jacoby. The Lt. General “coined” the coaches as per the military tradition. As they had with other top generals who they had met in Iraq, the coaches were able to reciprocate by giving special NFL coins in return. For Coughlin, Cowher and Gruden, this meant presenting the official Super Bowl medallions made by Highland Mint in honor of their teams’ championship victories. For Fisher and Harbaugh, coaches of two relatively young franchises, they gave coins in recognition of their teams’ inaugural seasons. The generals found these coins to be unique and welcomed additions to their collections.

Following our office call with Lt. General Jacoby, the coaches hustled over to what was a definite highlight of the trip — a naturalization ceremony in which more than 200 U.S. service members became citizens. The ceremony was held in the grand foyer of the Al Faw palace, with the new citizens sitting tall and proud at the center of the room as other troops packed every inch of space in the foyer and the balconies, which rose several stories high. At the front of the grand foyer was a military band playing patriotic tunes, and behind them was a 50 foot long U.S. flag hanging from the ceiling of the palace.

If the people weren’t moved by the scene itself, they had to have been moved after hearing General Odierno’s words. He described the stories of some of those people who were becoming citizens. All had lived in America or one of its territories, and all had decided that they believed so firmly in the nation’s values that they wanted to fight to defend them. That included a gentleman of Iraqi decent whose parents safely fled Iraq after Operation Desert Storm. He had tasted freedom in America and loved it so much that he wanted to help bring it to his country of birth. General Odierno also spoke of the Mendoza brothers, Mexican immigrants who together gained American citizenship on the same day, just two years after their older brother became a citizen after serving his country with distinction.

So here in Baghdad, on the United States’ Independence Day, 237 individuals from 59 different countries became American citizens. These individuals all chose to serve their adopted country before they actually were citizens, and they became citizens while serving our great nation on foreign soil. And in a delicious twist of irony, their citizenship came in the middle of Saddam Hussein‘s favorite palace!

(As reported in the New York Times, Vice President Joe Biden showed his blunt side at a gathering with a small group of soldiers after his keynote address at the citizenship ceremony. He said of the ceremony: “We did it in Saddam’s palace, and I can think of nothing better. That S.O.B. is rolling over in his grave right now.”)

After speeches from General Odierno and Vice President Biden at the ceremony, the Oath of Citizenship was administered, and then each of the new citizens was called forward to receive a certificate and an American flag. The pride with which these individuals walked from one end of the receiving line (starting with Biden) to the other (which ended with CSM Lawrence Wilson) was readily apparent. A short clip of this should be required viewing at next year’s Fourth of July barbeques, just to remind us what America is all about.

Following the naturalization ceremony, we had a BBQ — ribs, chicken, hamburgers, corn on the cob and all the fixings. It felt just like home, except we were right in the middle of an Iraqi sandstorm. We were planning to get on choppers to visit troops at Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) that afternoon, but the storms were still grounding all aircraft.

NFL head coach Jeff Fisher of the Tennessee Titans poses with U.S. Army soldier Laura Johnson, the sister of the Titan's first round draft choice Kenny Brit. (Mike Theiler / USO)

Titans coach Jeff Fisher (left) poses with U.S. Army soldier Laura Johnson, the sister of the Tennessee first-round draft pick Kenny Britt. (Mike Theiler / USO)

Like the day before, we adjusted by hosting meet-and-greets at Victory Base Camp. During one meet-and-greet at Camp Dagger, Specialist Laura Johnson came up to Fisher and introduced herself as Kenny Britt‘s older sister. If the name Kenny Britt sounds familiar, that is because he is the Rutgers wide receiver whom Fisher’s Titans took in the first round of this year’s draft. What were the odds on draft day that Fisher would pick someone who had a sibling he would meet halfway around the world less than three months later?

Nonetheless, Fisher had strict instructions for Specialist Johnson: To make sure Kenny keeps his hamstring healthy, works on not dropping passes and studies his playbook. Specialist Johnson responded with a “Yes Sir!,” further adding that she was going home on leave in a week and would deliver the message to Kenny personally.

The last stop for all of the coaches on July 4 was a special one — the ribbon-cutting ceremony of a new USO Center at Camp Slayer. This USO Center, which is expected to serve 1,500 troops per day, is located by the airport to give our service men and women a place to rest, relax, call or e-mail home, or watch a movie while waiting for a flight. This USO center is only the third in Iraq and will be a great addition for the troops. Coughlin and the other coaches presented an encased, autographed football with a small plaque to mark the opening of the center.

The USO Center opening was the last official event on the 2009 NFL-USO Coaches Tour. From there, we were scheduled to catch a military flight from Baghdad to Kuwait City and then a commercial flight home to the States. Unfortunately, the weather continued to wreak havoc on our itinerary, not allowing us to get out of Baghdad in time to make our flight out of Kuwait City. By the time we eventually made it to Kuwait, we had to check into a hotel and return to the airport the next morning to get flights home. It was when we landed in Kuwait late in the evening of July 4 that Fisher learned the tragic news of the passing of former Titans QB Steve McNair.

– David Krichavsky

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