Dec 14, 2013, 3:35 PM EDT
For Adam LaRoche and the 2013 USO Holiday Tour, it was years in the making.
The Nationals first baseman always knew he wanted to travel overseas to support the troops, and seeing teammates Ross Detwiler and Craig Stammen embark on one last December sealed the deal.
LaRoche talked with Detwiler and Stammen about their experience and joined them at a fourth of July party at Navy Admiral James Winnefeld’s house. There he met the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, the highest ranking military officer in the United States and leader of the annual USO Holiday Tour.
But just wanting to go isn’t enough, LaRoche had to volunteer through the Nationals, throw his “name in the hat” as he recalls.
“If they’re doing it again, I want to go. Regardless of the time, I want to do it.”
He thought being a professional athlete in Washington would help his cause and it did.
“If I’m not playing in D.C., I’m not getting picked,” he said.
LaRoche was selected and, as a part of the invitation, could spread the word to other celebrities he knows. He called his friends and business partners from the A&E show ‘Duck Dynasty’ shortly thereafter, brothers Willie and Jep Robertson. In the middle of a two month break from filming the popular reality show, they jumped on board with no hesitation.
“He called me, he said ‘let’s do a USO tour.’ I said ‘I’m in, let’s roll,’” Willie ‘Bosshog’ Robertson recalls.
Soon after, former Patriots offensive lineman Matt Light joined on, as well as a few comedians and musicians, and they had a good group going.
Because of security reasons, all LaRoche could really ask was whether they wanted to go with him. He couldn’t say where, he couldn’t say exactly what they would do, all of them would find out that information only once they physically got on the flight.
Late last week they took off in a C-17 Globemaster, a military transport aircraft designed to carry tanks and other heavy supplies overseas. They sat together on the long flight to Greece – their first destination – lodged between a portable sanitation system and 10,000 Georgetown cupcakes.
They also were just several feet from the Chairman’s communication center, a system that allows him to be no further than 60 seconds away from a call to the President at anytime.
In Greece they spent a day and a half taking in the sights with the country’s top military official, their Minister of Defense. He took them on a tour that included the Acropolis of Athens and the island of Crete.
While on the coast they made their first stop on a battleship to visit the troops. LaRoche admitted he did not know what to expect, how could he as an American citizen who had never done this before? He didn’t know what he was going to say, how they would react, whether he would make the impact he hoped.
“I’m thinking, what can I possibly say to relate to these guys? It’s not easy for sure,” he said.
But then he saw them and talked to them, and realized how much something so small as an appearance by people they recognize from home could actually help.
“They just want to feel like they’re back home for an hour or so.”
Willie returned with the same takeaway. These are American citizens overseas, they just want something to remind them of life in the United States.
“We want to give them a piece of America and just what they had known from the show.”
They also traveled to Italy and Germany, but the visit to Afghanistan was their most dramatic glimpse at life on a military base and the chaos that can surround them. In the case of Afghanistan, it’s communities run by insurgents and a society far behind the Western World.
“They are two hundred years in the past, except some of them have vehicles. It’s unbelievable,” LaRoche said. “We could see it when we were flying over, the huts, they look they were from a couple hundred years ago. That’s still the way they build their houses.
“Government, it seems like they have it in their major cities, but the rest of them, 80 percent of their population is the villages. They still have leaders of the villages that have their own laws, their own types of religion, a branch off of their religions,” he continued.
LaRoche talked with soldiers who often asked him about baseball. How is the team looking this year? Who is the hardest major league pitcher to face? LaRoche is used to answering those types of queries, but he had a few of his own.
In learning more about the soldiers and their experience over there, he has a much better understanding of America’s efforts overseas and the role our military plays. He also got a sense of the obstacles they face in combat.
“They’re using every law they have, every rule of engagement we have, and they’re using it against us,” he said of the Afghani opposition.
“They fight behind women and children. They fight in mosques because they know we’re not supposed to go into a mosque… you don’t realize until you fly over there.”
Light said his perception was changed after talking to the troops and getting the story from them. He reads up on current events, but feels some of what we are presented by the media and ‘knucklehead’ politicians is misleading.
“You don’t get the sense that there is anything good happening over there. They aren’t telling the whole story. Each and every day waking up and going out there and putting themselves in danger,” he said.
“Seeing a little kid, a little Afghani kid, and ten minutes later that kid is gone because an IED goes off. Some suicide bomber. They aren’t going out there looking for trouble, they are trying to help these people. They truly want to make it happen.”
LaRoche kept going back to the lifestyle of those surrounding the U.S. operations in Afghanistan. Compared to his and our life in the United States, there are many things we forget are not commonplace around the world.
“Every time here when we look at the flag, I look at it every night. We play the national anthem every single night. I can’t say I’ve ever really looked at the flag and said ‘man, somebody really paid a price for that, for us being over here.’ I would hope it’s going to be a lot easier to not take those things for granted like we typically do,” he said.
“Really if you were in there with the troops, and you got to see all of that, you wouldn’t take for granted running water, floors, heat, air, those people don’t have anything… this isn’t real life here. Fortunately it is for us, but not for 90 percent of the rest of the globe. We got to go see it so now it’s confirmed. We are really spoiled.”
While in Afghanistan, LaRoche and the others were led by heavy security as they traveled with the Chairman. An advance team scaled every place they visited three days ahead. Everywhere they went Apache helicopters flew above them. They even took a ride in one.
They also saw several indelible images of war that few of us will ever witness. They visited a military hospital where Willie saw a man whom he’d met just days before wounded and in recovery. While on base they watched a team of soldiers return from a 72 hour firefight with wounded comrades. They even interacted with those soldiers who had just come back with the shaken demeanor of surviving war.
In talking with the soldiers, the celebrities found both similarities and differences. LaRoche, for one, noted how athletes often hear mistaken reports from fans and media, that sometimes he feels they can’t relate to what his job entails. The soldiers feel the same way about some of the information they hear from U.S. media outlets. Not all of it is an accurate reflection of what they themselves have experienced.
They can also relate to missing their families. LaRoche plays 81 games a season away from Nationals Park and sometimes goes weeks without seeing his wife Jen and two kids. But, as Jep found out, nothing they have experienced in life on the road can compare to what the troops go through.
“One guy I met, he got married a year and a half ago and he hasn’t seen his wife since,” he said.
“She is also deployed in a different area. It’s crazy, just get married and never see each other in a year and a half. They had a week together and then they were gone. The sacrifice, it’s just unbelievable.”
LaRoche, Willie and Jep Robertson, and Light were nice enough to sit down with a few Nationals beat writers on Friday night at the Occidental Grill in downtown Washington share stories of their experience. All four said they hope to go on a USO Tour again some time in the future. And all of them now carry a greater appreciation of the sacrifice and toll it has required over the years from the United States military to establish and preserve our freedom.
Now they are transitioning back into their everyday lives, the ones they left just a week ago. But moving forward they hope to make a greater effort, whether big or small, in recognizing that sacrifice.
“I think you can really start spreading the word to everybody around,” Light said. “I told the troops, I can at least tell your story and get them talking about. I can let them know the things you are doing and what you do go through. To some degree, don’t we all owe it to our service men and women to do something? Not if you’re a celebrity or whatever, if you’re some dude on the stree. I think we all should at least take the time to think about more than just on Veterans Day or something else. Maybe it’s just a mindset or a perception, get people to stop and realize.”
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