"FOB hopping" on the NFL-USO tour

Texans defensive end Mario Williams and three other Pro Bowlers recently visited US troops in Southwest Asia as part of the annual NFL-USO Tour. The players traveled to nine bases in eight days from March 2-9 to visit with troops in the Persian Gulf, signing autographs, participating in meet-and-greets and boosting troop morale.

The first part of the tour saw the players visit an Air Force base in Qatar (check out these great photos from the USO), and the players later visited Afghanistan.

Here's a recap from the latter part of the trip from NFL director of community affairs David Krichavsky, who traveled with the group of players:

Day 5, March 6

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One of the highlights of any NFL-USO tour is visiting the smaller, more remote bases that lack the creature comforts of the larger bases and very rarely have celebrity entertainment tours. These bases are usually classified as Forward Operating Bases, or FOBs. On Days 5 & 6 of the NFL-USO tour, our group did a little "FOB hopping."

On Day 5, we departed Bagram Air Base to travel by helicopter to Jalalabad Air Field (JAF). JAF is located in Eastern Afghanistan, near the border of Pakistan. Our group would spend the next two days along the border, an area that has seen some of the most intense fighting, as the Taliban will frequently strike in Afghanistan and then flee into Pakistan where US forces are not allowed to chase them.

Flying by helicopter from Bagram to JAF gave our group a great sense of Afghanistan's sheer beauty and imposing terrain. The eastern part of the country is covered with one mountain ridge after another, separated by narrow valleys. Small Afghan villages are built into the mountains or in the valleys. There is only one paved road in the eastern part of the country, and it is a dangerous one to travel.

When we arrived at Jalalabad Air Field, we were greeted by Command Sergeant Major Charles Sasser, the top NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer) on the base, who gave us a quick briefing and tour. He also "coined" the players in the military tradition and gave them gifts from the 4th Infantry Division. We reciprocated by giving CSM Sasser a limited edition game coin from Super Bowl XLIV.

This was only a quick stop though, as we would return to JAF tomorrow for a longer meet-and-greet. We were soon back at the LZ (landing zone), boarding Blackhawk helicopters en route to FOB Blessing.

FOB Blessing is located approximately 100km north of JAF and was named after Sgt. Jay Blessing who was killed in action in the area in 2003. At Blessing, we toured the FOB and held a meet-and-greet before eating lunch at the DFAC with the troops. One of the great things about visiting FOBs is that the players get to visit with nearly everyone on base who isn't out on a mission. A definite highlight of our time at Blessing was watching the troops fire off mortar rounds (both 120mm and 155mm rounds) while visiting the artillery pits. The 155mm mortar rounds have a 200 meter kill radius -- meaning that anything within 200 meters of where a round lands will be obliterated -- and the noise when one of these rounds is fired is absolutely deafening.

Then it was back to the Blackhawks to fly to FOB Joyce. Joyce is located on the eastern edge of Afghanistan, less than 2km from the border of Pakistan. FOB Joyce is where we would spend the night, but it is a "black out base" -- meaning that the base isn't lit up at night for security reasons. Overall, our accommodations were very modest at Joyce. The players bunked-up, two to a room, in small plywood-constructed rooms that contained nothing more than one bunk bed with two mattresses. We brought sleeping bags to put on top of the mattresses.

Nevertheless, our group had an absolutely terrific experience at FOB Joyce. We met the brave men and women who go "outside the wire" on patrol as often as 6 times a week. Each time they do, they know that they are very likely to engage the enemy in some way -- where it is direct fire, indirect fire, or an IED attack.

The battalion at Joyce had been there for 4 months and hadn't had a celebrity visitor of any kind -- a politician, USO tour, etc. So they were very appreciative of our visit. The NFL-USO tour had hit its stride as we "FOB hopped" on Day 5.

Day 6, March 7

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Day 6 began with a 05:30 wake-up call at FOB Joyce. After a morning hike to the OP (Observation Post) at the edge of the base and then breakfast, our group was back on its helicopters and off to our next FOB. FOB Bostick is located to the north of Joyce, but also extremely close to the Pakistani border. Bostick has approximately 450 US troops -- mostly Army -- but nearly 1,000 troops when you include ANA (Afghan National Army) and ANS (Afghan National Security) forces. At the very heart of the US strategy in Afghanistan is training the Afghans to take control of their own country so we can pull our troops out and go home. To this end, one of the most important jobs our troops have is tutoring the Afghan forces, and when our troops go out on missions, ANA troops almost always travel with them.

The troops at Bostick have seen a lot of combat action during their time in Afghanistan. We were told story after story by troops of the firefights and ambushes by the Taliban, close calls, causalities, and even deaths. Our group met a 21-year-old sergeant from Boise, ID who had been shot two days before we arrived. Apparently, the bullet went in his backside and emerged out of his hip. Since he wasn't ambulatory and able to make it to our formal meet-and-greet, the players went up to the room where he was convalescing to see him. We learned that he was staying at FOB Bostick to recover rather than going to a larger base with a dedicated hospital so that he could stick with his "band of brothers" and continue fighting with them once healed. These are the types of stories you hear all the time in the military.

We stayed at FOB Bostick through lunch and then traveled back to Jalalabad Air Field, or JAF. This time we held a meet-and-greet and had the opportunity to visit with hundreds of troops on base. We also met and exchanged coins with the Commanding Officer on base, Colonel George.

From JAF it was one more chopper ride back to Bagram, where our "FOB hopping" had begun the day before, and where we would spend the night.

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