Merril Hoge part of NFL-USO Tour


The NFL is continuing its legacy of visiting U.S. military troops overseas.  More than 180 active and former players have traveled to more than 20 countries over the course of the NFL's 45-year partnership with the USO.

The NFL's Director of Community Affairs David Krichavsky is accompanying three former NFL players – former Steelers running back and ESPN analyst Merril Hoge, ESPN and NFL Network analyst Matt Millen and Pro Football Hall of Fame member Anthony Muñoz – to meet and greet members of the U.S. military for several days in the Persian Gulf and he is providing the following diary.

Day 1

The NFL and the USO have partnered for 45 years to bring professional football players and coaches overseas to visit the men and women serving our country abroad.  Forty-five years is a long time.  The first Super Bowl was played 45 years ago.  Lyndon Johnson was President; Star Trek had its debut episode; and the Monkees were the hot band – or so Google tells me.

Despite the passage of time (and music tastes), the NFL and the USO have continued to do goodwill tours together to boost the morale of America's troops serving abroad.  The tours have changed somewhat.  In the Vietnam era, NFL players would go overseas for three-and-a-half weeks at a time.  One NFL player – Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Andy Russell, who was also an Army veteran – was given an M-16 and asked to serve guard duty when he arrived in Vietnam on a USO tour in 1968.

The latest installment of NFL-USO tours will not be a month long, nor will any NFL participants be asked to stand guard.  But it should be no less meaningful or impactful than any of the previous editions.

An all-star lineup has been assembled for the 2011 NFL-USO tour.  It includes former Pittsburgh Steelers running back and current ESPN football analyst, Merril Hoge; four-time Super Bowl champion and current ESPN and NFL Network broadcaster, Matt Millen; and one of the greatest offensive linemen of all time, a Pro Football Hall of Fame player for the Cincinnati Bengals, Anthony Muñoz.

The group assembled at Dulles Airport in Washington D.C. and boarded a 12-hour flight for our first stop, the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar.  Twelve hours on a plane is a long time, so naturally USO tour participants look to sleep on the flight to the Middle East.  The best sleeper in recent USO tour history is undoubtedly Larry Fitzgerald, who can fall asleep anywhere at any time.  Well, I think Larry may have met his match in Merril Hoge.  Merril was out cold before the plane got off the ground and wasn't heard from again until the captain asked everyone to return their seats to an upright position.

Upon landing and clearing customs, we were met by Whitney Oliver, a native of Dallas, TX, who heads the MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) function at an undisclosed military base in Qatar.  Whitney was the also the POC (Point-Of-Contact) for the 2010 NFL-USO tour that had visited the base the previous year.  On the ride from the airport to the base, Whitney shared with us many of the things that had changed locally in the past year – Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup, announcing the country's arrival on the world stage; political upheaval had spread like wildfire to Qatar's neighbors (although Qatar hasn't seen any protests to date, owing largely to its economic strength); and a new group of troops were deployed to the base, replacing the previous brigade that had gone back home.

By the time our group arrived on base, it was past 21:00 local time.  We were brought to our lodging and settled in for a restless, jet-lagged induced night of off-and-on night of sleep (for everyone but Merril).  There was no question that our group was ready for what lay ahead.

"It's great to be able to give a little something back to those who serve on our behalf every day.  I'm looking forward to getting this tour started tomorrow" said Anthony Muñoz, before heading to bed.

Day 2

The members of the 2011 NFL-USO tour were up early as we kicked off our first full day of activities at the base in Qatar.  The day began with breakfast with Colonel John Kubinec, who is the Commander of the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing based out of the military base.  Colonel Kubinec, who is responsible for a team of 1,100 troops, gave our group a good overview of the base and its role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Located outside the two active war theaters (but a relatively short distance away), the base serves as a major logistical hub for our military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Supply missions, air refueling and maintenance, and surveillance are all conducted out of the base.  Combat missions and bombing runs, providing critical air support to combat troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, also fly out of the base.

Our group's first stop after breakfast was the flight line, where we met the crews that fly B1 bombers.  The base is the only one in the region that flies B1s.  One B1 crew that we met with had landed only minutes earlier from flying a 12-hour sortie over Afghanistan.  It is not unusual for a team of four – two pilots and two "wizzos" (or WSOs, Weapons Systems Officers) – to run missions that last 12-14 consecutive hours.

A second crew invited the guys to hop up into the cockpit of their B1.  As you can imagine, it was a tight fit for Anthony Muñoz, who stands 6'6" and played at approximately 280 pounds.  CPT Christine Jenkins of Oregon warned Anthony not to pull any levers or push any buttons in the cockpit.  Apparently Terry Bradshaw touched something he should not have when he visited the base with FOX Sports a couple of years ago.  Terry, in case you were wondering, that plane has been fixed... you can stop worrying about it.

As Merril, Matt, and Anthony went from crew to crew along the flight line – signing autographs, taking pictures, and chatting with the troops – it became apparent that Matt Millen's four Super Bowl rings would be one of the star attractions of our tour.  Matt let all comers try on his rings, which he won in Super Bowl XV with the Oakland Raiders, Super Bowl XVIII with the Los Angeles Raiders, Super Bowl XXIV with the 49ers, and Super Bowl XXVI with the Washington Redskins.  As one airman said after modeling Millen's jewelry on his left hand, "Trying on one Super Bowl ring is cool.  Wearing four of them is unreal."

Following a morning of visiting troops on the flight line, our group headed to one of the base's DFACs (Dining Facilities) for a quick lunch.  The next stop was a meet-and-greet at the Base Recreation Area, which is the central hub of social activity on base.  One of the highlights of our afternoon was a visit to the 379th EMXS Munitions area, also known as the "ammo dump."  This is the area that houses much of the ammunition on base, including hundreds of bombs and more than $2 billion worth of weaponry.

It was amazing to see the men and women at the ammo dump show off their craft – building, testing, and securing bombs and other ammunition.  They take tremendous pride in their work, doing whatever is necessary to get the job done.  That may mean working in 120-degree heat during the summer, when the metal equipment they use is too hot to touch without gloves.  It also means triple and quadruple checking every screw and bolt on a bomb to ensure maximum performance and safety.

Despite this group's exacting attention to detail, they decided to let Merril, Matt, and Anthony help assemble a bomb.  And this wasn't just any bomb.  It was a 2000-pound device outfitted with the latest technology including heat-seeking capability and GPS.  The guys did a great job, and when their bomb was hooked up to a computer that ran a series of diagnostic tests to determine if it was assembled correctly, the test results came back: "PASS.  PASS.  PASS.  PASS. PASS.  PASS."  Matt Millen didn't miss a beat, remarking "that computer is like a quarterback calling his own plays."

Following the Munitions tour, our group had a few minutes of downtime followed by dinner and another meet-and-greet.  This gathering was our largest of the tour to date, attracting nearly 200 troops.  The session began with a Q&A during which the three NFL players were asked everything ranging from their favorite playing memory to who they thought would go No. 1 in the upcoming NFL Draft.  As always, Steelers Nation turned out in full force, with Merril Hoge being asked to sign more than a few Terrible Towels.

On Day 2, the 2011 NFL-USO tour hit its stride, as our group saw much of the undisclosed military base and visited with hundreds of troops.  But much more lay ahead, as Day 3 would find our tour heading deep into the heart of a war zone.

Day 3

Day 3 of the 2011 NFL-USO began early, with a 4:30 AM wake-up call, so that we could get over to the passenger terminal at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar by 5 AM for our flight to Afghanistan.  From the moment we arrived in Qatar, we were constantly asked "Are you guys going to head downrange?"  "Downrange" means closer to the actual fighting – or more specifically, Afghanistan.

Well, our team was ready to head downrange on Day 3 of our tour.  In fact, Merril Hoge emerged from his room in the morning in full, head-to-toe camouflage clothing.  Matt Millen – ever the jokester, even at 5 AM – remarked "Hey, anyone seen Hoge?" as Merril approached our group.  Merril was quick to reply, "I guess it works!"

The flight to Afghanistan would be our first military flight of the tour.  We flew in a C130, which is a cargo plane that is used to transport troops, equipment, ammunition, and other supplies.  The C130 has been the workhorse of the U.S. military since 1957.  Despite its high functionality, a C130 isn't a comfortable plane to fly in.  For one, it's loud.  You are handed a set of earplugs before you board a C130 to help block out, at least in part, the constant drone of the plane's propellers.  Secondly, a C130 is slow.  It reaches a top speed of approximately 366 mph, significantly slower than other military planes.  And finally, a C130 doesn't exactly provide first class accommodations.  The seats are canvas benches that hang from the sides and middle of the plane.  You board the plane from the back, climbing over all the cargo that has been loaded onto the plane to get to the seats.  If you have to go the bathroom while in flight, you use the tube that is partially curtained off toward the back of the plane.

That all being said, our six-hour flight to Afghanistan was a special one.  During the flight, a reenlistment ceremony was held in the plane's cargo bay in which Technical Sergeant Tiffany Seager of Niagara Falls, NY re-upped with the Air Force for another six years.  TSgt Seager waited until our plane was above Afghanistan, and asked Matt Millen and Anthony Muñoz to hold an American flag behind her as she pledged before several witnesses to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic."  Matt and Anthony were touched to participate in the ceremony, with Anthony saying afterword, "That was so cool.  What a patriotic thing to be a part of."

The rest of the flight was more mundane, with the troops and NFL players reading or sleeping to pass the time.  Notably, there was a bit of nervous anticipation on board as we got closer to our destination.  If there was any question about the seriousness of the place we were visiting, that was erased before we boarded as we were issued Kevlar body armor and a helmet to wear for protection while in Afghanistan.

After the long flight, we finally landed in Mazar-e-Sharif, in the north of Afghanistan.  Mazar-e-Sharif is home to a large German military base, as well as Camp Marmal, which is a sizeable U.S. base that serves as the hub of U.S. operations in northern Afghanistan.  The area has Coalition forces from all different countries working together in close coordination.  Within just our first couple of hours in Mazar-e-Sharif, we saw uniformed soldiers from Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and the U.K.

Our group had been eagerly anticipating arriving in Afghanistan for some time, but no one more than so than Matt Millen.  Matt's son Marcus is an Airborne Ranger currently serving in Afghanistan in the 10th Mountain Division.  While Matt did not know whether he would have the opportunity to meet up with his son in Afghanistan, he knew that the USO had arranged for Brad Childress to meet up with his Marine son last summer when Coach Childress was on a USO tour in Afghanistan and his son was serving in-country.

Earlier in this year's tour, when asked about his son, Matt Millen had spoken with great pride about Marcus.  Matt also noted that "my Marcus was always a little different."  Matt went on share the following conversation he had with his son when Marcus was only eight years old:

Marcus:  I'm going to go to the finest military academy in the country!

Matt:  What's that?

Marcus:  West Point!

Matt:  Marcus, you don't even know where West Point is.

Marcus:  It's on the Hudson.  In New York!

By the time Marcus was 10, he was studying Civil War battles and collecting Civil War era swords.  That was followed several years later by a West Point education (of course) and becoming a Commissioned Officer in the U.S. Army.

And just 20 years after that conversation with his eight-year old son, Matt arrived in Afghanistan on a USO tour.  Upon landing, he was almost immediately approached by his son, Lt. Marcus Millen.  The Army had indeed made arrangements to send Lt. Millen, along with his Staff Sergeant Aaron Welsh, up from their small base in Southern Afghanistan to Mazar-e-Sharif to reunite the two Millens.  When Marcus first approached Matt near the base entrance, father wrapped son in a big hug and held on tight.

After getting settled in our quarters and having dinner, we were free for the rest of the night.  Matt and Marcus – joined by Anthony Muñoz, SSgt Welsh and a handful of others – passed the night away chatting around a picnic bench in the base's central courtyard.  The soldiers told stories about their operations in Southern Afghanistan, one of the most dangerous areas of the country.  A very proud father listened intently.

Day 4

Day 4 of the 2011 NFL-USO tour began at Camp Marmal in Mazar-e-Sharif, in the north of Afghanistan.  The plan for the day was to "FOB hop" to several bases in the region.  FOB hopping – which is a staple of NFL-USO tours – is when you visit multiple small Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) in succession, flying by helicopter from one to the next. FOB hoping allows you to spend time with the troops on the front lines – the men and women waging war in some of the most remote places on Earth.  And given the remoteness of many of the FOBs in Afghanistan, it is an even bigger deal than usual when celebrities such as NFL greats show up.

Before beginning our day of FOB hopping, we had a meet-and-greet with the troops at Camp Marmal.  This meet-and-greet was noteworthy for the friendly (at least I think it was friendly) argument that broke out between two soldiers to determine who is the biggest Steelers fan on base.  Staff Sergeant (SSG) Boyd, a native of South Carolina, made his case first, noting that he has a sign at the front of his driveway at home declaring "Stop.  Alert.  You are in Steelers Country!"  This is followed by a sign in his garage, "Parking Reserved for Steelers Fans Only."  SSG Boyd told us that he hadn't missed a single Steelers game during his deployment, even though this required that he trade shifts and even take on extra shifts to adjust his schedule appropriately.

In the other corner, also claiming to be the biggest Steelers fan on base, was Specialist Isiah Phillips.  Spc Phillips said that he could prove his love for the Steelers in one easy way.  He then proceeded to remove his army uniform blouse and roll up the sleeve of his undershirt, revealing a massive Steelers tattoo that covered his entire upper arm.

Merril Hoge, who of course played seven years for the Steelers, was called in to settle the dispute.  Merril was convinced by both parties' argument and diplomatically called it a draw.  This decision may or may not have been impacted by the fact that both soldiers had their rifles in hand when Merril offered his judgment.

Following the meet-and-greet at Camp Marmal, our group divided up into two Blackhawk helicopters that would ferry us around northern Afghanistan for the day.  Military helicopters always fly in tandem to provide support and protection for one another.

The first FOB we visited was Ghormach, a 50 minute flight to the southwest of Camp Marmal.  During the flight, we had terrific views of the stark and rugged – but beautiful – Afghanistan landscape.  Flying over the country, you really get a sense of why Afghanistan has been so slow to embrace modernity, and also why it is so hard to successfully fight a war there.  The country is filled with jagged mountains rising up sharply from the land below.  Usually several ridge lines separate one village from the next, with the villages only being connected by a dirt road, if at all.  Afghanistan is a beautiful country though, with snowcapped mountains and splashes of greenery dotting the otherwise inhospitable landscape.

When we arrived at FOB Ghormach, we were greeted by First Sergeant (1SG) Franklin, who is the senior enlisted soldier on base.  1SG Franklin explained to us that his team had only taken command of the FOB three weeks prior.  They were still working to build up the FOB and learn the terrain.  There are currently 88 soldiers on base, but they plan to get up to 150 men.

We had lunch with the troops at Ghormach and then toured the base.  Ghormach is a relatively primitive camp, where the soldiers sleep in tents.  There are no cooking facilities; any hot meals the soldiers eat on base are flown in from other locations.  The base lacks the "amenities" that most other bases have, such as workout equipment or an entertainment center with a TV and DVD player.  And yet, you will never hear the soldiers at Ghormach complain, and they certainly don't let their austere living conditions impact their ability to accomplish their mission one bit.  As Merril Hoge said, "Man, this isn't easy living out here.  I can't imagine living here for months at a time.  But these guys don't even seem to notice it."

Following our visit at Ghormach, we hopped back in the Blackhawks and traveled to FOB Griffin.  While still very remote, Griffin is bigger than Ghormach and has both Afghan and American troops on base.  Upon arriving, the NFL players went to the MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) cabin where they snapped photos, signed autographs, and hung out with soldiers.  The MWR cabin has a large book shelf from which troops can borrow books.  USO tour manager Lonnie Cooper was browsing the offerings when he came across a signed copy of Rocky Bleier's autobiography. Bleier, of course, played running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers and served in the Vietnam War, later returning to the Pacific for a NFL-USO tour in 1975.

Remember, we are currently on a USO tour with another former Steelers running back who has also written an autobiography (Merril Hoge shares his life story in Find A Way).  Merril had brought several copies of his book with him on tour and was handing out autographed copies to many of the Steelers fans he encountered in Afghanistan.  When Bleier's book was pointed out to him, Merril joked "Let me know where you found that.  I'm going put mine on top of it."

Merril, Matt, and Anthony spent the afternoon at FOB Griffin, chatting casually with the troops and getting a tour of the base.  From there, it was back on the Blackhawks for an hour flight to Camp Spann.  Camp Spann, which like many bases is named for a fallen soldier, is named for Mike Spann, who was the first American killed in the war in Afghanistan during our initial invasion in 2001.  The NFL/NFLPA Disaster Relief Fund actually endowed a scholarship in Spann's name for college-bound seniors from Marion County, AL.

We ate dinner at Camp Spann's DFAC (which incidentally had the tastiest food of the tour so far), and then hosted a meet and greet that attracted a large group of troops.  As per usual, the troops' excitement to try on Millen's four Super Bowl rings was only exceeded by the thrill Steelers fans got from meeting Hoge.

With the conclusion of this meet-and-greet, our long day of FOB hopping came to an end.  We had visited four bases, ranging from the larger Camp Marmal to the tiny Ghormach.  We had logged hundreds of miles on the Blackhawks.  And most importantly, we were able to spend time and thank several hundred troops for their service.

"What a great day," Anthony Muñoz noted before going to bed.  "I become more impressed with our troops with each day."

Day 5

Day 5 of the 2011 NFL-USO found our group "FOB hopping" once again, visiting several small Forward Operating Bases in northern Afghanistan.  Our itinerary for the day was an aggressive one, with a goal of visiting five different bases spread across the region.  If successful, we would reach thousands of troops in a remote corner of Afghanistan.

We began at Camp Spann, where we had spent the previous evening.  Our quarters at Spann were tight, with Hoge, the two Millens (Matt and his son Lt Marcus Millen), Muñoz, and SSG Welsh all bunking in one room.  The two young soldiers, probably exhausted from the six months they have spent conducting reconnaissance missions in southern Afghanistan, slept great.  The three old guys tossed and turned for several hours, though, before deciding that their attempts to sleep were futile and engaging in conversation across the room.  Matt Millen would later admit that he hasn't slept more than a few hours in the past three days – and he wasn't feeling tired – because he was so energized from seeing his son.  Marcus Millen quipped the next morning, in reference to the chatty guys in his room, "Yeah, I slept great last night, aside from the teenage girls who chatted away all night like it was a slumber party."

After breakfast at Camp Spann, our group had a quick meet-and-greet with the Brigade Commander and Colonel who lead the troops in northern Afghanistan.  CSM Grinston and COL Matlock thanked our guys for making the trip to Afghanistan and presented them with the 170th Brigade coin.  The NFL greats reciprocated, presenting coins from their former teams and a limited edition Super Bowl XLV game coin from Highland Mint.

We then moved to the base's Helicopter Landing Zone (HLZ) and boarded Blackhawks to set out for the day's second stop, FOB Khelegey.  Khelegey is home to Specialist Henry Trahan, who told us that his small base of 170 troops hadn't been visited by any other celebrity entertainers during the unit's deployment.  Upon greeting Merril, Matt, and Anthony at the entrance to the FOB, Specialist Trahan said, "the guys on base are so excited to meet you guys.  I can't wait just to see their faces when they see you."

Our group hosted a meet-and-greet at FOB Khelegy and toured the base, chatting with the soldiers at their stations.  The players interacted with the troops so effortlessly, often asking guys where they are from back home and then going on to discuss the soldier's favorite college and pro teams.  It seemed like every soldier from California was invited by Millen to drop by Anthony Muñoz's mother's house in Ontario, CA to try Mrs. Muñoz's famous tamales and other Mexican treats.

Following our visit to Khelegey, we were back on the Blackhawks and off to FOB Kunduz.  Once again, we flew over beautiful terrain on our way over to Kunduz, with the FOB finally appearing out of nowhere after miles of uninhabited terrain.  At Kunduz, we were escorted around the base by Captain Strand of South Dakota.  CPT Strand and his unit just arrived at Kunduz three weeks prior and already have done a tremendous job strengthening and improving the camp.

Rather than having a staged meet-and-greet at Kunduz, CPT Strand escorted us around the large base, introducing our group to as many as possible of the 1,200 troops stationed there.  We visited the soldiers working in the operations center, medical clinic, maintenance shed, and even the kitchen.  Everywhere we went we met dedicated soldiers who looked to excel at every mission, whether it was tutoring the Afghan National Army (ANA) or cooking dinner.

FOB Hairatan was the next stop on our Day 5 tour of remote bases in northern Afghanistan.  Hairatan is a small camp with approximately 150 troops, located as far north as you can go in Afghanistan – right on the border with Uzbekistan.  The troops at Hairatan went two months without internet or television when they first arrived.  The recent addition of a satellite dish allowed them better connection to the outside world (albeit they are still in the middle of nowhere).  One of the soldiers at Hairatan, Specialist Brooks, should have entered the previous day's competition to determine the biggest Steelers fan.  He asked Merril Hoge to sign his Steelers comforter which the soldier hadn't used since the Super Bowl.  Before Super Bowl XLV, Specialist Brooks pledged to sleep with the comforter for his entire deployment if the Steelers won the Super Bowl, but never sleep with it again if the Steelers lost the big game.  Sure enough, Specialist Brooks brought the comforter over to Merril in a plastic case, not having been touched since February 6.

Our next stop following FOB Hairatan was Deh Dadi II.  Deh Dadi is the name of an Afghan town, and Deh Dadi I is the Afghan National Army (ANA) base located there.  Deh Dadi II is the American base.  The Americans at Deh Dadi II work hand-in-hand with the ANA on both military missions and humanitarian projects.  Major Torrence Cleveland, who of course greeted us with his Terrible Towel in hand, noted that American forces recently built an elementary school for the local population in Deh Dadi.  During our visit on base, we had a quick dinner in the DFAC (Dining Facility), after which Merril, Matt, and Anthony walked around to every table to introduce themselves and say thank you.  It was amazing to watch the guys work the room – every soldier got individual attention.  Anthony actually bumped into a woman who had received a college scholarship from his foundation several years prior.  She is now an officer in the US Army, stationed at Deh Dadi II.

After a couple of hours at Deh Dadi II, we were back on the Blackhawks and headed for Camp Marmol.  Marmol is the first base we visited in Afghanistan, and it was where we would spend the night before beginning our trip back to the U.S. the following day.  Marmol is the headquarters for all Coalition war efforts in northern Afghanistan, and we had the opportunity to meet the General who oversees the region (known as RC North), GEN Sean Mulholland.  GEN Mulholland asked about our experiences visiting the FOBs and provided a high-level overview of operations in RC North.  He also coined the players and offered tremendous words of guidance to the two young soldiers traveling with us, Lt Marcus Millen and SSG Welsh.

The day ended with a special treat.  It was Matt Millen's birthday and our MWR escorts who were leading us around base had planned a surprise.  They said we had one more stop to end the day – which had begun 14 hours earlier and had include visits at five bases.  Our final stop was a conference room in the RC North headquarters building, where Matt was greeted with a round of "Happy Birthday to You" and cake.  It was indeed a sweet day.

The NFL's partnership with the United Service Organizations (USO) is among the most successful, longest lasting, and farthest reaching of its kind.  NFL players and coaches have traveled to all corners of the globe with the USO, thanking our service members in countries and regions including Vietnam, Guam, Japan, Korea, Kosovo, Russia, Germany, the Balkans, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

The idea for the partnership between the NFL and the USO was conceived all the way back in 1965, when commissioner Pete Rozelle thought to send NFL players on "goodwill tours" to Vietnam to support the troops.  One year later, four future Pro Football Hall of Fame players – Johnny Unitas, Frank Gifford, Willie Davis, and Sam Huff – traveled to Vietnam as part of the first NFL-USO tour.

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