Gridiron Greats Visit Troops in Iraq

By Spc. Jeffrey Ledesma, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 19, 2007 - To increase troops' morale, three National Football League players, weighing in at a combined 662 pounds, set aside their football gear for a trip to Iraq to visit with Multinational Division Baghdad soldiers April 16.

As part of the Gridiron Greats Tour 2007, Chris Harris, a safety with the Chicago Bears, Nick Harper, a cornerback with the Indianapolis Colts, and Israel Idonije, a defensive end with the Chicago Bears, autographed everything from posters to footballs for the soldiers.

One behind the other, soldiers filed into the Liberty Morale, Welfare and Recreation building to get closer than 50-yard-line seats could get them to the three Super Bowl XLI players wearing desert tan and Army green camouflage gear.

"It's motivational for people, especially people we label celebrities, that seem above everybody else, to just come out and condone what we do and say 'We support you,'" said Sgt. Robert Harbour, a signal support systems specialist with Company A, Division Special Troops Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division.

"It gives everybody a chance to meet people you don't usually run into when you're back home," said Harbour, a native of Broken Bow, Okla.

"These players understand what (soldiers) are doing and they understand how (they) are serving and they want to give back to the community, the greater community of the Army," said Joe Canfield, the manager of the three players.

Although they arrived here to raise the spirits of the soldiers fighting in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the players departed with a glimpse of what it means to be a soldier.

"It's been an eye-opener to see what soldiers go through, where they stay, how they live," Idonije said. "The unbelievable amount of courage and sacrifice and dedication that these guys have - it's unbelievable."

During the 6-foot-6-inch player's stay, he got a chance to talk to young men and women and hear some of their stories.

"Stories about losing friends and how they manage to go back out and continue to do their jobs everyday are truly inspirational," he said.

Idonije added that back home, media can be very negative and although many people want to support soldiers, not many people take that extra step to see what's really happening on the ground.

For this African-born, Canadian-grown football player, this tour has allowed him to see and experience what's happening on the ground using the soldiers as his eyes into this war.

"Being out here and having exposure to the military, exposure to the soldiers, allows them to go back and share the good things that are going on here," Canfield said. "We know the media doesn't always promote the welfare of the soldier or promote the image.

"These guys can go back to their fellow athletes, their fellow teams, the NFL, their friends and family and share the good things that are occurring and promote a positive image of the Army overall," Canfield said.

With the recent announcement of extended tours for troops on the ground, these professional athletes had an even greater task at hand.

"It gives them a greater responsibility to be more energetic, more active and raise the morale of the troops who just realized they are staying here for another three months," Canfield said.

Harbour said all the small things, something as small as a handshake or a snapshot, can make a difference by helping soldiers keep their minds off the sudden, but expected, three-month extension.

"In times of war, it takes special people to come together and do what's necessary to stand for what's right, what we believe in as a people," Idonije said. "I am not here every day crossing the wire, so for me to be able just to hang out with the guys and thank them personally is an honor I am grateful for."

Editor's Note: To find out about more individuals, groups and organizations that are helping support the troops, visit America Supports You directly connects military members to the support of the America people and offers a tool to the general public in their quest to find meaningful ways to support the military community.

(Army Spc. Jeffrey Ledesma is assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division Public Affairs Office.)

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