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The real heroes:An NFL star sees a new measure of toughness and courage while in Iraq

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  • The real heroes:An NFL star sees a new measure of toughness and courage while in Iraq

    Maybe you remember us. My name is Kevin Greene, aka “Salt.” Lamar Lathon, aka “Pepper,” and I played for the Carolina Panthers in 1996 when we helped the Panthers reach the NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers. We fell short of our goal to be world champions, but Lamar and I became brothers for life.
    We reunited for seven days in Iraq recently on a Super Sunday Tour with former Oakland Raiders linebacker Greg Biekert and two Raiderette cheerleaders on a mission to boost the morale of military personnel. We traveled on a UH-60 Black Hawk to forward operating bases and watched the Super Bowl game with soldiers. As we left for Kuwait, we all knew this goodwill tour would be special, but we didn’t know how special it would turn out to be.
    After a night in Kuwait, we boarded a C-130 Hercules bound for Iraq. It was midnight and pitch black outside. We were issued armor vests and Kevlar helmets and were firmly instructed to wear them throughout our tour. They did not have to tell me more than once.
    We flew with 57 Marines and soldiers deploying or returning from their midtour R&R (rest and relaxation).
    As we flew deep into Iraq, we made one quick stop on our way to Mosul at a FOB called Q-West to offload the Marines and soldiers. In their eyes, I saw a resolve, an acceptance of fate. In their faces, I saw confidence and calmness, apprehension and acute awareness. I had no doubt these were brave men and women, the bravest ever, America’s finest.
    The flight from Kuwait was to assume a combat/tactical posture as we approached our stops in Q-West and Mosul. All lights inside and outside our plane would be turned off. Twenty minutes out of Q-West, in complete darkness, my heart was pounding. As we descended, our crew chiefs used night-vision goggles to look for trails from rockets or missiles.
    We descended rapidly from roughly 12,000 feet to 1,000 feet or less, nose down at about a 45-degree angle to give the bad guys minimal time to acquire us as a target. We literally fell out of the sky, nose down, turning left to right quickly and violently, constantly adjusting our flight path. We slammed down on the tarmac at Q-West. I can’t believe I lived through that. We quickly taxied off the runway, dropping the tail ramp as we rolled. Our brave troops shuffled out with their full rucksacks and weapons. Lamar and I were high-fiving them, yelling “Thank you! Be safe! You are the warriors! Thank you!”
    They ran off into the darkness, to wherever and whatever may wait for them. Brave is not description enough.
    Before I knew it, the loading ramp began to close and we were rolling. Engines were blaring and we sprinted down the runway for a tactical takeoff: nose up sharply, fast turns side-to-side, nose down sharply, floating off my seat, nose up again, sinking hard into my seat, crew chiefs with night-vision goggles scanning for bad guys out the window, blackness.
    It’s amazing the things you think about on a tactical C-130 flight: my beautiful wife, Tara, singing the national anthem before the playoff game against the Cowboys in ’96, my little girl crawling into my lap, my boy wanting to wrestle, God and how good He’s been to me. I’m in Iraq for only seven days. These soldiers are here for a year or maybe longer. They will serve two, three, maybe four deployments. Brave cannot begin to describe them.
    Our first full day in Iraq found us going to four different FOBs. Our first night we were chowing down at the DFAC (dining facility) when the sirens went off, warning of incoming enemy rounds. We were being shelled. The odds were that the rounds wouldn’t have a direct impact on the DFAC, as I understood the enemy is a bad shot.
    We received the all-clear siren about 45 minutes later and headed to our billeting area to sleep. I hunkered down, keeping my armor and Kevlar helmet close. I had boots at the ready. After 40-something hours without sleep, I passed out. I stepped outside in the morning to the sound of a small-arms engagement outside the wire. As an ex-captain in the Army Reserve, I’ve fired my share of rifles and machine guns on target ranges. But this time, the shots were not training rounds fired on a range on some base in the States. These rounds were fired in anger with deadly intent, lives were on the line and families were in peril.
    We hopped on a Black Hawk to another FOB. The military had lost eight helicopters in the last few weeks, some to enemy fire. As I flew on the Hawks, I constantly searched the terrain, along with the pilots and crew chiefs. Everything was a threat. Palm groves that we flew over, ditches, gas stations — the enemy could have been anywhere and everywhere.
    On one flight, we were about 150 feet above the ground when, all of the sudden, we banked hard right. I looked out the window and I saw red flares being deployed from my Hawk’s countermeasure engagement defense system. The red flares redirected the heat-seeking missiles away from the heat signature of the engine so the missiles exploded away from the Hawk.
    Brave men with tons of armor on their bodies crawled into armored Humvees and headed downtown to search for improvised explosive devices and knock on doors. Every day, they have had an engagement with the enemy. Every day, they have fired their weapons in anger. Every day, they have received hostile fire.
    The warriors are so young. I remember Lamar and me getting our picture taken with a young private who was so proud of his high school prom photo. He wanted to hold it and display it as we snapped a photo with him. The prom photo was from 2005 — you do the math.
    These warriors were happy to see us, and so grateful we took time from our busy schedules to come visit them. They are excited to meet their childhood heroes. But I’m crying inside while maintaining a highly motivated, highly charged, highly energized demeanor on the outside.
    I hope I told them all how grateful I am to be enjoying the peace that they provide. How grateful I am that my family and I rest easy every night underneath the canopy of freedom that they so unselfishly deploy. I hope I told them all that they are the true heroes — my heroes. It makes sacking Joe Montana and John Elway meaningless. It makes my mission to get into Canton, Ohio, as a Hall of Fame linebacker seem pointless.
    The heroes are not in Canton. They are in Arlington National Cemetery and countless other military cemeteries. The heroes are those proudly and gratefully serving our country in a hundred different hot spots around the globe.
    They don’t want glory or ESPN highlights. They just want to know that we the people support them, and that we are grateful for their hard work and their sacrifice.
    Our entire tour group had changed. We were altered. Our love for our brave soldiers became indescribable.
    As for Salt and Pepper, we grew closer as brothers: no black, no white — brothers.
    Thank you, warriors. Thank you.
    The writer is a former captain in the Army Reserve who played for 15 years in the National Football League as a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Carolina Panthers, Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers. He and fellow Panther Lamar Lathon were known as “Salt and Pepper.”

  • NevadaJay
    God bless your family SwordOne.

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  • SwordOne
    Thanks for the great description of your Iraq tour. My son is a twenty year-old PFC stationed at FOB Q-West. He's a gunner on a Humvee and out on patrol 5-6 days a week. He's coming home next week for R&R and then he'll take that ride back onto Q-West. Those men and women are incredibly brave and I know that a lot of them are not too far removed from Friday nights on the football field. While I am damned proud of them all, my son says it's just what they do. I asked him once if he and his buddies paid any attention to the politics of war here at home. He said "we know about it, but frankly Dad, it's pretty much wondering if there's anything new at the DFAC and is the next IED for us". Incredibly brave. I plan on showing your post to my son when he gets home. My thanks to you and Lamar for taking the time to let these warriors know that we care.

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  • snowman
    great read, i also gave Pat Tillman much credit, turning down mucho dinero to go into the army. and he ended up giving up his life for the country he loved.

    i was in the air force and it was pretty peaceful back then. i give everyone willing to make a stand and go into the armed services. i just wish we did more for them when they return home.

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  • BoKnows
    Nice Beer!Thanks great read!!:beerbang:

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