By Spc. Justin Snyder
3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault)
CAMP STRIKER, Iraq – Celebrities paid a visit to Soldiers from 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) at Camp Striker as part of a United Service Organizations tour on July 8.
The group included National Football League stars Drew Brees and Osi Umenyiora, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, former college football coach Jack Lengyel, actor Milo Ventimiglia and two Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders.
The stars posed for pictures and answered questions with all of the Soldiers before sitting down to sign autographs.
The NFL has a long-standing reputation of supporting the troops, working with the USO for the past 40 years, and was the first sports organization to send athletes overseas when they visited Vietnam in 1966. With Goodell joining in on this trip, it marks the first time that a commissioner from any sport has ever visited the troops.
"I am inspired by the many NFL players that, over the decades, have volunteered to visit our troops overseas and have talked about it being a life-changing experience," Goodell said in a recent interview with the Pegasus News. "I want to do my part and emphasize that the entire NFL appreciates and supports the work that our military does to protect our country."
Brees, quarterback for the New Orleans Saints, was making his third USO tour. He traveled to Kuwait in 2007 and Okinawa, Japan, earlier this year. He joked with Soldiers and said he was glad that he could show his support for the service members overseas.
"I do these trips for these men and women," said Brees. "Whatever I can do to show my support – whether it's signing footballs or just talking to them – is worth it."
This was the first tour for Umenyiora, defensive end from the Super Bowl-champion New York Giants. A few Soldiers got the opportunity to wear his championship ring that he received following the Giants victory in Super Bowl XLII.
The Cowboys cheerleaders, often known as "America's Sweethearts," have made 66 USO trips over the years in support of the troops. The two cheerleaders smiled, posed for pictures and talked to the Soldiers.
"It's always good to see high-profile people like that over here," said Capt. Seth Palmer, personnel officer for 1st Squadron, 33rd Cavalry Regiment, 3rd BCT, 101st Abn. Div. (AASLT). "It's a very good morale booster."
Ventimiglia, who plays Peter Petrelli on the hit show "Heroes", said he has wanted to do something for the troops for the last three years and was glad to finally get the opportunity to come over and show his support.
His family has a long legacy of military service, with his father serving twice in Vietnam and his grandfather serving in World War II. Before turning to acting, he had an appointment scheduled at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.; however, he never went.
"The tendency is for people to just read the news and talk about the war. That wasn't enough for me," Ventimiglia said. "To be able to come out here and say 'thank you' was important to me. It made me really happy to see smiling faces. That's what it is all about, knowing I made their day."
For some Soldiers, meeting Ventimiglia helped make what can be a long day at work a little easier.
"It really made the females in our office's day. He plays our favorite character on 'Heroes,'" said Capt. Holly Brewer, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3rd BCT, 101st Abn. Div. (AASLT) executive officer. "All of us are big 'Heroes' fans and we are always talking about the show. It was really cool to meet him and take pictures."
Lengyel is most notably known as the coach who succeeded Rich Tolley at Marshall University in 1971 following a plane crash that killed a majority of the team and the inspiration for Matthew McConaughey's role in the movie, "We Are Marshall," said he was glad to be a part of this special trip in honor of our troops. He also spent 14 years working as the athletic director at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Ventimiglia, who has also been on the popular sitcom "Gilmore Girls" and played Rocky's son in "Rocky Balboa," said he was glad to make some Soldiers' day. He added, unlike the character on television, he wasn't the real hero.
"The sacrifices these guys make over here is way more than anything I could ever do on television or in the movies," he said. "These Soldiers are the real heroes and I respect them a lot for what they do for our country."
The USO is a private, non-profit organization whose mission is to support the troops by providing morale, welfare and recreation-type services to the men and women in uniform. Their slogan is "Until every one comes home" and the organization serves as a way for the American public to support the troops.