As a child growing up in Indiana, Memorial Day Weekend meant two things to me: the end of school/start of summer, and the Indy 500. But, as I grew older and began to grasp it’s relevance, Memorial Day became one of the most meaningful days of the year to me. Today, as I pause to remember all of my fellow Americans who gave the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our country, I will also pause to reflect on those moments, learning experiences and people that helped define Memorial Day for me.
I will never forget my first visit to Arlington National Cemetery. I was with my father, and I was in 6th grade. We stood in silence at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and watched as the soldier on guard paced back and forth…twenty one steps, twenty one seconds of stillness. That solemn routine, coupled with the uniformity of the white headstones lining the hills in all directions rocked me to my core. So began my journey of understanding the profound meaning of sacrifice and honor.
My visit to the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor was another powerful experience. Everything I had learned in school about the events of December 7, 1941, came to life while standing above the final resting place of those who perished that fateful Sunday morning.
Another unforgettable moment happened while I was traveling home to spend Thanksgiving with my family last fall. While in Atlanta on layover, I glanced out the window and time suddenly stood still. My heart broke as a family stood at attention as they welcomed their loved one home…in a casket draped with an American flag. The reality of the ultimate sacrifice hit me like a ton of bricks. This soldier would not be celebrating Thanksgiving with his family. Instead, he gave his life defending our freedom, which among many things, meant fellow Americans (like me) could experience the peace and joy of family holidays.
During the Marlins Troops Visit in February, I witnessed time and time again another definition of sacrifice. While at Camp Patriot in Kuwait, I had dinner with Medic Dan from Ohio. During his deployment, he was sent home for his wife’s final days of pregnancy because the doctors weren’t sure she was going to survive childbirth. Days after she gave birth to a healthy son, her health stabilized and he traveled halfway around the world, back to where duty and commitment awaited him. Although he was blessed to be home for the birth, which many soldiers miss while deployed, he had to leave his wife to care for their new child as well as herself. A few nights later, I met a mom of a 5 year old boy. She said he was back home with her mother, and that she had been deployed overseas for over half of her young son’s life. That meant he is more familiar with a mom he sees on FaceTime or Skype, rather than a mom who tucks him in bed and kisses him goodnight. The sacrifice our servicemen and women make are all felt by spouses, parents and kids back home. They have to pick up the pieces and carry on as they anxiously await the return of their loved ones. Even if it’s temporary, it is still a sacrifice of time that they will never get back.
As my appreciation for Memorial Day has evolved over the years, so have my traditions. One is still watching the Indy 500 – I have many wonderful childhood memories that involve listening to or attending the race. The other is the Annual Memorial Day concert held in Washington, DC. This year, one of the honorees was fallen Army Ranger Kris Stonesifer. Kris was one of the first casualties in the war in Afghanistan. His mother, Ruth, found solace with the American Gold Star Mothers. She would go on to serve as the President of the organization, which built a unique Fisher House at Dover AFB for family members of fallen heroes. This Fisher House provides family members with a place to stay, grief counseling and other services as they await the return of their loved ones remains. The journey of Sergeant John Peck was also told. He survived not one put two life threatening attacks which left him with a Traumatic Brain Injury as well as a quad-amputee. He reminded me of one of the most inspiring people I have ever met, SGT Travis Mills (“Travis the Movie”). Travis was involved in an IED explosion in Afghanistan that resulted in him becoming a quad-amputee as well. Travis faced a harrowing recovery but he made a conscious decision to not just survive his injuries, but to LIVE his life for his wife and daughter. Less than six months after his accident, he completed the Tunnel to Towers run in NYC. Needless to say he is living life and he is currently working to open a fully accessible respite ranch for veterans and their families in Maine.
On this Memorial Day, I remember all of those who have sacrificed their life for our country and their family members they left behind. I also remember both of my Grandfathers who served during WWII: one in the Army, one in the Air Force. I honor my Uncle Bob who served in the Marines, my Uncle Ron who served in the Army and my Uncle John who served as an Officer in the Army in Vietnam. I honor my cousin Michael Smith, now retired, who served as an Army Ranger. I honor my cousin Kyle Trout, who also served in the Army and was deployed to Afghanistan. I honor my cousin Anthony Denkinger, who is currently at the Air Force Academy. I also honor my friend Dave Bruce, who recently returned from a deployment in SW Asia. And I honor one of my favorite people in the world, Arthur Rizer, an Army Captain who served in Iraq. They are my heroes. And they all make me so proud to be an American!
Man what a difference a day makes! We flew from Kuwait to an undisclosed location in SW Asia. We landed around 1:30 p.m. and we were greeted at the airport by a young man holding a Miami Marlins sign, wearing a University of South Alabama T-shirt. The young man’s name is Marcus and he’s from Citronelle.
He drove us to the base we would be staying for the next two nights. Once we cleared entry (we had to exchange passports for security cards) they brought us to our living quarters. After the experience in Kuwait, I was fully expecting and prepared to rough it again. Well, I was shocked when they drove me to the General’s suite. I had to break out my best Gomer Pyle…Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!!! It’s a two room suite complete with full living room and furniture, TV, refrigerator, washer and dryer, king size bed, computer, dresser drawers and a stand up closet. It also has a large bathroom, complete with towels, soap & shampoo.
So after check-in, we met with the Base Commander and had dinner in his private dinning room. Following dinner, he took us to this large covered pavilion where they had country music playing, 50+ tables and a bar for the troops, which had a 2 drink limit. (I’ve never counted to one so many times in my life). He put everything on his tab and we hung out and visited with many of the troops until 12:30 a.m. Earlier at 10:00 p.m., they sounded Revelry and everyone stood at attention facing the flag. Had a great night sleep in that huge suite. Revelry sounded again at 6:00 a.m., I headed to the DFAC (dinning facilities) for coffee.
We met as a group at 8:00 a.m. for breakfast. Our day started with a tour of the base. We hit the mechanical shop, electrical shop, and two other support areas. At each location we had meet and greets where we signed autographs and gave away Marlins hats, back-packs and t-shirts. We then headed over to the flight line. Here we got to board about five different airplanes. We saw a Drone, a U2, a cargo plane, an info & recon plane, a re-fueling plane, then we saw the real bad boys.
The F-22 and F-15… all I can say is WOW!!! We can sleep well at night knowing these planes provide our first line of defense and protection. They showed us how they load the bombs, let us sit in the cock-pit of the F-15… but they made it very clear NO PHOTOS!!! They had an exercise mission so we got to see 10 of the planes take off.
At 12:00 p.m. we went to another dining facility on base called Windy’s. The food was excellent, they even had chicken wings! From there we went to three more meet and greets. First stop was the shipping and receiving center, then we went to the civil engineering department and finally the security/weapons center. I got to try on one of the armor weighted vests (35 lbs.) I cant imagine having that on in 120 degrees of heat walking in the desert, but man do I have new found respect for what our soldiers go through. We got to hold all different type weapons from machine guns, grenade launcher, hand pistols, etc. I cant remember all of the different numbers that were associated with each weapon, but I can say without a doubt, they will do the job.
After that we got to interact with with the police dogs. They gave us a full demonstration how the dogs work and attacked would-be predators. They then asked if anyone wanted to volunteer to put on the jacket and be attacked by the dog. Well guess who raised his hand and volunteered? Heck yeah, Papi put on the suit! So first, I assumed the position and offered my arm for attack. On command, BAM! That dog hit me with a full lunge and grabbed my arm, the pressure of his bite was like slamming your arm in a car door. Then his teeth locked on and I felt the sting, he had broke a blood vessel in my forearm. They pried his jaws off the jacket. Then after he had retreated, they asked me to run like I was getting away. I replied, “The only running I’m doing is out of the gate!”
What an adrenalin rush!
Tonight, we have an open event at the pavilion, then dinner. I will be showing off my battle scar complete with bruise and broken skin, until next time, Dan Jennings signing off…
Over all, the best experience of my life. We traveled all over Southwest Asia during this visit overseas and have met so many brave men and women. It is completely different to stay on a military base and witness their lives on a day to day basis versus hearing about it on the news. The troops showed us so much love and gratitude at every base we traveled to. They sincerely loved having a little piece of the States over to recognize them for all their efforts to keep our country safe on the home front. We often heard, “You make me feel at home.” Just to hear that from a soldier who is away from their family for 6-12 months reassured me that I was giving back to our heroes in the best way I could. I had one woman say to me, “You know, we think that people over there forget about us over here. But having you guys visit will boost the morale of our troops for months to come. We really appreciate you guys.” They continued to thank us time and time again for being there, but really we were the lucky ones being given the opportunity to pay it forward and show our troops that they have not been forgotten back at home.
Not only has this trip been humbling, it was educational for all of us. We learned so much about life on a military base and how important each soldier’s functions are to their tight knit community. I really was clueless about the life of a deployed soldier, but coming out of this experience I have a plethora of knowledge and the utmost respect for our men and woman overseas.
Today’s Marlins Troops Visit post is written by Miami Marlins Executive Vice President of Operations & Events, Claude Delorme:
On Monday afternoon at 3:00 p.m., Angela and I met with the rest of the traveling party: Dan Jennings, Marlins GM, Cliff Floyd and Charles Johnson, two key members of the Marlins 1997 World Series Champions and Carla and Lauren, two members of the Energy Team.
Our 4:55 p.m. departure to Frankfurt, Germany was on time and we arrived as scheduled at 8:00 a.m. on Tuesday. With a six hour time difference, it represented a 9 hour flight. Once at the airport, we found one of the lounges and we had a five and a half-hour layover prior to our flight to Kuwait. Our group struggled the most during this rest period. We finally boarded for Kuwait at 1:35 pm and arrived at 9 pm. We lost another two hours between Frankfurt and Kuwait. By the time we cleared immigration, obtained our visa, collected our luggage and arrived at the camp, it was midnight. We were all tired and we called it a night so we could be ready for the busiest day of the tour on Wednesday.
When I arrived to my room, I decided to take a shower before going to bed. As I was taking my shower, I realized that I had not seen any towels in the common restroom/shower area. Sure enough, no towels were available. All I had with me was the bottom portion of my pajamas and a shirt. I dried myself with my hands as well as I could and headed to my room for a good night’s sleep. The next day, Dan, Cliff and Charles took their top blanket with them to the showers. We made it a priority that day to visit the general store and purchase towels, soap and shampoo for the remainder of the trip.
On Wednesday at two of the camps, our day started at 10:45 a.m. where we met the Commander and his executive staff for an information session. We also discussed the role of the U.S. during the Gulf War. They presented each of us with certificates at the end of the session and we took photos with the group. It was very informative. Lunch followed on-site with the troops . Lots of choices and the food was good. We then met with the military of Zone 1 at the camp’s Community Center for an autograph and photo session. It also gave us an opportunity to engage in one-on-one conversations with the service men and women. It was special experience for all of us. We then met with the military responsible for the Paladin Unit. These are the large tanks that are able to release missiles as far as 18 miles away from their target with a great deal of precision. A team of seven people are assigned to each Paladin including four members inside the tank. Each missile released will destroy everything within 300 meters of the target area. Once a target is identified to be released, they will fire three missiles to the same target area to ensure that everything in that area is destroyed. The soldiers brought us inside the Paladin and went through the simulation as well as everyone’s role in a real life situation. Charles was asked to open the chamber . It was extremely heavy but he was able to accomplish the task on his second attempt. What a thrill to experience this mission for all of us. Charles, Cliff and the girls were able to take several photos inside and outside the Paladin. We also took a few photos with the entire group. It was the highlight of the day for the Marlins team.
Next, it was time for a softball game with the service men and woman of the camp. We had brought our gloves and held a batting practice for everyone. I pitched and everyone had the opportunity to hit and catch a few softballs. The troops really enjoyed being around Dan, Cliff and Charles. Carla and Lauren also made their way to the plate and were able to hit a few baseballs. Charles and Cliff made their way to the plate on a few occasions and I can tell you that I needed to be alert with their bat speed and power still very much at play. Dan also showed some form and he was able to hit a few pitches a long way. We enjoyed the camaraderie with the service men and women and they were able to play and interact with Cliff and Charles. They will remember that experience forever. One of the guys who participated told me it was his highlight of his five years since joining the army. Nice for us to have this impact.
It was 5:oo p.m. so we went to dinner with the troops. We were escorted to the VIP room for a private dinner with a few captains and sergeants of the military. It was a nice opportunity for us to connect with them and better understand the sacrifices and dedication to their job and country.
We then traveled off-site to meet with children 3 to 17 years of age playing softball and baseball in Kuwait. Four fields had just been built and the children were waiting for us for a Q & A session with Charles and Cliff, followed with an autograph and photo session with our baseball guys and the girls. Carla and Lauren were very popular with the kids as well. As we arrived, they were all cheering “Go Fish” . Over 200 people were in attendance and they were ready to fire questions to Cliff and Charles. It was a very fitting way to complete our first full day of this extraordinary journey. I was very proud of everyone’s commitment on our team and to see the children’s smile and passion for the game of baseball, it made our visit so rewarding.
It was an incredible day and we were so impressed with how humble and appreciative everyone we all interacted with throughout the day. It will be an unforgettable experience for all of us.
Well day 2 is in the books…very busy and hectic day. We had an early start at 6:30 a.m. The day started with a meet-and-greet with the commanding officer and his top aids at our camp. He gave us a lot of detail about how the US troops helped free Kuwait from Iraqi control during the Gulf war. They presented us with certificates of appreciation and we took many photos.
We then went to the chow hall for our first taste of military food. All in all, it was pretty good. They offer many options ranging from full meal, to sandwiches, chicken fingers, etc… also, salad bar and carrot cake!!!
After that we had another meet and greet with a lot of the troops in their community center. We set up autograph and photo lines and spent 1:15 minutes non-stop. Very inspiring to hear their appreciation of us being there. I had a lot of one on one discussions with the troops.
We then proceeded to a softball / baseball field where we had some fun with batting practice with some of the guys. Even yours truly took some hacks…(I’m typing this behind 2 Aleve) It was really fun to interact with the troops in an environment where we felt comfortable.
Following BP, we were escorted to a paladin (tank) demonstration. we crawled inside the tank and they activated the engine and rotated the gun, locked and loaded the artillery and was ready to fire…there are normally 4 people when a tank is in operation, but, they allowed some more of us inside. They re-created an actual lock, load and fire with intense orders and actions….gotta tell ya, the ‘ole ticker was amped up a bit with a huge adrenaline rush. Made a lot of photo’s in and around the tank. Really cool the way they took us in and gave us that type of re-creation.
Finally it was dinner time. We had dinner at camp, this time they set us in the VIP room. Chicken Cordon-Bleu was on the menu. I must say, food was damn good, but….Papi will eat anything. We left dinner and went for another meet-and-greet. There were a lot of troops who followed us from dinner to the meeting room. We signed many autographs and gave away Marlins t-shirts, caps and back-packs. They presented us with an Appreciation gift to the Marlins.
I did a remote live interview with MLB Network following the meet-and-greet. Amazing, the fact that technology allows you to do a live interview from Kuwait via an iPad, back to the states and MLB Network. We had so much fun on the interview, Cliff Floyd video bombed me, creating even more zaniness.
We departed camp, and went into Kuwait City where we arrived at a little league field with 200+ kids and parents chanting “Let’s Go Fish!”…that was pretty cool. We had a Q&A session and signed many, many autographs. Really, a fun way to wrap up a long day!!!
We drove back to camp and stopped at the PX for some of our group to buy towels, shampoo & soap. Then we called it a night.
5:30 a.m. wake-up for a 6:10 bus…military time does not play! At 6:00 a.m. sharp over the loud speakers on the base at a volume of about 10 Revelry blast loud and proud.
Then to my fondest surprise…They played the theme song to my favorite movie, Patton (da na dant da da, na danna dat da da) It was very special, hearing that blare over the speakers all over the base….made me very proud of my country and the young men and women who defend our freedoms. Damn, I love that movie and the theme song will certainly have special meaning for me after hearing it at 6:00 a.m. in that environment.
We drove to Kuwait airport, checked in, and we are sitting here waiting on our flight to our next destination…until next time, this is Dan Jennings signing off…