by Doug Fister
Last week, Nationals right-hander Doug Fister took part in the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey’s USO Holiday Tour. Below is his first-person account from an incredible week.
After speaking with some of my teammates last year about the USO tour, I started to build some expectations about what we would be doing, where we would be going, and how the servicemen and women we would meet would react to our visit. I started wondering: What were their lives like?
After just a few minutes of being with the whole traveling party – the group of USO tour members and the military, those expectations went out the window.
There is really no way for me to describe my USO tour that would do it justice.
I can’t fully explain the incredible feelings and experiences that I was fortunate enough to have while on tour. From the travel, to the personnel involved, we were constantly soaking in something new. The excitement of ‘What’s around the next corner,’ was very real.
At the USO tour stop we made in the United Kingdom I was taken back to my childhood with my grandfather, who was a Chief Master Sergeant and a mechanic on B-52 bombers and KC-135 refuelers. RAF Mildenhall is the home for one of the KC-135 units, just like the ones my grandfather used to be a part of. To see that aircraft sitting in the hangar, and then to see it in flight, brought me back to him taking me to the flight line to watch them fly in.
It’s hard to pinpoint my favorite moment, because the trip as a whole was just overwhelmingly wonderful. But some of the moments that stand out most would start with the people involved.
The service men and women who make up the Chairman’s travel party were amazing individuals who exuded such great patriotism. They are what true soldiers, airmen, Marines, etc. are supposed to be.
I am most grateful for General Dempsey, and the example he sets for all Americans. He shows the honor, character, valor, loyalty, and way to carry one’s self with the confidence needed to be successful in life. He has surrounded himself with such great individuals, which gives us, as a country, the best chances to succeed in everything we do. Whether that’s on the front lines, or the traveling stage of the USO tour.
Traveling with the Chairman was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. He and his lovely wife are the most incredible and welcoming people. They are the epitome of a military family. Mrs. Dempsey has served her country, not just through supporting her husband, but as a military mother. She was constantly showing her appreciation to the service men and women, as well as to their families. She knows what it feels like to send sons and daughters off to war, as her own children have served. Despite what an unnerving experience that is, she has not only been a rock for them, but to the many families and military officials who have served under the General for all of his 41 years of service.
There was so much to learn from everyone I was on tour with, from those who work with the Chairman, to the “talent,” as they called us while on this USO tour. The patriotism that each of them shows — the way they carry themselves, the sacrifices they made in order to make the Chairman’s USO holiday tour as successful as it was — are just small parts of what we experienced together. The bonds that we created over the week are so tight. They are friendships that I will always be grateful for.
I had the opportunity to fly into Afghanistan with a crew on their C-17, in full garb — kevlar helmet, vest and all. Flying into a war zone doesn’t mean the same thing to me now as it did two weeks ago. Each and every flight that these young men and women take is a huge risk, and leaves them vulnerable to so many enemy opportunities. There we were, sitting on thick sheets of bullet proof metal — the same ones that line the walls of the cabin — all designed to prevent rockets and small arms from compromising our aircraft.
As we made the short four-hour flight from Turkey into Afghanistan, I was able to get to know my new pal, CD. I listened to his stories of where he’s been throughout his life, and learned about his family and how proud he is of his wife and children, who always support him and love him from so far away. He told me some of the many obstacles that he’s gone through, showing his toughness, both physical and mental, and his determination to succeed. It was such an inspiration to me. I will remember him, and our flight together. He and the flight crew treated me as if I was one of them.
To be a small part of that flight, to see what a true crew should be like, and to look over at CD and see the man that he is, made me appreciate the many stories and things he had shared with me earlier in the flight.
It was one of the most memorable experiences I have had in my life.
Going in, I thought that the visit to Afghanistan would be the ultimate stop on the tour. We’ve heard so much for so long about the many missions and activities there. But to go in with the crew and CD, it was so much more. While we could only be there for a short amount of time, we met with many men and women serving there. I look forward to meeting some of those people in the future and to hearing what they’ve gone through.
A few of the best moments of the tour were the times when I was able to sit down and get to know some of the servicemen and women who serve and sacrifice for us.
It’s realizing the immeasurable amount of sacrifice that each of them chooses to give for all of us, whether physical or emotional. These men and women are incredible human beings, fulfilling such great and admirable tasks.
It’s Eric, the true warrior who fought on the battlefields beside his fellow soldiers, was injured by gunfire that nearly killed him, and spent months repairing and rehabilitating himself in order to be battle ready again. He joined us on the flight in order to be dropped back off with his troops. Meeting him and learning his story is something that I will never forget. The courage to go through battle and be attacked the first time is the epitome of sacrifice and giving of yourself for your country. But to be inserted back into the fight and take a helicopter to an unknown location in order to rejoin your troop is defining what it is to be an American Soldier.
Some of the men and women serving over there actually ripped patches off their shoulders and chests to hand them over to us as a ‘Thank you for showing you care and that we matter.’ To hear those words and to receive those items are huge tokens of my experience. They serve as reminders of each person and what he or she has sacrificed for me, specifically, and how grateful I am to have received such a gift.
The men and women who fight everyday just want to know that we care, that we remember them, and that we support them, regardless of the details. We are all Americans, and we all have the wonderful freedoms we do because of the things our service members do on a daily basis.
The Chairman USO holiday tour really opened my eyes to the world – and the war. The sacrifice, the threats, the teamwork and chemistry needed between individuals, are just a few of the many things that we were shown throughout this experience.
On the home front, we are always praying and thinking about our troops, knowing that they risk their lives each and every day, not only abroad but also here at home. Having the accessibility to go on to their bases, to actually see some of their installations and tools that they use, put those ideals into a whole new light.
I will never look at the U.S. flag the same way. There has been so much blood, sweat, and many tears given in order for that flag to fly the way it does today.
As a baseball player, I appreciate the experiences that I had getting mentally prepared to head into the war zone. I learned that each flight crew has their own rituals and superstitions when they go into battle. I was honored to take part in those rituals and learn the reasons they did them. This crew showed me what it really is to be brothers and sisters in battle. The way that they worked together, communicating and preparing for what lay ahead, was remarkable. Each member had his or her specific job in order to get the massive aircraft safely on the ground, and each person had just as many backup plans that serve them ‘just in case something happens.’
Of all my experiences while on tour, I will most remember the relationships I built in such a short amount of time.
Whether with the service men and women I had the honor of meeting and talking with, or the men and women that I was joined by on the tour. The talented men and women — actors, comedians, performers, people from all walks of life — joined together to show their patriotism and support for the military.
To see that they feel as I do, having so much pride in calling ourselves Americans, is such a grateful feeling and is such a true honor.
To learn more about the USO and ways you can help our nation’s troops and military families visit www.uso.org.