Jets assistant coach Ben Kotwica returned from the NFL-USO Coaches Tour more than a week ago, then decompressed a little from the trip and recompressed a little for training camp ahead. During this time back home, he put together some first-person thoughts on his trip back to the Persian Gulf:
Instead of having Randy write a summary of my 2012 NFL/USO Coaches Tour through a series of questions and quotes, I decided that the best way to tell you about this journey would be through my own words, words that cannot express the appreciation, gratitude, and pride I feel after completing one of my life’s most rewarding experiences.
I want to preface this writing by saying that my intention is to share what I saw from the viewpoint of a former soldier turned NFL coach. With that story, my hope is to pay tribute to the men and women of the Armed Forces who provide the blanket of freedom under which we rest comfortably each night.
This journey began on a sultry Saturday in late June with a goodbye hug and kiss to the most important people in my life, my wife and kids. It is tough to say goodbye to loved ones, and while I became well versed over my 12 years of service (West Point—1993, Bosnia—2000, Korea—2002, Iraq—2004),it is something that you never quite “get used to.”
My short farewell only served as a glimpse of what it is like for the thousands of troops serving overseas who have endured multiple deployments over the past 11 years during our war on terror. The personal courage and sacrifice by family members on both ends of the spear must never be underestimated or forgotten.
Upon arrival at Washington Dulles International Airport, I linked up with our NFL-USO travel party:
■ Coach Leslie Frazier, Minnesota Vikings
■ Bill Cowher, CBS
■ Eric (My Roommate) Mangini, former NYJ / Cleveland Browns Head Coach
■ David Krichavsky, NFL representative
■ John Pray, USO executive
■ Dave Gatley, photographer
■ Jeremy Wilcox, USO Tour manager
A terrific travel party that I would be proud to serve with anytime, anywhere.
After a lot of travel with even more stories and laughs, we arrived into our theater of operations and began executing our mission: To meet soldiers and thank them for their selfless sacrifice of service to our nation.
After getting settled, we spent the remainder of the day with the wounded warriors and the support soldiers who provide the essential backbone for the combat forces to execute their demanding mission. As I shook their hands and listened to their remarkable stories, I could not help but be inspired by their passion and be in awe of their dedication to duty and teamwork.
For example, I found it amazing to walk through the combat hospital and see soldiers and airmen from various walks of life and bases, who had received minimal collective pre-deployment training together, forging a bond in order to achieve the common goals of returning soldiers to the fight and saving lives. Unbeknownst to many of us, 6,500 miles away, these life-saving events occur on a daily basis primarily due to the unequaled professionalism and unconditional trust our soldiers have for each other. This snapshot in time epitomized to me what can be accomplished when a group of relative strangers unite to attain a common goal.
After a brief night’s rest, we spent the next few days deployed away from the main base to visit our combat troops fighting on freedom’s frontier. An early wakeup call brought us to the flight line at the break of dawn. As we approached the helicopters, I could hear the roar of the turning rotor blades, feel the exhaust of the turbine engines, and smell the fumes from the burn of the JP-8 fuel. These elements, along with the 1½-hour flight over the desert floor, mud-caked homes and towering mountain ranges, caused my thoughts to return to years earlier in my life of experiences from a different time and different place.
During our 2 days out on the Forward Operating Bases, we gripped hands with and looked into the sleep-deprived eyes of at least 500 inspiring soldiers in arguably the world’s most austere and challenging environments.
How can you not be moved when you travel into one of the most unforgiving regions of the world and lift up your eyes to see LT Greg Spencer? Louisianan Greg Spencer is a former West Point cadet and Army football player who I had the honor and privilege of coaching and mentoring 7 years ago at West Point’s Preparatory School. I cannot express how big of a thrill it was to see that while Greg’s physical stature has changed (305 lbs. to 240 lbs.), he continues to carry with him his contagious spirit for life and leadership as he leads his Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) platoon in their mission to remove Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) from the world’s most dangerous and deadly roads.
Greg is just one example of the hundreds of warfighters that we had the privilege of meeting, mentally and physically tough soldiers who must overcome extraordinary obstacles in an unforgiving environment as they enforce policy by defeating a savvy enemy.
As much as the soldiers thanked me for visiting, it pales in comparison to the gratitude that I carry with me for them. I learned and received so much more from this experience than I ever could have imagined. I learned that America’s fighting force is in good hands. I learned that whatever the policy, whether you agree or disagree, it's being executed by true warfighters who are committed as much to the cause as they are for each other.
However, most importantly, I learned to be more appreciative and thankful for the precious gifts that I have in my life, my wife, my children, my family, my friends, my opportunity to coach a kids’ game at the highest of levels. Too often I get caught up in the daily routine, annoyed by petty inconveniences, and I take these gifts for granted. Well, the 2012 NFL/USO Coaches Tour and the people I met have taught me to hit the reset button in my appreciation for all I have.
As I write, I can say with a high degree of certainty that as I put the kids to bed tonight, there will be a fight in a land 6,500 miles away to protect them and our freedoms. After 10 years in this war, many of these battles will fail to get reported on our evening news, on our favorite Internet sites or in our daily newspapers. Just as vigilantly as our soldiers carry out their missions, we must execute our duty in keeping them in our thoughts and prayers. We MUST never forget them.
In closing, I would like to thank the USO and the NFL for their continued efforts in giving back to the troops. It is an important partnership, which is a win on so many levels. To my fellow coaches, thanks for the laughs and camaraderie in order to make this a special experience. Standing shoulder to shoulder with you as we visited the troops, I was extremely impressed by the eye contact, attention and sincerity you guys gave each and every soldier. As they walked off, you could see in their eyes and their actions that your words and time was important. It made a difference.