What does the military mean to me? Courage, leadership, and sacrifice are three words that come to mind. When given the opportunity to spend a few days seeing life from the perspective of our troops, one does not decline. This year, FOX Sports brought "Spring Training to the Troops" at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The trip included several MLB players, both current and former, as well as FOX Sports Girls representing regions throughout the country. I was fortunate enough to take part.
I am an athletic person who loves physical activity, which is why one of the things I was most excited about heading into the trip was to participate in the disciplined nature of Physical Training with these service men and women. However, within the first few hours of arriving at Fort Bragg, PT was the last thing on my mind. After my first conversation over breakfast with a solider, I knew that this is what would be my greatest takeaway from the trip. The opportunity to bond with the soldiers and to hear their stories was something I will take with me for the rest of my life.
Each morning at Fort Bragg began with PRT (Physical Readiness Training) bright and early, or should I say still dark and early. Running with the troops meant running in sync with their pace of "left, left, left, right, left." Participating in the chants along the run developed a sense of unity. It also helped take my mind off of just how far, and fast, we were running. We also took part in their version of cross fit, as well as the Friday "Pay Day Run," which is only run the first Friday of every month. This dates back to World War II when, as the name implies, soldiers used to line up to get their paycheck.
What stood out most for me these early mornings was the fact that, rather than competing with one another, it was plain to see the troops have a much different perspective. They only see things as one unit and this bond means that they are only as fast as their slowest runner, only as strong as their weakest link. Everyone was in it together, helping push one another to reach their maximum potential every morning. Coming from a competitive sports background, this was a refreshing perspective to see.
After the morning physical activity, our schedule was filled with experiences from several different divisions within the U.S. Army. MSTC (Medical Simulation Training Center) gave us a brief training on how to appropriately dress a wound depending on severity. Under the instruction of the USASOC (United States Army Special Operations Command) we participated in target practice using a Glock, an AR-15 and even a sniper rifle. We also jumped from the 34-foot tower, which is used to prepare the Airborne soldiers to jump out of planes.
An activity that hit close to home for me was when we learned how to pack parachutes. I always knew that my grandfather served in the Korean War as a paratrooper; however, I was not ever able to fully grasp what that truly entails apart from jumping out of planes. Packing these parachutes is an example of something that I never even considered when wondering what life looked like for my grandfather while he was serving. It is an extremely complicated and strenuous process. At minimum, it will take soldiers 15 minutes to pack one shoot and they are required to complete 25 packs a day. After watching a demonstration on how to pack these parachutes, we were put to the test. Let’s just say the soldiers make it look much easier than it actually is. That 15 minutes turned into at least 30 minutes for me — and that included much assistance.
"Don’t come here for us; we signed up for this and we knew what we were getting ourselves into. Come here for our families — our wives, our children."
Those words were spoken by a current service man. Hearing that helped me understand that our visit was about much more than honoring the soldiers; it was honoring the families. That is why getting the opportunity to help out the Youth Baseball Clinic, as well as speaking to a group of students at Albritton Middle School — all whom are military children — was so rewarding. These kids were extremely excited to have visitors, especially professional baseball players helping them with their skills and encouraging them to pursue their dreams. I spent time with several kids who were originally from the Milwaukee area. It brought so much joy to them as well as myself to find a little piece of home at the Fort. It was also especially gratifying to honor the Gold Star families. These are spouses, parents, and immediate family members of Armed Forces members killed in combat operations. I quickly realized that it is not just the soldiers who have the passion and the fight in them, but it is these families. The soldiers are the first to say that their families — whether children, spouses, or parents — are their inspiration, their biggest encouragers and their true heroes.
It wasn’t the physical training or the incredible activities we got to take part in that impacted me most, though. Rather, it was the intimate conversations I was fortunate enough to have with some of these men and women. Raven, a service women whom I ran next to during the Pay Day run, has been serving for 14 years, has been deployed three times and has a 2-year-old daughter at home. I had breakfast with David one morning. A young and ambitious soldier who joined the U.S. Army just seven months prior and told me his reason for enlisting was because he knew that roughly 10 percent of the population serves our country. Therefore, if he serves, it means nine other people won’t have to — talk about a selfless perspective. And then there was a very special officer whom I met at our final dinner with the Command Leadership. I talked with him quite a bit that evening. I felt like a sponge just wanting to absorb everything I could from his story, his experiences and his wisdom. He has been serving our country for more than 20 years and knows that there is absolutely nothing else that he would rather do. He has several kids at home with his wife and, to my surprise, none of those children have ever seen him in a uniform. The uniform comes off when he is with his family and he said that it is entirely his children’s choice if they want to choose to follow in his footsteps or not as they get older. It was such a privilege to be able to find out what motivated him to enlist and to get a glimpse into his perspective coming from a lengthy military background.
After talking with this officer, I not only left Fort Bragg with incredible memories and a newfound appreciation for the lives that these heroes lead, but I am extremely humbled to say that I left Fort Bragg with a Military Challenge Coin, as well. Lifestyles may change. Society may change. However, one thing that remains is tradition. The exchange of the Challenge Coin is one of the most unique traditions in the Armed Forces. Coins are carried at all times by service men and women. Each coin identifies the particular unit or squadron to which the solider carrying it belongs. To receive a coin is an invaluable honor and signifies the recognition that an individual made an impact on you. The exchange symbolizes a connection between a solider and whomever they choose to give it to. They are not handed out freely and should be received with great appreciation. In fact, FOX Sports brought our own challenge coins to hand to soldiers that impacted us in a special way.
FOX Sports Wisconsin’s Chyna.
Words cannot describe the extreme gratitude that I felt when this particular officer passed along that coin to me as he shook my hand goodbye. I can only hope that he knows the impact it had on me to receive such a grand gesture from a man for whom I have the upmost respect and admiration. I will deeply treasure that challenge coin, the experience, and the memories from Fort Bragg. I leave with an even greater appreciation of the sacrifice that these soldiers and their families make every single day. Thank you, Fort Bragg, for this eye-opening experience.