As someone who grew up in a military family, I’ve always had a special appreciation and an even deeper admiration for the brave patriots who make up our armed forces — the unwaveringly devoted few whose hearts are so filled with pride for our country that they would dedicate their lives to serving it so that the rest of us may live here freely.
My father spent six years in the Marine Corps, celebrating his 16th birthday at Guadalcanal, and eventually rose to the rank of master sergeant during his 31 years in the Air Force. My brother served two tours in Vietnam, and my nephew stormed Baghdad during the war in Iraq. So when it comes to the countless personal and professional challenges that go hand in hand with military life, I’ve seen it, lived it and felt it all.
With that in mind, I was eager to participate in FOX Sports’ Spring Training to the Troops tour earlier this month — a three-day visit to U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwoehr in Germany with 11 other current and former MLB players and personalities, as well as the FOX Sports Girls. There, we had the privilege of learning about what it’s like to live like soldiers, giving us new perspective on the sacrifices our servicemen and women make to keep us safe.
Now, you can’t say you’ve lived like a soldier until you’ve gotten up before the sun and liked it, so while on base, we did just that, rising at 5 a.m. each day for physical training that concluded before many of us would have gotten out of bed back home. After workouts, we took part in simulated Humvee rollovers and checkpoint simulators, where we had to be ready to ward off enemy fire — unnerving exercises, not so much because of the stress they placed on us, but because of the knowledge that, for the soldiers, this was preparation for actual combat.
Honestly, it was scary knowing that every virtual scenario we faced could, at a moment’s notice, become reality for the soldiers we met, each of whom must always be on point while in harm’s way. There is no option but to be prepared, because there are no second chances in battle. There’s no take two, no “We’ll get ’em next time.” It truly is life or death out there, and the weight of that responsibility is something each and every one of us struggled to process.
The trip wasn’t all pressure, training and early-morning wakeup calls, though, and when we weren’t preparing for battle, we were busy trying to lift the spirits of the soldiers and their families, doing whatever we could to provide some love, encouragement and fun during one of the most trying situations any family can endure.
We held baseball clinics and signed autographs for the kids on base — whose sacrifices are often overlooked when it comes to military life. It can be very traumatic for a young child to uproot every few years and go from base to base, as I did as a child. We also played an All-Star Wiffle Ball game alongside soldiers from the 709th military police battalion and the 172nd infantry brigade in a gymnasium that was packed to the rafters with folks looking to get away from that everyday routine and go watch a ballgame. (If you’re wondering, I pitched four innings and Rollie Fingers’ and my team won.)
And, most importantly, we spent time bonding with soldiers, visiting with whomever we could, whenever we could, learning about who they were and what they were about — an honor we were immensely blessed to receive. We heard stories of love, pain, struggle, hope (and, of course, baseball) that truly put our own lives in perspective and will stick with us for decades to come.
But the most striking part about our conversations wasn’t what they meant to us — a feeling that can’t be put into words — but how emotional it seemed to be for the troops on the other end of those conversations. When we shook hands, you could see some of them tear up, if for no other reason than because meeting us reminded them of home. We, in some ways, brought a normalcy to the base that isn’t usually there, and while it’s certainly welcome, it can also be a heavy reminder of what they have given up.
One of the most memorable moments of the trip for me came during my meeting with Sgt. Maj. Steve Carney, a soldier and Red Sox fan who had served multiple tours in Afghanistan. When he found out I’d be coming, Steve arranged to have the American flag that flew over his compound sent to Germany so he could present it to me.
That he thought enough of me to give me his flag — and that other soldiers felt compelled to give us coins, patches and other mementos from their time spent in the trenches — was touching in a way that is difficult to describe, and in some ways, made the FOX Sports coins we were exchanging with soldiers seem insignificant.
In the end, leaving was the most difficult part of the trip — because everyone who welcomed us into their military family and so graciously looked after us had to say goodbye. And that moment signified a return to real life for the soldiers. The little fun that they had was over, and now it was back to business, back to getting focused, back to getting on track and remembering why they are where they are.
On the plane ride home, you couldn’t help but think about that handshake at lunch from that young soldier who’s a huge Yankees fan or the tearful bear hug after breakfast from a Red Sox fan, and you just hope and pray that he and every single one of his comrades comes home safe. That’s all we can ask, really, and God forbid we hear that someone out of the Grafenwoehr squadron — or that anybody, anywhere for that matter — has been killed in the line of action.
Honestly, if this trip taught me one thing, I think it would be that we can sometimes take the military for granted.
We don’t do it on purpose, but our armed forces are made up of less than 1 percent of our population, and their sacrifice is often overlooked or underappreciated, when that should never, ever be the case. The soldiers commented quite frequently about how nice it was to hear us say thank you, and we constantly said that the people back home love them and respect what they’re doing.
But maybe we should make a point to let them know even more often than we do.
War is a horrible, tragic thing that goes on, and we should make it a priority to acknowledge how thankful we are to be blessed with the best military in the world. I’ve always said that had my father gotten shot and killed in Guadalcanal, no one would have ever known who Wade Boggs was, and just like I’m eternally thankful that he came home safe then, we should feel the same way about every man and woman who returns home safe today.
So, while you may never get to go on a USO tour like we were so fortunate to do, go out of your way to do what you can. Whether it’s in the mall, at the airport, or wherever else, go out of your way to say thank you. It means a lot to them — more than you think — and the sense of gratification you feel when you’ve honored a soldier’s efforts is one that can’t be beat.
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