Earlier this month, two groups of Ravens Cheerleaders went to the Middle East for a week.
One group traveled to Afghanistan and the other went to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. They visited more than a half-dozen bases, performed and talked to countless troops along the way.
Here are their stories:
Ali K. – Kuwait/United Aram Emirates (Abu Dhabi)
I didn't grow up in a military family and I never had any close friends leave for deployment. Unlike many men and women, I'm lucky to have not known what life feels like waiting on someone to come back home.
In my adult life, I do my best to watch the news, read stories and listen to the radio in order to educate and familiarize myself with current events that take place all around the world. Although I've always known, it wasn't until this past week that I truly understood the magnitude of sacrifice our military men and women endure every day in order to protect our beautiful country.
Baltimore Ravens Cheerleaders Director Tina Galdieri, Entertainment & Events Coordinator Rob Tune and 12 Baltimore Ravens Cheerleaders (including myself) packed our bags and traveled to Kuwait and Abu Dahbi on a mission to bring entertainment to five U.S. military bases.
The real fun on our trip started after many hours of traveling at a base called "Camp Buehring." Many of my favorite moments from our tour took place in the chow halls. We would eat and talk about what state we were from, who we were rooting for in the Super Bowl, our dogs, families and hobbies at home. Many of the people I met throughout the week were on their first deployment after basic training.
Many men and women hoped to travel to Afghanistan where the "action" is, as many would put it. At home, "action" might include what I want for dinner, silly arguments with my husband, "bad" days at work, or the minor fender bender that seems to occur too often as a resident of Baltimore City. But here on base, "action" includes much more than that. "Action" for many of the people I met includes traveling to somewhere dangerous, leaving families and friends for longer, and putting your own life on the line to protect your country.
Most of the bases we visited during our trip included "commander calls." During a commander call, we would sit in a conference room (of some sort) and the commander would explain the base and give some background knowledge on why our military is occupying the area. These sessions were always very informational and intriguing. We had opportunities to ask questions and I learned a lot about how much of an impact our military has had on the Middle East and the recent wars on terrorism. Sitting in commander meetings gave our team so much good news. With the help of some maps and images, we learned how much progress our military has made overall in the Middle East.
One highlight of our trip occurred in Kuwait. Our team was lucky enough to watch a promotion. It wasn't just any promotion, but a promotion of a Ravens fan from Baltimore! This proud Baltimorean (Captain Lake) had his wife on FaceTime and a bunch of Ravens cheerleaders right behind him as his patch and hat were changed to "CAPTAIN."
In addition to meeting with commanders and spending loads of time conversing and mingling with people in the chow halls, we also had the honor of visiting different parts of bases throughout the day. One of my favorite parts of the trip was learning to shoot! We went to visit a building which held shooting modules on large flat screens with guns matching those that the army uses (but without the ammunition). I was able to fire M-4s and an automatic machine gun (M249). My "coach," as I liked to call him was a young soldier who I was introduced to as "Keys." I was able to wear some of the gear that the army wears. I wore a very heavy helmet, and a 50-pound vest that made it difficult to hold a gun. I have so much appreciation for how tough that was, and we only wore this for 15 minutes! One can imagine how difficult this must be to wear all day in temperatures reaching over 100 degrees in the desert.
Our nights on bases always ended with a big show, and an autograph/picture session. The show was a blast, but talking to people afterward was the real reward. Our show had five routines: trivia, a push-up contest, a stunt competition and lots of fun giveaways. Our crowds roared and the excitement only grew throughout each performance. Crowds ranged from about 75 people at the smallest base to 1,500 people at the largest base! Afterward, we sat at tables for autograph signings and then stayed for some group pictures. Female soldiers were lifted into stunts by our incredible male cheerleaders, and we found quite a few soldiers who were past cheerleaders in high school or college and they stunted with some of our girls. Every picture we took came with huge smiles, belly laughs and lots of "thank yous" from both the soldiers and ourselves.
Overall, this trip was worth a million words that I cannot easily put onto paper. The experiences, conversations, smiles, laughs, and learning that took place with my fellow teammates will forever change my perspective on life. This experience was a humbling one that bring a new meaning to life as an American. I have acquired a new appreciation for our military. Our armed forces take on an incredible daily sacrifice to continue to protect our country's freedom and equality, and I will forever be grateful to every man and woman in a uniform. Thank you to Armed Forces Entertainment, thank you to the Baltimore Ravens, and thank you to every soul who protects this country.
Ashley S. – Afghanistan
How deep is your love? For this team? For this organization? For this country? I embarked on a journey of a lifetime with some of the closest people in my world – my Ravens teammates turned family. We went to meet our nation's bodyguards in Afghanistan by way of Dubai.
In Fenty, we were 13 miles away from where Osama bin Laden planned the 9/11 attacks. It's crazy to think these guys are so close to where our country's demise was plotted. It's a daily reminder to them why we're here, along with the memorials that stand honoring the fallen heroes. We toured the Fenty Base and went through their hospital. There were pictures and letters from children all over, thanking the troops for their service. It brought me to tears.
I wasn't expecting to see familiar faces, but I ran into two guys from my high school. They've been stationed here for a while and won't see their families for months to come. We were awake before sunrise each day and were always greeted with a warm welcome and big smile. No matter the danger or the obstacles, these soldiers can smile through it all.
On our third day, we went to Camp Dwyer. One word – unbelievable. We had our first performance where we danced and threw some basket tosses. The troops were so happy to have us there. They literally have nothing around them. It's all isolated desert. They presented us with what they call medals, which I thought would be a coin. In actuality, it was a certificate, along with a folded flag that you typically see presented to families of fallen soldiers. I immediately started crying.
The next day, we visited six bases and saw so many soldiers, and it was a whirlwind of emotions. We went to Queens Castle, which was the old castle where the Afghanistan queen used to live before it was blown up in their civil war.
My guard was from Afghanistan and he told me his story. It was mind blowing. When the USA came, they provided jobs and order to their country. During this time, it was the Taliban regime and they were running the country. Our Afghan guard started supporting our efforts in their country and working with us. The Taliban found out and killed his brother and burned his house down. He was left with nothing.
When that happened, the United States took him in and he's been living on the base for the last 15 years or so. He's been brought on as a cultural interpreter. He's never left Afghanistan and is in the process of getting U.S. citizenship to be with the rest of his family in New York City. I was so happy for him and sad at the same time. He said, "As long as I have breath, I will support the USA. They've given me everything." How can you not be humbled by that?
We also visited a base called Morehead. It has about 200 soldiers with 11 being women. They were such an incredible group of people and overjoyed to have us there. We took pictures and signed autographs. Some came with their gameday booklets from the Texans vs Ravens game, which was so cool! Their unit was featured as the salute to service group. What a small world!
There were men from all over the world – Poland, Austria, Australia, U.K. and all over the United States. All were so excited to see us, and their appreciation for us was unmeasurable. We came to show our appreciation, but they seemed to appreciate us even more. At the end of our visit, they awarded us with a certificate, a patch and a coin. They called us "great Americans" and Jaime and I lost it! I felt so undeserving of an award. I've sacrificed nothing at all. It filled my heart with joy how much our visit means to them. I'm truly proud to be an American.
I left the Middle East with a new perspective on life. Living a life of abundance isn't necessary to be happy. Acts of kindness and service make my heart smile. Always lead with a heart of gratitude and open mind. Charity is important and true devotion is hard to come by. I'm beyond grateful the Baltimore Ravens organization entrusted me with this responsibility and I will forever be changed by it!