Seated at a table at the Occidental Grill on Pennsylvania Avenue last night, a couple of reporters briefed LaRoche on the Jerry Blevins trade and Corey Brown being designated for assignment, and LaRoche quietly took it all in. It was the first Nats news he had heard since leaving the country to be part of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey’s USO Holiday Tour late last week.
Seated to LaRoche’s right was Willie Robertson, and to the Nationals first baseman’s left was Jep Robertson, two of the stars of the hit A&E reality show “Duck Dynasty” and longtime friends of LaRoche. To Jep’s left was former Patriots offensive lineman Matt Light, who accompanied his buddies on the seven-day, four-country trip to various U.S. military bases in Europe and Afghanistan.
LaRoche, Light and the Robertsons gathered at the Occidental Grill not just to grab a bite and get settled after a long week filled with travel, but also to have a casual chat with three local reporters (myself included) about their trip. Nats pitchers Craig Stammen and Ross Detwiler went on the USO Holiday Tour last year and raved about the experience, and this year, it was LaRoche’s turn. He’d long been hoping he would get a chance to be part of the trip, and thanks in large part to the Nationals’ ties to Dempsey, a big baseball fan, LaRoche was selected for what he viewed as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“Craig and Ross kind of filled me in a little bit on kind of the layout, but you don’t know what to expect, like, emotionally over there,” LaRoche said. “I wanted to do this four years ago, just really out of wanting to see it personally, but also kind of wanting to help give back a little bit out of respect for our troops. Talking to (the military personnel) here during the year, during our season, we get to meet so many of them, and you hear over and over how much it means when guys do go over there.”
None of the guests on the USO Holiday Tour were told ahead of time where exactly they would be heading, due to safety reasons. After all, they were traveling alongside the highest-ranking military officer in the U.S. armed forces in Gen. Dempsey. LaRoche and company were just told to pack for temperatures as cold as 30 degrees and as warm as 80 degrees.
They ended up hitting four countries - Greece, Afghanistan, Italy and Germany - and spending two nights in each. With the exception of a half-day of down time in Greece, the guests on the tour spent nearly every waking minute being shuffled from one location to another, moving from Gen. Dempsey’s convoy to a cafeteria on a military base to meet soldiers and sign autographs and then on to the next meet-and-greet location.
They moved around the bases, visited hospitals and participated in five “shows,” which were events attended by thousands of servicemen and women in which LaRoche, Light and the Robertsons would take to a stage and try and entertain the troops, who would hoot and holler whenever someone they recognized from back home would take the mic.
“I think they just want to forget for a few minutes what they’re actually doing and just have a good time and relax and not worry about tomorrow,” Jep Robertson said. “Just have a good time and laugh, and that’s what we did.”
For the Robertsons, it was easy; they told funny “Duck Dynasty” stories and sang songs from their “Duck the Halls” holiday album. For LaRoche and Light, it was a little tougher coming up with ways to engage the troops while on stage.
“I’m thinking, ‘What can I possibly say to relate to these guys?’ ” LaRoche said. “It’s not easy for me, for sure, because I honestly feel like, and I told them this, that we should be sitting down there (in the seats) and some of you guys, specifically some of the older sergeants and generals, you guys should be up here talking to us.”
Not that it really seemed to matter at all. They were providing a chance for the troops to kick back and relax and get away from their daily grind for a few hours, something that was especially valuable to a group of servicemen and women in an area of Afghanistan called Leatherneck, who watched the USO show immediately after getting back from a 72-hour firefight in which two of their troops had been shot.
“I truly didn’t think that I had much to share with the group of guys that are going through what they have to go through,” said Light, a three-time Super Bowl winner with the Patriots, “but then you realize real quickly that seeing some faces from back home that they may recognize from the TV or they associate with something that they really enjoy and haven’t been able to have that in their lives for a long time means a great deal to them.”
There was time for LaRoche and the boys to do some fun stuff, as well. They got to ride in helicopters at one point, and Jep “flipped out” when he thought one nearby helicopter was shooting missiles towards his chopper, only to calmly be informed by his pilot that they were just flares.
And then there was the morning that Light agreed to put on a nearly 100-lb. body suit and get jumped by a trained attack dog. Picture a 300-lb. man running away from a 40-lb. dog and then going round after round while the dog tries to take him down. Light says he won the first battle, when he wrestled with the dog and whipped it around from side to side as it latched onto the padding around his elbow, (“It looked like a helicopter,” LaRoche said), but the dog ended up battling back and knocking Light over on the next attempt.
The four men left the trip having a variety of different aspects stick with them. All four of them were immensely impressed by Gen. Dempsey, who they said treated everyone on the bases, from the higher ranking officials down to the cooks, with the same respect.
“He reminded me of my dad (Phil, also a character on Duck Dynasty),” Jep Robertson said. “He’s very plain-spoken, but also, when he talks, you want to listen. You want to hear what he has to say because it’s always genuine.”
For Willie Robertson, it was the organization of it all, the way that these men and women are able to live their day-to-day lives on bases put up in the middle of nowhere, complete with all the aspects that we can tend to take for granted.
“They build cities that are bases, airports, lodging for 30,000 people in a foreign land, run all the things, keep people safe,” he said. “It’s unbelievable the amount of logistics and what has to happen. That’s what impressed me more than anything. How do you come into this country, build these kind of things, run this, fight for your lives, bring troops in and out ... it’s unbelievable. Blew me away.”
For Light, it was the progress that’s been made with the Afghani people, who he noticed interacting with U.S. troops and getting medical treatment from U.S. doctors on the bases. Light says that in one area of Afghanistan, only 400 kids were in school a couple years ago. Now that total was up to 8,000.
“Our soldiers are legit are invested in their mission to not go over there and wipe out rebels or some kind of Taliban or other group,” Light said. “They’re there literally to help (the Afghanis) and help them rebuild. And they don’t care about what’s going on over here. I think one of the biggest reasons to go over there is to see it first-hand.
“If you’re sitting here, especially listening to these knuckleheads in Washington all day, every day, you don’t get a sense that there’s anything good happening. They’re definitely not telling the story of any of these young men and women that are each and every day waking up and putting themselves in danger. ... I thought it was pretty impressive to see how those guys can stay focused and not really pay attention to any of the stuff that we hear on a daily basis around here.”
As for LaRoche, a guy who goes on trips during the season to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to visit injured troops and makes a concerted effort to spend time with servicemen and women who come to Nationals Park for games, things like the American flag and the national anthem seem to hold more meaning now.
“Every time here when we look at the flag, I look at it every night,” LaRoche said. “We play the national anthem every single night. I can’t say I’ve ever really looked at the flag and thought, ‘Somebody paid a price for that, for us being over here.’ I would hope it’s gonna be a lot easier to not take those things for granted like we typically do.”