*Head coach Mike Nolan hoped to make a USO trip to Iraq in February, but the Combine derailed his plans. Fortunately, local sports radio host Ron Barr offered Nolan another opportunity this June to visit the troops – this time in Afghanistan. With the support of his wife Kathy, Nolan jumped at the offer, accompanying Barr and former 49ers Pro Bowl cornerback Eric Davis on an eight day trip. Nolan discussed the eye opening experience with local reporters on Thursday morning. Here's an account of his travels.
I'd always wanted to go over, just out of respect. I've always been fond of the job our military does and the people who do it, and so the opportunity to go over and maybe lighten their day was something I'd always wanted to do. I was really kind of eager to go when Ron asked, and having been and come back, I'm really glad I went.
The trip was eight days, but it's a good day of travel both over and back, so I'd say we had six full days to make trips to different bases.
Our group flew commercially to Dulles in DC and then flew commercially to Kuwait. From there, we took a C-17 military plane to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and then a convoy that was about two hours long to Kabul.
I felt very safe in the convoy because what we were riding in looked like a big Winnebago that was fortified for whatever you wanted to shoot at it. Everything was bullet proof, and extra fortified. We arrived in Kabul as the sun was coming up. The ride was on gravel roads the entire time. That's where a lot of the explosive devices are found. The paved roads there are very safe, and they are paving a lot more of them, but the gravel roads are where the explosives tend to go off. That was interesting. Although you know they are taking every precaution, you don't know what to fully expect and you get into what feels like a moving safe that would be in a bank.
Our main locale was Camp Eggers, which was named after Captain Daniel Eggers, who was killed in action on May 29, 2004. From there, we'd take convoys or Black Hawk helicopters out to forward operating bases (FOBs). Those are usually right in the middle of the action.
We'd visit there at the FOBs and just interact with the soldiers, go into a chow hall and visit with them. Every night, Ron Barr would put on a radio show and interview guests back in the States and so he'd have contests for soldiers to be part of the panel. While that was going on, Eric Davis and I would sit with the crowd and talk to them about different things. A lot of that was football questions, or personal things, but just conversations. It was very real. It wasn't staged. I think it was very good.
The most frequent question that I got asked was, 'How do I deal with being away from home as a coach, and not being with my spouse at home?' I found that very interesting because it immediately told me what they deal with. It's a volunteer army and a lot of these guys are away from home for the first time and although it's what they signed up for, it's not necessarily what they grew up thinking. They did not realize that they were going to be away from their loved one. That's a stress for these guys.
When you come up to a phone to make a call to get a line to go out there are things on the wall right in front of you that takes you through 10 steps of dealing with conflict. It puts the pressures the soldiers have over there, and then what their spouses are dealing with back at home, front and center. You have to do a good job when you can't see someone or touch them on the phone, so they have steps available to help the guys if they get into a conflict.
I didn't know what totally to expect when I went over, and what I learned will take time to soak in because there is so much that is going on and so much that you see – everything from our troops and what it means to be a soldier to the life that the people in Afghanistan lead and what life is all about there. The experience and listening to troops was probably the most enlightening thing. When you are in the states and you talk about the war, it's always a political conversation. When you get over there and talk to the troops, there is nothing political. It's just human beings doing their duty and fighting a war, and men and women very committed about what they are doing. I'm not big on politics as it is, so the fact that you don't even think about that, but just the real human side, I was pleased to see that because the soldiers are real and what they go through is real.
The one thing that really stands out over there is their commitment to teamwork. Their commitment to teamwork is very real, and it has to be because people live and die because of the teamwork. I didn't see this first hand but when you have these small special forces groups – say there are 4, 5, 6 or a dozen soldiers, they go out and have to kill and they have to rely on each other as much as you can ever imagine because if one of them slips up, another could die.
In the convoys that took us out there are guys in the lead vehicle and tail vehicle. They take their jobs very seriously. It's second by second communication with one another about turns and what to do and there is no funny business. There is no stopping at a traffic light and wait for it to turn green. There are no lights in the entire country, so you go through an intersection, they better move or they'll be run over. There is no kidding, no joking - they don't talk until it is done. They take it extremely serious. We wore flight jackets and helmets everywhere we traveled, not just for show.
We arrived at a couple of the FOBs and the day before there were soldiers lost, whether they drove over those explosives in the road or just got caught in crossfire, I do not know. So, every time they go out in these convoys there is the risk of someone dying. So that teamwork they have is really impressive. Again, you are talking about life or death, not as some of our guys think, "well I have another play, or I have the next down." Every play, every moment matters and that stands out because when you are there, it's real. It's not play time.