NBA's USO-led trip to Afghanistan inspires soldiers, visitors alike

Timing of visit provides troops a much-needed dose of relaxation, enjoyment

Scott Howard-Cooper

Scott Howard-Cooper NBA.com

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Mar 3, 2017 12:47 PM ET

(From right) Sam Perkins, Ivory Latta, Bob Delaney and Caron Butler visited Afghanistan in late Feburary with the USO.

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan – Imminent danger has a name and everything: The Fighting Season, generally late-March or early-April through fall, when temperatures warm, snow melts in the north and east of the country and the Taliban can again move manpower and weapons through mountain passes to re-arm for launching rockets into the base. The threat of death is so common it goes on the calendar.

Attacks from the surrounding area will sometimes happen every couple days. Sirens scream as an incoming rocket is detected, thousands on the base charge for a secure building or one of the many cement-wall bunkers above ground fortified by sand bags or, if there is no time to reach the protections, drop and cover in place. If someone can only hit the deck, newcomers are told, make sure to keep your mouth open. Inhale dirt and bugs. Just as long as the mouth stays open to allow the lungs to expand and contract if shock waves from a blast are close enough. A closed mouth could cause the lungs to explode.

The rule is everyone must be within 10 minutes of their camouflage, 35-pound vest and olive-green helmet. Doctors and nurses line them on wooden stands in corridors in the base hospital, the one with the ambulance bay on Warrior’s Way and the American flag attached horizontal along the ceiling, to make sure patients hurt bad enough to need a stretcher get an eye full of Old Glory on the way in. Clear protective glasses, essentially goggles, are common to protect against sand and debris kicked up. Or explosion. Tourniquets are standard issue and mandatory, as part of the uniform or for soldiers taking a run. The bunkers with sand bags are everywhere.

And the isolation. Being stationed at a lot of bases around the world may be an opportunity to experience a foreign country, perhaps head into a nearby town during off hours. Not here. At the largest U.S. instillation in Afghanistan, ground trips beyond the base -- “outside the wire” in military jargon, as opposed to relative safety inside the wire -- are rare and risky. There is some interaction with locals in what back home would be termed community relations, but most trips in an out of Bagram are by helicopter and plane.

A memorable trip begins

Gloomy skies and grey clouds that hung low to the ground on the morning of Feb. 17, a buildup to the rainstorm that would last two days, made the cabin fever feel especially tangible. The headliners of the USO tour had taken various routes to get there -- former NBA players Sam Perkins (from Seattle) and Caron Butler (from Los Angeles), NBA Vice President of Referee Operations Bob Delaney (from New York) and the Washington Mystics’ Ivory Latta (from her offseason home in Atlanta) -- before gathering the previous night in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, for the final three-hour flight into Bagram.

Delaney was in a window seat in the second row listening with ear phones to the airline entertainment system with irony and a smile as Bruce Springsteen rocked through “Born in the U.S.A.” while the Boeing 737 descended through the clouds to 8,200 feet above northeast Afghanistan. If the song was actually an indictment of how poorly soldiers were treated upon returning home from Vietnam, it had also long ago become accepted as something of an American anthem, and to Delaney’s delight particularly fortuitous just before the final approach that would deliver the four to a center of patriotism.

"It’s good to see the other side, to see what they go through and how hard they protect the homeland. They’re really into it. You just appreciate all of them no matter what they do, contractors or whatever. ... It’s just a real thing and I’m appreciative."

Former NBA standout Sam Perkins

The plane touched down on schedule a little after 10 a.m., fighter jets and warfare helicopters lined up on the runway sideline, and did as instructed when a pickup with a “FOLLOW ME” sign in the bed pulled in front to direct the 737 to where moveable stairs and troops waited.

Landing, to Perkins, meant “You’re just in it now. It’s just surreal. It’s good. It’s good to see the other side, to see what they go through and how hard they protect the homeland. They’re really into it. You just appreciate all of them no matter what they do, contractors or whatever. Interpreters. Public affairs. Civil. It’s just a real thing and I’m appreciative.”

To Butler on the tarmac, “It’s big. I was thinking it would be something else. I watch too many movies.”

There was one sense of connection. Delaney was a participant but also a driving force behind the tour as a friend of Maj. Gen. John C. Thomson III, the base commander. Delaney had talked to troops about PTSD when Thomson was at Ft. Hood in Texas in 2009 and when Thomson was commandant at West Point in 2015. Thomson in return addressed NBA referees in 2015. When the three other arrivals exited the flydubai airlines charter and came down the stairs while taking in the surreal and the chill, Thomson greeted them with warm handshakes and smiles. Delaney, the last down, and Thomson embraced.

The trip would be personal for Delaney in that way. Not only would he re-connect with his friend, here was a new chance to talk about PTSD. It’s a topic close to Delaney after working undercover to infiltrate organized crime as a New Jersey State Trooper prior to joining the NBA led to his own emotional distress. His plea to about 150 soldiers to look after themselves while they looked after the United States in the war on terrorism came hours later, soon after Thomson gave the USO group the perspective from this side of the world: “What we do protects our homeland. It’s much better to play away games.”

Four-plus days in Bagram and two other bases would be educational and inspirational to Delaney, Perkins, Butler and Latta. It took only a few hours, though, before the first dinner among officers and the enlisted, for the value of the visit to become obvious, even more than bringing thanks from home for the service, even beyond the gratitude of the troops at the chance to have a connection to America in front of them.

Latta, Perkins, Butler and Delaney would help the United States Armed Forces heal from tragedy.

Lasting marks from suicide bomber 

The guy blew himself up just three months earlier, after all. He strapped on a vest of explosives, headed toward the starting area for the base 5K run that would begin shortly as part of Veterans Day events, got within about a quarter-mile and unleashed so much fury that shrapnel took out divots of cement from a building 50 yards away. Right there on Disney Boulevard, a main street inside the wire named as a memorial to a fallen soldier, an Army specialist, Jason A. Disney, who lost his life in a 2002 heavy-equipment accident. Now there were more dead.

The killer, an Afghan civilian, had worked on the base for five years. On that hellish Nov. 12, 2016, he entered again, walked through at least one checkpoint (according to a spokesman for province) and detonated the vest shortly after 5:30 a.m local time. Results of the investigation were close to being released by the time the USO tour came through, but officials are certain he did not arrive armed for fury that morning. The explosives had been brought in before, either in pieces over time and later assembled or hidden whole on the grounds. It wasn’t even The Killing Season.

Maybe, as some on the base believe, he was trying to get to the Clamshell, an aircraft-maintenance facility that had been turned into a gymnasium and that day was the starting point for the 5K. Hundreds would have been there. Thomson was on his way and could have been there if the killer had made it that far. Some details will be in the final report, some will never be known.

Army Sgt. John W. Perry and Pfc. Tyler R. Iubelt were killed. Two American contractors were killed. A third soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Allan E. Brown, died 3 ½ weeks later after being transferred to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland. Sixteen U.S. service members and one from Poland, among the five nations of the NATO coalition forces at Bagram, were injured, many passing through Warrior’s Way and under the giant flag stretched horizontal.

NBA's visit 'kind of surreal'

Feb. 17, 2017: The Clamshell, again. Delaney, Butler, Perkins and Latta were there, Thomson was there, a two-star general shagging rebounds pre-game, and hundreds of service members were there. Some watched from three rows of metal bleachers on one sideline parallel to the cement court indoors, some from on stage with the band providing music during breaks, and many participated. The rifle of anyone playing was racked butt end down just beyond the other sideline.

This was why the trip was held in mid-February. The troops would have games, a 3-point contest, a dunk contest and a skills competition to coincide with the same events taking place at the NBA’s All-Star weekend in New Orleans. Butler and Latta coached one team in the three-on-three finals, Perkins the other and Delaney refereed for a while before joining the crowd in the bleachers. Later, they judged the dunk contest that included a few successful attempts on regulation baskets.

But it was the noise. Service members cheered and laughed and sprung off the bleachers in reaction to a play like they hadn’t partied, most agreed, since Nov. 12 sent everyone into mourning, such a heightened sense of security that most large events were cancelled. Extra precautions were still to the point that no advertising was done on the base to promote this appearance. Some soldiers didn’t even hear about the USO tour until the same day, not wanting to give the enemy ideas about a high-profile strike.

Sam Perkins (left) coaches up troops during a three-on-three tournament game.

“To-day,” Army Sgt. Aasim Torres said, breaking the word in two for emphasis. “We were just out here on the basketball court, shooting around. And then sure enough. When I saw him (Perkins) walk in the door and duck his head under, I was like, ‘Oh, this is real. This is happening. This is happening.’ They walked straight on the court. The way they came up to us made us seem like the superstars. They came up to us and shook our hands and had huge smiles on their faces. It was kind of surreal.”

The NBA and WNBA may not have a more meaningful real-world impact all season, and perhaps seasons, plural. As the rain came down outside, the Clamshell was a place of sanctuary in a lot of ways, three months and 400 yards removed from the carnage. This was a chance to really move forward.

“Hearing all this laughter so close to where it happened, it’s amazing how people have recovered from it,” Marine Staff Sgt. Andrew Jacobs said. “Once everything closed down (after the attack) everybody kind of went off to their work, separated. People lost touch. Now, I see people I haven’t seen for a few months. They found out about this visit and this tournament.”

Troops, players both benefit from trip

The visit was never supposed to be about players and an NBA executive helping the largest U.S. military instillation in Afghanistan heal. Delaney and Thomson started the planning in July, four months before anyone living inside the wire could have imagined a need. That’s what it partly, even largely, turned into, though. The tragedy was folded into the tour as some of the wounded from November were at Delaney’s presentation the first day and the visitors were taken past the blast site.

The chunks of cement torn from the wall 50 yards away, across the main street named for another dead soldier, remain a constant, visible reminder of mayhem’s reach. The holes have been patched, except in brown set against the lighter beige façade. Whether leaders want to ensure the 14,000 troops and civilian contractors never forget, as tours end every nine to 12 months and new soldiers rotate in, or it hasn’t happened just because is unclear. The four from the USO were taken by the site.

And yet, thanks in part to the visit.

Bob Delaney (left) shares a laugh with a soldier during the NBA's USO tour in Afghanistan.

“They’re smiling,” Latta, about to begin her 11th WNBA season, said of the troops. “They’re happy. That’s the feeling I’m getting. I didn’t get a feel of something bad happened to them in November. When they see us, they shake our hand. They say, ‘Oh, man, thanks for coming, it’s great to be around you.’ Me and Caron were talking and he was like, ‘It’s a great feeling to put a smile on their face and for them to be thank you for coming.’ It really means a lot for them. But at the same time they don’t understand that it’s helping us. It’s changing our lives. It’s humbling us, giving us that awesome feeling.”

They flew above Afghanistan once the rain stopped, base to base to base, anchored down in the 35-pound armor vests and helmets, strapped shoulder to waist into Vertol helicopters, a version of the tandem-rotor CH-47 Chinook, and climbed stairs to look into the cockpit of an F-16 fighter jet on the flight line. Just after they sat behind an M240H machine gun, put their hands on the grips and looked through the sights while in a Black Hawk helicopter.

Some got a 7:40 a.m. wake-up call the second day as an F-16 thundered down the runway for takeoff before rocketing into the sky … and then as another of the sleek weapons followed three seconds later in the same sound check of speed and power. Standing among members of the military snapped to attention as the national anthem played on TV during a watch party before the 2017 All-Star Game half a world away (on Sunday night in the Big Easy and Monday morning in Afghanistan) was a rush of a different kind.

But when it was time to leave on the morning of Feb. 21, the sliver of the fifth day, the USO headliners were struck deepest by the connection with the soldiers, not the chance to surf the sky in a chopper above combat zones or a kid’s dream come to life of leaning into the cockpit of a fighter jet with the canopy raised. Delaney, Butler, Latta and Perkins made an incalculable difference, certainly more than they would have imagined on Feb. 17 and perhaps even more than they realized. This large military instillation on the front line of the war on terror, so front line that attacks sail in over the wall, did a lot of healing in a little less than a week.

The visitors left as they arrived, with several armed uniformed service members escorting them for safety, a presence even if a rifle or holstered pistol if mandatory for everyone on duty except the chaplain. There was one difference. The sun was out.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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