Sam Perkins reflects on 'personal' USO trip to Afghanistan

Scott Howard-Cooper

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The USO tour left the hotel here before dawn on a Friday and over the duration of the itinerary flew three hours on a 737 to Bagram Airbase in northern Afghanistan, went from Bagram to a pair of smaller U.S. military installations in the country by helicopter, choppered back to Bagram, by 737 from Bagram to Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, had a 45-minute layover without deplaning and, finally, from Kandahar to Dubai, where it all started.

It was a Tuesday afternoon, and it was over. Five days, thousands of miles in the air in various machines, a few more in shuttle busses that hauled them around the base in Bagram, several kidneys and a couple vertebrae donated without consent to canyons in the road some liberally, but very mistakenly, called potholes. The itinerary for retired players Sam Perkins and Caron Butler, NBA Vice President of Referee Operations Bob Delaney and Ivory Latta of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics while All-Star weekend played out in New Orleans had been both exhausting and exhilarating and everything in between.

Now Perkins stood at the baggage carousel in the Dubai airport, waiting with the group to claim their luggage before a car ride to the hotel where they had originally gathered. Some would check in for a few hours as a brief stop before catching red-eyes headed north and west, over Europe, over the Atlantic, bound for various destinations in the United States, some stayed the night.

Perkins was the one who, minutes after arriving in Afghanistan, so soon that he was still basically a 3-pointer away from the chartered 737 as troops greeted the VIPs, said, “You’re just in it now. It’s just surreal.” When it was over, he would define the visit.

I had gone on another USO trip about five months ago, but we went on a tour. You didn’t really stay in one place. We went to Kosovo, Kuwait, Afghanistan, in the same place we just visited. We met the soldiers in different places, not only American soldiers, but Romanian soldiers as well, the Czechs. It was like more of tour. We had band members, celebrities from Hollywood and myself and my daughter. We just kind of schmoozed and got to know a lot of people in a short span of time because we were in a rush. But this time it was more of a real feel, because you got to personally know some guys and some of their stories. It’s always good to have a story they would find interesting. They were interested.

It was what I expected. But with the fanfare and the events, you got to know them even more personally. You would get to know people. That’s what happened. It was a different perspective from the prior trip I took. That was more about the signing and signing autographs. This was more personal.

It’s almost like the people that we got to know through this whole duration, I guess they were in a way wishing we wouldn’t go. But we knew the day would come for us to depart. I think we really got close to them, got connected to them, so when you land somewhere else and leave that behind you kind of reflect a little bit about what took place.

A soldier said to me when he saw us the other day that he’s had a trying time getting through this (time in Afghanistan). With us coming, he did a reset. I think that helped him a great deal, so he can now push through for another six months because the trying times and Groundhog Days and every day is the same thing. When he said that to me, that made me feel that we were there for a purpose. Whether we take it lightly or not or we think we can or cannot make a difference or not, we made a difference with one person at least.

I guess we’re all mentors in some way, in some aspect. Just hearing that, it makes you feel good. But knowing that this trip was important, more important than being at the All-Star Game, I think we were medicine to some. We were here for a purpose and that’s what we came for. We all kind of connected with one another and made it more worthwhile for them. Just the interaction.

The basketball, the games, the coaching, laughing with the guys and women, just sitting down and having lunch or dinner with them. Just seeing us there made it more special to them. And like I said before, the importance of having somebody around just to boost your morale and confidence, it makes it all worthwhile. We don’t know what outcome that may be for a person, but I’m glad I came.

The realness of the soldiers will stay with me. They’re just like you and I except, from talking to them, they all willfully signed up to come, to protect and serve the country. No one asked them to be there. No one told them to come. They came of their own conscience. That’s probably going to stand out to me as much as anything because I’m grateful for what they do and what they stand for. They all have hardships while they’re serving, but at the same time they take pride.

You’re a badass when you’re carrying around a gun all day, so I respect that. But the women are more interesting. I’ve never seen so many women take pride in doing something different, instead of worrying about being glam all the time or being about themselves. They did it for whatever reasons, but they’re doing it because of their country. They have families as well. All these people we connected with all have families and they love them to death and they want to get back to them, but they know that there’s something at stake and they want to do the job with pride.

When I took the first trip, it changed me. It made me think about a lot of things. All the things that are going on in the United States, people have their own way of respecting the flag and respecting the soldiers. They’re all doing it in a good, positive way. Some people take it in a negative, disenchanted way, but I think overall, when I get back, when I come back from these trips, it makes you think about the people you connected with. The faces. The conversations we had. What we talked about. We talked about everyday things, everyday life and perspective. We had some things in common that were able to connect.

They’re ordinary guys and women that are over there fighting. They worry all the time. They don’t, probably, show it a lot. It’s all right to do that. But at the same time, they show pride in what they do. And they do it to the fullest. I’ll always remember them no matter what and hopefully we can see them on the other side.