The Armed Forces Entertainment arranged for Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis and four other college coaches to go overseas and lift the spirits of our troops. But it's clear that Weis and the other coaches were just as inspired by the people they met.
"The intent of the trip was for us to inspire the troops," Weis said at a press conference Thursday. "To a man, the five coaches that went on the trip and came back, I think that we felt at least equally inspired by what we saw when we were over there. It was definitely a rewarding, educational experience."
Weis toured military bases in the Middle East along with Georgia's Mark Richt, Auburn's Tommy Tuberville, Miami's Randy Shannon and Jack Siedlecki of Yale. The coaches left from Scott Air Force Base in Illinois on Tuesday, May 20 and their first stop was the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany.
"The first guy we see had just got blown up by a roadside bomb the day before. He had his leg amputated right above the right knee. His face was all banged up," Weis recanted. "You would have thought he got checked into the boards in hockey game and he was going to be OK later that day. ‘Yeah I got banged up a little bit but I'll be OK.' The mental toughness, the discipline, and the positive frame of mind kind of set the tone for all of us for the whole week."
Weis was also able to use his sense of humor to lift people's spirits and he talked about another patient he saw at Landstuhl. The soldier, who had also suffered injuries from a roadside bomb, was from Fort Wayne and had dreamed of playing hockey at Notre Dame.
"He looks at me and he goes, ‘Coach Weis? I don't know if that's you or the morphine.'" Weis said. "I signed a hat for him and I took pictures with him and I said, ‘Well, kid when you're out of your morphine this hat will be sitting over here and you'll be able to say I guess it really did happen.'"
When Weis got to the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar he met a Southern Cal fan that wanted Weis to sign a USC shirt. The solider had recently married a Notre Dame fan and Weis quickly flipped the script.
"I said ‘I'm not signing that shirt. There is no way I'm taking a picture with you wearing that shirt,'" said Weis, who eventually got the solider to put on a Notre Dame shirt for the picture. "He said his wife will never let him live this one down."
From Qatar, the group boarded the USS Nassau at sea and Weis, an avid New York Yankees fan, continued the good-natured ribbing with a Mets fan that he met. Weis initially balked, but the soldier eventually convinced his commanding officer to get Weis to sign a Mets shirt.
"I signed, ‘Go Yanks! Charlie Weis,' and gave it back to him. So I ruined the shirt, but I tell you what I had a lot of fun doing it," he said.
2005 Notre Dame graduate Laura Ott is stationed at the U.S. Air Force Base in Southwest Asia and was supposed to fly an 18-hour surveillance mission on the day Weis was to visit until her commanding officer told her that she was excused.
"She was like a kid in a candy store," Weis said.
The coaches flew from Southwest Asia to Andrews Air Force base in Maryland on Memorial Day before being whisked away for a meeting with President George W. Bush at the White House.
"That was a pretty good deal. He brought us into the Oval Office and just sat there and talked like you're sitting on a couch in your living room," Weis said. "After thanking us for what we'd done, he wanted to hear some of the stories."
Weis' only regrets of the trip were that his son and the entire Notre Dame football team were not there to see what he saw.
"There's so many things that we take for granted that the people over there are not taking for granted especially those people that are defending our country," he said. "I think that would keep anyone from that age from whining about the little things. When you sit there and watch what's going on over there, those little things become very, very insignificant. I did not hear one person complain about anything going on over there, not one. It's almost unbelievable."Weis also wished that his players could see the way that the troops work together for a common goal.
"Teamwork, the prideful sense of being part of a team," he said. "There were no egos. Just doing their job and doing the job to the best of their responsibility and everyone counting on them to do their job. What better message can you send to a football team?"
Weis said that he became close with the other coaches during the trip.
"We were only together for a week, but there isn't one of those guys that I felt like I haven't known for years," Weis said. "I have a lot of respect for those guys."
Weis thought that Tuberville summed up the trip well.
"(Tuberville) kept on saying ‘We're definitely on the right side.' Because watching the way these guys acted made you feel good to know that the people that are over there defending your country in volunteer times are that prideful about what they're doing."