Purple Heart provides perspective for Rodgers

Trip to Fort Wainwright left lasting impression for Aaron Rodgers, Ruvell Martin and Noah Herron

Editor's note: The following story goes with a feature in the October edition of Packer Report magazine. The deadline for that magazine was during the height of the Brett Favre controversy, so Aaron Rodgers was not available to talk at that time. After the controversy ended with Favre being traded to the Jets, Rodgers sat down with Packer Report's Tyler Dunne to discuss his experiences with troops at Fort Wainwright in Alaska. Enjoy.

People everywhere watched in disbelief.

Why so unfazed, so calm, so ... at peace?

For one month, Aaron Rodgers was squarely at the proverbial career crossroad — the potential fallout boy in the biggest sports story of the summer. After five months of preparation and assimilation as Green Bay's starting quarterback, Rodgers suddenly was a sneeze away from clipboardin' for a fourth straight year.

Even the most passive, out-of-tune sports fans can relate to this frustration.

But as Brett Favre's itch evolved into an abrasive Calamine-proof scratch and he seemed destined to reclaim his perch atop Packer Nation, Rodgers didn't so much as scowl. Didn't whine. Didn't moan. Didn't sway either way, really. Nope. Rodgers didn't come within five ZIP codes of a verbal jab at Favre — a low blow that certainly would have been given a free pass by some the 30-odd reporters cramming his locker.

The fuse for this ticking time bomb never was lit, though.

Backtrack to March, and this turn-the-other-cheek precision makes sense. Rodgers knows what's important in life. No need to get steamed over a game.  

In early March, Rodgers, Noah Herron and Ruvell Martin lived with U.S. troops for one week at the Fort Wainwright U.S. Army base in Fairbanks, Alaska. For one week, the trio worked out with the troops, shared exercise routines, gave speeches and gained a replenished perspective on life.

Particularly, life and death.

"What I'm doing is a blast," Rodgers said. "I love it. But it's not life and death. You have to keep that perspective. It's life. But it's not life and death like the situation those guys are putting themselves in."  

The trip was as raw as it gets. The players and soldiers connected on a level packed with mutual respect.

One soldier, who had been overseas for three deployments, gave Rodgers his Purple Heart, arguably the highest tangible honor attainable.

The soldier earned multiple Purple Hearts after surviving a vicious bullet to the head in a firefight. His helmet saved his life. Holding the piece of equipment, smashed with a huge indent on its side, the soldier inspired the trio with the chilling story.

The line between life and death never was blurrier. Never so honorable and inspiring.

Through Favre Furor '08, this coin has a way of keeping Rodgers poised, calm and even-keel. It reminds him of the trip to Fort Wainwright.

"It was pretty special," said Rodgers, at a loss for words while recollecting the soldier's story in his mind. "It means a lot to me when I look at it on my dresser.

"It's close to me. It's in a special place."

The weeklong getaway was full of gripping, first-person accounts.

Nothing whips life back into perspective quite like this.

"When I'm in the situation like the one I've been in with this kind of pressure and potential distractions that surrounded the whole (Favre) situation, it's a good perspective to think back at experiences like that, because those guys are putting their lives on the line," Rodgers said.

"It was a great experience to spend time with the troops up there and just try to encourage them. All three of us that went up there got a lot out of it, just to see those guys in their element and how disciplined they are. The lack of fear they have in doing their job and the trust they put in their superiors is pretty impressive."

Both jobs have one common thread. Exterior pressure and criticism can erupt in a media minute. Sometimes, the truth remains hidden in favor of other muck plugged through the media airwaves. The rare, minute blemish overshadows overall progress, overall goodness. For a job that puts the lives of its employees at stake every day, such constant negativity can be a sickening crime.  

"It's very encouraging, because a lot of times in our society, the military is viewed with some skewed reporting with negative stuff that goes on," Rodgers said. "There's a lot of positives."

"It's good to be reassured that there's a ton of positive things going on over there, and it's the same way in our game. There's a lot of really good things that people do — charity work, foundations. Unfortunately, the negative stuff is what is mostly portrayed."

For one week, Rodgers, Martin and Herron saw this first-hand.

Martin — towering at 6-foot-4 — joined the shorter soldiers in their 5 a.m. cadence run. His long legs made for an awkward two miles, as Martin had to trot in painful short strides to stay in rhythm. The soldiers' complete, flawless unison blew his mind.

For Herron, it was trip No. 4. He's also been in the Middle East. The running back calls the trips "life changing."

"It's one of those things that puts everything into perspective," Herron said. "Definitely what we do is hard and laboring and time-consuming. But it's nothing compared to the stuff that they do. ... Sometimes, you forget how much you really enjoy playing. The trip put that back into perspective."

Usually, the information and stories about the men in arms comes from media reports, sensationalized TV shows, movies and such. But this is something you must see to understand, the players say. When you see the troops and absorb their commitment for their country — straight from the source — life takes on a renewed perspective.

It's raw, real, inspiring and in a completely different pressure-packed atmosphere than the one about to Aaron Rodgers this season.

Rodgers estimated that out of the 10,000-odd soldier populace at Fort Wainwright, all but 800 are heading to Iraq or Afghanistan. They know this destiny and embrace it.

"They're going. No fear. No regret. I'm sure they have to be a little anxious or nervous, but they're going and they're not looking back."

That's why Rodgers doesn't flinch. His Alaskan retreat in March was a honorable reminder. He plays football. A game. No need to get too high or too low.

Tyler Dunne is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report magazine. E-mail him at tydunne07@yahoo.com.

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