Heap visits U.S. troops overseas

OWINGS MILLS -- During an NFL delegation's ongoing visit of U.S. military personnel stationed in Germany, Baltimore Ravens tight end Todd Heap came to a realization.

"We were in the Air Force base where almost everyone that goes into Iraq flies out of this terminal, and I think a bunch of the troops getting autographs were on the line to go straight to Iraq," Heap said Friday in a conference call. "Man, that was something else. Just to be able to see the expressions on their faces and see their mindset was really a great experience."

Along with NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Atlanta Falcons running back Warrick Dunn and linebacker Keith Brooking, Heap began a four-day U.S.O. tour Thursday. 

After arriving in Frankfurt, the players visited a shopping mall at Wiesbaden Army Airfield, spending time with troops who have seen duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. They also made appearances on American Forces Radio and Television.

"It definitely hits home when you come over here and look them in the eye and see their passion and belief in what they are doing, their enthusiasm," said Heap, a two-time Pro Bowl selection.

Heap's uncle served in Afghanistan, where former Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman was killed weeks ago. Tillman is the Army Ranger who walked away from millions of dollars in the NFL to fight for his country. 

Like Heap, Tillman attended Arizona State. Their enrollments didn't overlap, but they knew each other.

"I tell them what kind of guy he was," Heap said of his conversations with soldiers. "He did what he believed in and didn't let anyone deter him from that. 

"He was a man with great values and he put others in front of himself. A lot of the guys that we talked to are the same kind of people."

Heap, Dunn and Brooking participated in a question-and-answer session Friday morning with soldiers from the First Armored Division that had recently completed their combat readiness training. As gifts, the players were given MREs, the military meals that soldiers eat while on deployment.

The NFL group also visited the passenger terminal at Rhein Main Air Base, where they met troops about to embark on assignments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Heap and Co. inspected a C-17 Air Force cargo plane, which transports heavy equipment such as tanks, before attending a reception at the U.S. Consul General's residence in honor of Tagliabue.

Despite the growing, global controversy over the abuse and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of U.S. soldiers that was captured in photographs and videos, Heap said he didn't sense any decline in morale from the soldiers he encountered. 

"Some of them were telling us that they are sick of hearing all of the negatives and that they would like to start hearing some of the positive things that go on over there," said Heap, adding that soldiers emphasized U.S. efforts to build schools and reduce availability of guns. "I can't tell you one person that I talked to that was discouraged. They are all focused.

"If they are discouraged, they didn't show us. You could see that they really believe in what they are doing."

Last summer, Heap and a few teammates visited wounded U.S. soldiers who were being treated at Washington-area military hospitals. This morning, he'll visit Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the main hospital for troops who have been injured in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"I imagine that will be a pretty emotional ordeal," Heap said. "I am looking forward to it."

The trip will conclude with a visit to an Air Force base today before Heap and his NFL colleagues return to the U.S. on Sunday.

Heap said this experience has changed his perspective on military service.

"I have always felt that I have had a great appreciation for the troops and the war in general, but experiencing this first-hand has opened my eyes," Heap said. "I earned a greater appreciation that the man I just talked to could be going over to Iraq and laying his life on the line for my freedom, my family and the country's."

NOTE: The Ravens have signed undrafted rookie cornerback Sam Massey, a former Morgan State standout who played in the Hula Bowl and Gridiron Classic all-star games. 

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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