Packers Visit, Connect With Soldiers At Alaskan Military Base

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The five Green Bay Packers who visited Fort Wainwright, a U.S. Army base in Fairbanks, Alaska, probably don't realize it, but the morale boost they provided to some of the country's northernmost troops last week isn't going to fade away anytime soon.

"From my point of view, it was a visible shift in momentum," said David Neetz, the senior chaplain at Fort Wainwright. "Just like someone ran one back for a TD in a game. That momentum is going to carry on I'd say throughout the next year."

Packer players Noah Herron, Dave Rayner, Josh Bourke, Patrick Dendy and Kevin Barry just returned from Alaska a few days ago after spending nearly a week with the troops there. The excursion, which also included the New York Jets' D'Brickashaw Ferguson and the Houston Texans' Ben Steele, a former Packer, was arranged by Pastor Joe Urcavich from the Green Bay Community Church in Howard through his connections with Unlimited Potential, Inc., a Christian-based organization that works with Major League Baseball players to assist commanders and chaplains in providing religious support to military service members and their families.

From sharing meals to chatting about their jobs to riding dogsleds, the players and the soldiers spent a lot of time getting to know each other, and in a fairly brief time some legitimate bonds formed through fellowship and sharing of faith.

Many of the soldiers were from a Stryker Brigade that had just returned from an 18-month tour of duty in Iraq in late 2006. Their high-impact unit of 3,500 had lost 36 members in Iraq with hundreds more wounded, according to Urcavich, and many soldiers in those circumstances return to American soil struggling to cope with a variety of issues.

"It makes you appreciate what they do for the country, and they're definitely heroes," Bourke said. "Just listening to their stories and what they go through when they've over in Iraq. Some of them opened up to us, some of them didn't and I understand they don't really know us.

"But it was real cool, a couple of the guys actually opened up to us, and I think it was rewarding for them to talk to somebody about it."

The trip also included a visit to Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, as well as a stop at North Pole High School for a surprise assembly in front of the students. North Pole is where Packers guard Daryn Colledge is from, and though he couldn't make the trip, the players got to meet his brother Kyle.

At Fort Wainwright, the players took on every activity they could, dressed out in full gear when necessary in the sub-zero temperatures, including Kevlar vests and helmets. They went out on morning jogs with the soldiers, flew a helicopter simulator, fired sniper rifles, rode dogsleds and snowmobiles, and if they had enough energy, played late-night basketball in the gymnasium on the base.

The players even conducted a football clinic for the families on the base, with the children rotating to different stations to learn various skills.

"Those dudes were busy from morning till night," Urcavich said. "They really worked their tails off. It's one of those things where you're really proud of the players in the NFL. They're not getting paid to do this. They're going up there because it's where their heart is."

As much as the soldiers were fired up the whole week, the players were just as overwhelmed by the experience.

{sportsad300}"When you talk about colonels and four-star generals and all that stuff, usually you think of the movies," Herron said. "The fact that we got to see these guys, guys who have been in battles and multiple wars, and to talk with them was awesome. Just to meet those guys and understand what they do for everybody's freedom was an awesome feeling."

The trip had its particularly memorable moments, or in some cases mishaps, for each player.

Bourke needed two stitches to close a cut near his eye, which was poised too close to the scope on a 50-caliber rifle with some serious kickback. Barry had to launch his 330-pound frame sideways into the snow, bailing from the dogsled to prevent it from collapsing when it stopped suddenly. Dendy went on a 4-mile rucksack hike with the infantry, carrying a 70-pound pack on his back the whole way, while Rayner took some grief for trying to negotiate his way out of the morning runs and other physical training. And Herron picked up a new nickname - 'Crash' - for his snowmobile exploits, plus he got to participate in a promotion ceremony, pinning the captain's rank onto a soldier's uniform.

An illustration of the connections established during the week came at its conclusion, when two soldiers gave Herron and Barry the backpacks they carried with them in combat for over a year.

"Talking with the soldiers, they were so appreciative to be able to sit down with the guys and talk to them man-to-man," Neetz said. "They feel the support the players are giving them for their military duties.

"I talked with the senior officer on post the other day, and he's a very humble guy, but he just shook his head and said, 'This is the greatest thing I've ever seen.' Said it just like that."

A mutual respect developed between two distinct groups of people who have the high-profile jobs of entertaining the country and the behind-the-scenes duty of defending it.

"They look at us as NFL players on TV, but we look at them as heroes," Herron said. "They fight for our freedom. I think it was good for both sides. I think we got just as much if not more out of it than they got."

That's saying an awful lot, at least from the perspective of those still at Fort Wainwright.

"The guys are pumped, they're excited, and they're already talking about getting them back up here next year," Neetz said. "In my view, the momentum gained from the guys being here will be equivalent to the boost the Packers got when they won those last four games. There's that much of a carry-over."

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