San Diego – Entertaining the troops in Afghanistan proved to be an eye-opening experience for professional volleyball players.
“The Fourth of July will definitely have more meaning this year,” says Matt Olson, a San Diego native and professional AVP beach volleyball player. Olson was one of four players invited by the United Service Organization, USO, to play volleyball and sign autographs for the troops stationed in Afghanistan.
The Middle East Journey was an eight-day crash course in military procedures and 100- degree temperatures in the desert.
“The troops were very gracious and appreciative. They were completely different than what I had envisioned,” Olson said. “I didn’t know what to expect and what I found to be true was awesome and reassuring.”
Olson who read previous news stories about the troops was under the impression that they were are all from the mid-west and high school dropouts; “That couldn’t be farther from the truth,” according to Olson. “They were articulate and well-educated.”
The four AVP players who made the Afghanistan June 1-10th trip were Matt Olson, Jeff Nygaard, Ryan Mariano and Brooke Hanson. Their journey began in as Sayliyah air base in Qatar. This is the gateway base where U.S. troops on break seek rest and relaxation from the daily 18-hour-a-day grind of the war zone.
From there the players were fully outfitted in “personnel body armor and helmets,” to be worn at all times while traveling inside the war zone. “Even though we had to wear the 40-pound gear, we felt safe through out our time in Afghanistan,” Olson said.
Typical days started before dawn and ended well-after midnight as the troops usually played volleyball until 2 a.m. Chow time was also much different than expected the players said. “We were treated to “surf & turf” one night and barbeque lobster another.”
The three main bases in Afghanistan are Kandahar, Gardez and Bagram. The group was ferried between the bases in C-130 cargo planes and Chinook helicopters that traveled in pairs. The military personnel were “battle ready” at all times.
“The coolest thing I did during one of the flights was hanging off the back of the Chinook helicopter and shoot a machine gun into the bare hillside,” Olson explained. “It was like a big boys club.”
Another flight Olson will never forget is the famous corkscrew landing. “The pilot puts the airplane’s nose down and corkscrews all the way to the runway in order to avoid being shot down, it was crazy.”
Once on the ground at the bases, the AVP players were given a VIP tour by the base commander who explained the duties of the base. Then the players were free to eat and play volleyball with the military personnel.
Each base had volleyball courts set up and a number of the Army personnel played on a daily basis. The AVP players played six on six in tennis shoes because the “sand” was more like “dirt.”
While the players were out mingling with the troops they were able to visit a base hospital and talk with some wounded soldiers. They were also lucky enough to be a part of a Purple Heart ceremony. “It was pretty intense,” Olson said.
“The guys in the hospital were amazing and all they wanted to do was get back to their units as soon as possible,” Olson explained. “The soldiers all wanted to be there and were anxious for us to go home and tell everyone that they were doing good things in Afghanistan. The Afghan people want us here.”
Indeed, the soldiers are fighting for the freedom of the Afghan people as well as ensuring that Americans are able to enjoy their hot dogs, cold beers and BBQ on the Fourth of July.