By Tom Coughlin

Given my respect and admiration for the armed forces and my long-standing friendship with Army General Raymond T. Odierno, I was ready and willing to take part in the inaugural NFL-USO Coaches Tour to the Persian Gulf in 2009. I joined four other coaches—former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher, former Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher, former Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden and Ravens coach John Harbaugh—for the privilege of spending time with service members throughout Iraq for a weeklong period that summer.

Photo credit Army photo by Sgt. Mikki L. Sprenkle

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, left, laughs with New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin before a New York Giants game at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., on Nov. 10, 2013.

While the NFL and USO have organized overseas, morale-building visits for more than 45 years, the Coaches Tour concept was a new one and one I was only too happy to join. I have always had great respect for those who served. In my time, we had the draft. Today’s troops are volunteers. To spend time with them is to sense their intelligence and passion and to stand in admiration and awe of that combination.

After boarding a flight at Dulles International Airport, we passed through Kuwait before reaching Baghdad. That we were heading into a war zone was reinforced when the pilotturned the plane’s lights off 15 minutes before landing.

During our stay in Iraq’s capital, the five of us shared one room in what was once one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. That first night, none of us did much sleeping, though—we were all too wired and ready to get going. In the morning, we travelled to Mosul. Again, the signs of war were all around. The soldiers were all armed and on combat alert. There were concrete abutments on the outside of the buildings and sandbags on the inside of the windows. It was hotter than hot—in the 125-degree area—and that was prior to the sandstorms.

While in Mosul, I made sure to spend some time with a friend of former Giants coach Mike Sullivan. Sometimes, it’s truly a small world. We also spent time signing many autographs for service members before moving on to an airbase near Kirkuk, where I addressed the group before joining them for a meal and signing more autographs.

Being able to spend time during the tour with General Odierno reminded me of the leadership principles we share. He always talks to me about the importance of the team concept, just as I do with our players. I remember back in 2007, I received a letter from him on the eve of training camp. He was very flattering in his comments about the soldiers in Iraq—the young women and men who represent our country. He talked about their beliefs—their belief in their leaders, but most of all their belief in each other. He talked about team and the way you have to serve for each other in order to understand what the team concept is all about. His message has always been one of team and the message the New York Giants preach is always that of team. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a Giants fan, of course.

After departing Kirkuk, our group returned to the Al Faw Palace in Baghdad where we were fortunate enough to witness Vice President Joe Biden and General Odierno preside over 237 soldiers of all nationalities being sworn in as United States citizens on July 4. It was an incredibly moving experience that represented the essence of freedom and liberty.

What I remember the most from each base visit was the exceptional attitude of the men and women we met—they truly inspired me with their attitude and their belief in what they are doing and their desire to excel at their mission. I know that the troops we visited think that we inspired them, but believe me, the morale and dedication of our military men and women inspire us so much more, each and every day.

Photo credit DOD photo

The New York Giants recognized Medal of Honor recipient Capt. Florent Groberg during their military appreciation game Nov. 15, 2015.

Since 2009, several other NFL coaches have had the privilege of going on NFL-USO Coaches Tours. The coaches that will go on this year’s tour, and those who will go on future tours, are going to have an unforgettable experience. My USO tour was truly the trip of a lifetime.

–Tom Coughlin is a former New York Giants head coach.