By Chad Stewart
Atlanta Falcons CEO Steve Cannon, head coach Dan Quinn, players Alex Mack, Ben Garland and Matt Bryant, cheerleaders Brianna Stade and Alexandria Giannini traveled on a USO tour to Iraq and Kuwait in June to connect with deployed troops.
Led by Cannon, a West Point graduate and Quinn, recipient of the NFL’s 2017 Salute to Service Award, the group visited seven military bases over three days and met more than a thousand troops along the way. After touching down in Baghdad, the team visited with troops and toured a hospital at Baghdad Diplomatic Support Center before hopping in a CH-47 Chinook helicopter and flying to Union III to meet up with Army Lt. Gen. Paul Funk, the commander of Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve.
Funk, who leads all U.S. forces in Iraq, briefed the team on the current situations in Iraq and Syria and shared some powerful stories of sacrifice and survival. Later, the USO hosted a block party on base, which featured prizes, karaoke, free food and an autograph session with the Falcons.
On Day 2, Funk traveled north with the group to Camp Taji, Q-West and NOC-E, all separate military installations. At each stop, U.S. service members had the chance to talk with players, get autographs and take pictures. Some coalition partners got in on the fun as well. Troops from Australia, Norway, Spain, Finland, Italy, Germany, the U.K. and more met the stars.
The day ended with a helicopter flight to Erbil Air Base with a huge, outdoor USO meet-and-greet event that featured live music, raffles, games, food and lots of autographs and photos. The following day, the group touched down at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait, ending the tour with an autograph session at the base’s MWR building.
Mack, a five-time Pro Bowl center and three-time USO tour veteran, called the trip awesome. “After my first [USO tour] I had such a great time that I couldn’t wait to come back,” he said. “We were able to come out here and tell people, ‘Thank you for your service’ and let them know that what they do is important.”
Garland, an Air Force Academy graduate who plays alongside Mack on the Falcons’ offensive line, recently traveled to Italy and Germany on a separate USO tour in April. The Colorado Air National Guard captain said flying over the destruction in Mosul, Iraq, in a helicopter was among the most memorable parts of the trip for him and said that sacrificing a few weeks of his time is minor in comparison to what U.S. troops give up.
“We give up weeks of our time, but they give up years for us,” he said. “They give up arms, legs, they give up family members, so just to come out here and say ‘Thank you’ and give a little bit of a morale boost … that’s absolutely worth it for me.”
Quinn, on his second USO tour, said he’s always appreciated the teamwork that is necessary inside every military unit, but said this experience expanded his perspective.
“When you go somewhere like [Iraq] and you see the joint coalition that’s taking place – that it’s not just our country. To see that type of interaction … that is leading at the highest level and certainly something I have taken a lot from.”
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Bryant, the Falcons’ kicker and leading scorer in team history, has supported many causes over the years and attended many events, but the USO trip to Iraq and Kuwait stands out among the rest.
“Just to come over here and experience this … it’s been great experience to appreciate these guys and girls,” said Bryant, a 17-year NFL veteran.
Brianna Stade, a five-year veteran on the Falcons’ cheerleading squad, said while the troops were understandably excited for the team’s visit, the group was just as excited to meet deployed troops.
“I’m just so overwhelmed with [gratitude] for all that they do for us, for me and America.”
Fellow cheerleader Alexandria Giannini expressed her adoration for our men and women in uniform and thanked the USO and the Falcons for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“I can’t really compare it to anything else I’ve done,” she said. “I feel like it’s so impactful, not only for them, but for me. It’s changed my entire outlook,” she said.
“These men and women are heroes. … they’ve touched my heart.”
Cheeleaders Brianna Stade, right, and Alexandria Giannini have some fun with service members during their USO tour to Iraq and Kuwait.
Falcons players Matt Bryant, left, and Alex Mack are ready to go off-roading in a military vehicle during their USO tour to Iraq and Kuwait.
Falcons cheerleaders Brianna Stade, center, and Alexandria Giannini look out over Baghdad, Iraq, from the back of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter during a USO tour to Iraq and Kuwait.
Atlanta Falcons offensive lineman Ben Garland gets a close look at a AH-64 Apache helicopter.
Falcons players, coaches and cheerleaders sign autographs at a USO-hosted event at Erbil Air Base.
A service member holds a football that was signed by the entire Falcons group during a USO tour.
Falcons cheerleader Alexandria Giannini chats with a service member during a meet-and-greet session during the tour.
Falcons cheerleaders Brianna Stade, left, Alexandria Giannini and offensive lineman Ben Garland pose for a photo outside USO Erbil in Iraq.
Cheerleader Alexandria Giannini and Falcons CEO Steve Cannon chat with a service member in Erbil, Iraq, during a USO Tour.
Falcons head coach Dan Quinn talks with troops at Erbil Air Base, Iraq.
The Falcons crew poses with troops in front of an AH-64 Apache helicopter at Erbil Air Base, Iraq, during a USO tour.