Ross Detwiler and Craig Stammen both arrived in Washington on Tuesday to take a trip together, heavy on anticipation but light on details. They could not tell anyone when they would leave. They did not know where they were going. They had packed suitcases with clothes that could keep them warm at sub-freezing temperatures and keep them cool if the temperature rose into the 90s. They could not wait.
Last month, Detwiler and Stammen, longtime friends from coming up together in the Nationals’ farm system and now key members of their pitching staff, signed on for a USO Holiday Tour led by Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They both agreed instantly, wanting to visit troops overseas. Because of national security, they do not know where, exactly, they will travel with Dempsey and other celebrities.
“We’re pretty much in the dark about it right now,” Detwiler said today at Nationals Park. “All we know is we’re going somewhere. You don’t know what to expect. You don’t know if you’re going to war-torn countries or if you’re just going to a base here or there. I’ve never been to any place that there’s been a war. I don’t know what the terrain is going to look like. You don’t really know how to take it until you’re actually there looking at it.”
And still, it was an easy decision for both pitchers. “It’s kind of one of those things, you want to drop everything and go,” Stammen said.
Detwiler was married a few weeks ago, and he cut short his honeymoon one day, leaving Hawaii to come to Washington to begin the USO tour. “She was completely on board with it,” Detwiler said. “She realized that it’s one of those things you get to do once, and you can’t really pass up the opportunity.”
Both Detwiler and Stammen were honored by the chance to participate. Detwiler’s grandfather trained World War II pilots. Stammen’s best friend from high school and college teammate is a Marine named Phil Ernst.
Stammen threw Ernst passes during high school football games, and at Dayton he played center field behind Stammen. As Stammen become a big leaguer, he would talk to Ernst about his experiences. Once, Ernst told him, he went 146 days without showering.
“That aspect of it, I’m very intrigued to see how those guys are feeling over there,” Stammen said. “I know how his personality changed from how he went over there, and now when he’s coming back. They go through a lot of tough stuff, and we live a great life, being baseball players. We’re reaping the benefits of them doing the dirty work.”
This summer, Detwiler and Stammen visited Walter Reed Medical Center, an experience that helped convince Detwiler to travel with the USO tour. Stammen said it made him want to spend time with troops who visited Nationals games, rather than simply saying hello and moving on with his day.
“That was the first real interaction I’ve had with troops at a wartime,” Detwiler said. “Just the feeling that I had as the bus pulled away from there, just so grateful, it’s hard to describe. You really want to thank all of them, but there’s no way to thank all of them. Just to see those guys and talk to them, to say thank you for letting us lead the lives we do over here.”
The interaction with troops and veterans is a byproduct of playing a professional sport in the nation’s capital. Stammen recognized that if he was a solid middle reliever for, say, the Cincinnati Reds, he probably would not have been invited.
“I think they’re going to wonder who the hell I am,” Stammen said, laughing. “How’d this guy get on the trip?”
Stammen and Detwiler will be joined by Capitals forward Matt Hendricks, singer Kellie Pickler and comedian Iliza Shlesinger. The two pitchers want to give their time to the troops, but they plan on getting more back.
“I think it’s going to be a reality check for us,” Stammen said. “Not everything is hunky-dory over there with how things are going. I think we’ll get a better appreciation for what’s going on. So when they come in the clubhouse, we don’t just say, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ and go do our thing. We’ll spend a little time with them. I think that’s what they’re really after – a little time and respect.”