On Dec. 6, Adam LaRoche boarded a plane and had no idea where it would land. He had agreed to join the Chairman USO Holiday Tour, which for the second straight year asked the Nationals to take part. Last winter, pitchers Ross Detwiler and Craig Stammen traveled overseas to visit troops on a trip led by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey.
LaRoche had let it be known, to both the Nationals and to Dempsey himself, he would like to go this year. Dempsey not only invited him on the tour, but he also allowed him to invite three famous hunting buddies: Willie and Jep Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” fame and former Patriots tackle Matt Light. Comedian Thomas Miles and singer Alison Haislip also joined.
All six were told to pack a suitcase for one week, with clothes suitable for temperatures between 30 and 80 degrees. For security purposes, they could not be told where they were going.
In one week, the group flew to Greece, Afghanistan, Italy and Germany, performing shows in front of troops, visiting hospitals and, most importantly for LaRoche, meeting and speaking with soldiers.
“They were blown away,” LaRoche told reporters Friday night over dinner at Occidental Grill. “They were so blown away that you’d think nobody’s ever been over there. There’s been a lot of shows that go through, but I think every time they just appreciate it so much.”
The others in the group performed. LaRoche stood on stage, too, but most of his interaction came one-on-one. The soldiers asked him about the Nationals’ chances in 2014 and about the toughest pitchers to face. During the shows, the same thought kept occurring to LaRoche.
“I’m thinking, ‘What could I possibly say to relate to these guys?’ ” LaRoche said. “It’s not easy for me, for sure. I feel like – and I told them this – like we should be sitting down there and some of you guys, specifically some of the older sergeants and generals, you guys should be up here talking to us. I don’t need to be up here trying to motivate you.”
The group listened to incredible stories and saw the effects of some of them of up close. They visited Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan. There, some troops had just returned from a 72-hour battle.
“A couple guys shot,” LaRoche said. “One guy blown up while we were there, but we didn’t see him until this morning in Germany. We saw him in the hospital in Germany.”
“I met that guy in Afghanistan!” Willie Robertson said. “I met him, took a picture with him, two days later I’m in Germany, he’s in the hospital bed. I walked in I was like, ‘Ah, good to see you again.’ He actually was way better than when I saw him in Afghanistan. He had a full neck brace and was pretty loopy, couldn’t hardly talk. In Germany he was like, ‘Hey there.’ He’s already told his family that he had met me, so this time he had all these questions about the show.”
“We met a special ops guy who got shot twice,” LaRoche said. “Took a round through the leg and then one in the back.”
LaRoche has always shown a patriotic bent. He takes time to meet with veterans and officers when they stop by Nationals Park. All the members of the tour took something away from the trip – Willie was amazed at the logistical force needed to create a base camp. LaRoche earned a new appreciation for the burden and the sacrifice soldiers face.
“Every time I look at the flag, and I look at it every night when they play the national anthem,” LaRoche said. “Can’t say I’ve ever really looked at the flag and thought ‘Somebody paid the price for that.’ I will hope it’s going to be a lot easier to not take those things for granted. If you’ve been there with the troops, if we really got to see, we wouldn’t take for granted.”