Matt Hendricks at a Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan. (All photos courtesy Matt Hendricks)

When Matt Hendricks received the invitation to take part in the USO Holiday Tour he was honored and, honestly, a little surprised. He knew that popular musicians, actors and actresses – people much more recognizable than himself – often visited the troops.

“I didn’t know how much of a difference I could make, just being a hockey player that’s not a superstar, that’s just your average Joe in the league,” Hendricks said in a phone interview. “But being there, being able to meet our servicemen and women and hear their stories, they showed so much appreciation and thanks to me. It made me think, ‘Man this is crazy. These troops are thanking me when I just want to thank them.’ ”

The Capitals forward returned to the United States on Tuesday after the week-long trip that included stops in Bahrain, Kyrgyzstan, the Bagram and Kandahar airfields in Afghanistan and two more in Stuttgart and the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center both in Germany.

He’s flown in Blackhawk helicopters, experienced landing on and taking off from the USS Stennis aircraft carrier – landing requires planes to go from 160 mph to a complete stop in four seconds – and fielded questions from hockey fans about when the NHL would return.

Hendricks and his new friend, Nationals pitcher Craig Stammen on board a C-130 headed to Bagram, Afghanistan.

But the most important part of the “extremely humbling” trip for Hendricks wasn’t those experiences, but getting to meet thousands of troops and truly comprehend what their daily lives are like when serving their country.

“I do a lot of charity work with the military in D.C. and I’ve always had a lot of appreciation [for military members],” said Hendricks, whose father Doug is a former Marine. “But when you actually get there and you set foot on that soil, you see how they’re living, what the conditions are and what they’re doing day-by-day, the stresses and the hardships those levels of appreciation somehow go higher.

“If everyone had the opportunity to see it they would be amazed,” Hendricks added. “They are definitely the real warriors among us.” 

In addition to Hendricks, Nationals pitchers Ross Detwiler and Craig Stammen, singer Kellie Pickler and comedian Ilza Shlesinger took part in the tour, which was led by Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Hendricks speaks to troops during the USO show at the Kandahar airfield in Afghanistan.

It was a rigorous schedule as the group traveled between military sites, spending as long as necessary after each USO show to sign autographs, take pictures and swap stories with the troops. In his speeches, Hendricks talked about his father and teamwork, drawing parallels between the combined efforts needed in hockey to those that are required in the military.

He wouldn’t hesitate to take part in another USO tour if presented with the opportunity, because the memories of being able to express his gratitude in person and not just in a public service announcement or on television aren’t ones he’ll soon forget.

“One experience I’ll always have was when we were at the last hospital in Germany and we were talking to a Georgian, not from the state but from the country. His English wasn’t that good, he was paralyzed and he wasn’t very understanding of what was being said,” Hendricks said. “Kellie Pickler and I were in the room with him, she was talking to him and I was talking to him and she just decided we should sing him a Christmas carol. We did and you could just see his spirits get lifted from that. That was one of the points where I realized, wow we’re really touching people’s lives.”

The USO troupe — Craig Stammen, Ross Detwiler, Ilza Shlesinger, Kellie Pickler and Hendricks — at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.