2004 Olympic all-around champion Paul Hamm, along with three fellow Olympians, recently returned from a 10-day goodwill tour to visit with U.S. military troops in Iraq and Kuwait. They visited about 10 military bases, with the majority located in Iraq.
"This was my first time visiting the troops," said Hamm. " When I heard about the trip, I agreed without hesitation. The timing worked for my schedule, and it was an excellent opportunity to give back to the soldiers for all of their tireless efforts.
" The troops were very open to sharing their stories and were also interested in learning from us,"said Hamm, who travelled with hurdler Allen Johnson, swimmer Carly Piper and sprinter Moushaumi Robinson. "We were treated really well, and we have such respect for our troops. Everyone was very nice at each of the bases and seemed very upbeat, even in such stressful conditions and during intense times."
The foursome spoke with the troops, participated in question and answer sessions, signed autographs, posed for pictures, and just spent time with various military personnel.
"We spent a lot of time interacting with the troops in the recreation centers," said Hamm. " We would play ping pong, shuffleboard, and even taboo. At one of the bases, we Olympians, along with our tour guide, took on a talented group of soldiers on the basketball court in a full scrimmage. We put our hearts into the game, but we came up short.
" I was asked to do gymnastics a few times, and I usually did a handstand. One of the soldiers was a gymnast and we had a handstand contest. He had fun impressing and entertaining all of his buddies."
The athletes were given some guidance about traveling in Iraq, proper outfitting and some basics. They traveled in Blackhawk helicopters in some instances, which proved to be an adventure.
"Our first Blackhawk helicopter ride was extremely memorable,"said Hamm. " I thought it was going to be a nice easy ride to our next destination, but was I wrong. First of all, it was about 120 degrees on any given day and just getting into the helicopter was an experience. We had to wear pants and long sleeve shirts on all flights, as well as a bullet-proof jacket and 10-lb. helmet. Walking up to the helicopter in all that gear with the blades whipping the hot air directly at you was like standing in front of a blow dryer for your entire body.
"Once we got buckled in, I was surprised when we took off without the side door open. I was sitting right there, and it was a little scary because I could look straight down at the desert floor. While the noise, wind and heat were a little uncomfortable, it was exhilarating at the same time. The temperature dropped when we got a little higher and I began to really enjoy the ride. It was an amazing experience to fly in a Blackhawk helicopter in Iraq and look down at the Euphrates River."
Hamm indicated it was a worthwhile trip, especially as an opportunity to show our appreciation to the troops for their efforts on our behalf.
" The trip meant a lot," said Hamm. "It was rewarding to see the hardworking service men’s and women’s smiles when they realized that we truly appreciate their efforts. That in and of itself brought me great joy."
Army personnel with Paul Hamm (far left), Moushaumi Robinson, Allen Johnson and Carly Piper
Allen Johnson, Moushaumi Robinson, Paul Hamm, Carly Piper
Paul in a handstand contest