By Katie Lange
As the National Football League kicks into high gear, one player who spent part of his summer visiting troops in Okinawa, Japan, has returned to the field with a newfound respect for our armed forces.
Johnathan Abram, a free safety for the New Orleans Saints, took part in a week-long USO tour in June, where he got to see what life was like for service members and their families at Kadena Air Base, as well as Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Camp Hansen, Camp Schwab and Camp Foster. The trip marked the first time the NFL has traveled internationally with the USO since the pandemic began.
Abram said he has a lot of cousins and uncles who serve or have served, so he was excited to have the opportunity to pay it forward. The trip gave him a chance to host a few youth clinics, do some workouts with service members and learn some new things.
“I didn’t know that the Air Force had their own special tactics [team]…I’m not going to lie, I was quite amazed,” he said. “I learned so much information.”
One thing he really enjoyed was seeing explosive ordnance disposal robots at work.
“The machines that they deploy to stop bombs,” Abram said. “It gave me some insight on…how they’re not trying to use people nowadays but rather more machinery [to help save lives].”
The 26-year-old said he and others on the tour, including fellow football player Roquan Smith of the Baltimore Ravens, were able to take part in cultural dinners, visit some of the places where service members relax on weekends and spend time with the families who are also stationed overseas.
“We got to do some Play 60 [youth clinics],” he said. “It was a good experience to try to get those kids active. Their parents were excited to see us and the kids were super excited to meet some NFL players and actually hang out. We spent a lot of time with them in the afternoons. That was a very bright spot.”
Abrams said he didn’t know what to expect from the experience, so he went over with an open mind, knowing it would be a great time regardless.
“I was simply going to pay my respects and just try to bring some joy to family members…and the troops because they’ve been away from home for so long. I kind of know what that’s like,” he said. “Being in the NFL, it’s quite different. But the [service members] being so far away, and them not having any access to family and things of that nature—especially with COVID-19—I was able to empathize and relate, in a fashion.”
However, he said he could never compare what he does to what our troops do.
“They’re putting their lives on the line for our country,” he said. “What I do wouldn’t be possible without what they do.”
Abram said he enjoyed seeing how each base operated and how they all play a role in greater operations.
“My favorite was we got to work out with some of the [Air Force] special tactics guys, getting to see know how hard they push themselves,” Abram said. “The biggest thing I was doing was just taking it all in.”
But, at the end of the day, he said the best part of the trip was getting to know the troops.
“They embraced us. Every base that we went to, every station, every department—they all were so excited to see us,” he said. “It made me so much more appreciative for taking that trip, and it makes me look forward to doing it again.”
As for which branch he would choose if he were to join the military? At first, Abram picked the Marine Corps—before changing his mind.
“I think now, seeing what I saw, I would probably choose Air Force so I could be a part of special tactics, because what they do, I think, is pretty bad ass,” he said.
Another thing he was impressed by: All the military acronyms.
“They talk in a lot of codes,” he joked. “They have all of these codes that they say, and they know exactly what they mean…I was like, ‘Huh? What is that? How do you even remember all of that?’”
Read more sports stories for veterans and service members here.