Commentary

Every day is a mission for our soldiers

Updated: January 21, 2011, 10:41 AM ET
By Al Unser Jr. | Special to ESPN.com

Two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Al Unser Jr. participated in the Indy 500 Centennial Tour -- a 10-day goodwill trip to Europe and the Middle East with the goal of boosting the morale of more than 10,000 servicemen and women.

Coordinated by Morale Entertainment Foundation and Armed Forces Entertainment, in conjunction with the Izod IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the team also included fellow multiple Indianapolis 500 winners Mario Andretti and Johnny Rutherford plus Indy 500 veterans Sarah Fisher, Davey Hamilton, Larry Foyt and Firestone Indy Lights race winner Martin Plowman.

Jan. 20

During one of the presentations during the tour, Jack Arute, the moderator, asked me for the second time what Indy means to me. The first time was almost two decades ago, and it still resonates with me whenever I see the video: "It sounds like there's a tear in your voice." And I said, "You just don't know what Indy means."

Over the years, I think I've figured out what it means to my family. With my Uncle Bobby winning it for the first of his three in 1968 and my dad winning the first of his four in 1970, the pressure was on me to do well at Indy. Finally, in my 10th try, I was fortunate enough to win it at the end.

[+] EnlargeAl Unser Jr.
Dave Lewandowski/INDYCARAl Unser Jr. sensed a strong passion for victory and teamwork during his overseas visit with soldiers.

As a kid, I watched the Johnny Lightning car and it was bigger than life. That's when the dream was put inside me. The words that come to mind are "dreams," "desire," "dedication," "perseverance," "scary" and then "success." I waited 10 years to get that victory. In my case, it was a dream come true. Indy is hallowed ground that can make you or break you.

My general impressions of this trip are of humbleness, of perseverance, of very honorable men and women who are in the military services in the UK, Turkey and United States with a strong passion for victory and of teamwork. They all work as a unit to accomplish their mission, and it was especially evident on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, where there are 5,000 people living on it and they're flying planes at what appeared to be such a young age.

On the ship, it all has to do with maintenance of the planes and maintenance of the ship. The entire crew is taking care of each other. One thing I learned is that everyone on the carrier is a trained firefighter because it's the No. 1 danger on a ship that size. While I was having dinner with the enlisted men, they were pointing out where all the fire supplies were and what they did.

The strongest word I can use for the whole trip is "humbling." When we started off in Ramstein, Germany, to visit with the soldiers who are wounded, it touched me. They have sacrificed so much, and I hope that we encouraged our troops that we're very proud of them and that we want them to come home safe. With our allies, I hope that we've shared our loyalties and how much we care. We couldn't do it without them.

Jan. 18

The group flew on a C-130 transport -- the ones with the guide wires along the inside of the cargo bay for static parachuting like you see in the World War II movies -- from Bahrain to Joint Base Balad in Iraq. We even had to wear body armor for a section of the trip because of potential attack from the ground. That was interesting, and many of us had our pictures taken in the nonflattering armor that weighs about 35 pounds. That's 35 pounds of weight I don't need.

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US Air Force/Getty ImagesAl Unser Jr. and the gang got an up-close look at the Predator, an unmanned reconnaissance plane.

Joint Base Balad has been a very crucial base during the war in Iraq over the last decade, and a crucial one to take over from Saddam Hussein's military. There has been a lot of construction to offer protection from insurgent attacks, which the base still receives on a regular basis. Fortunately, there weren't any while we were there, but we did receive a briefing about what to do if we heard a warning.

Talking with the soldiers, it's something you get used to but not something you're complacent about. The mission of the base is evolving from one of prosecuting the war to protecting the base, its inhabitants, including a lot of civilian workers, and the Iraqi people. I could feel and see there's a winding down. The United States is giving back Iraq to the people.

That doesn't mean the soldiers and officers have stepped back their dedication to duty. They continue to perform their duties in support of the mission of Operation Enduring Freedom, and they wanted to share what they do. I've found that at every stop we've made on the tour. They are so proud of the jobs they do, and no one back home in the States really knows how hard and long they work every day. Every day is a mission for them.

We did see a lot of technology with the Predator, an unmanned reconniassance plane, which was really cool. We saw the airmen flying it like a radio-controlled plane, and I was stunned by how young they looked to have such responsibilities. I love that technology, and I truly feel safer with it in the air and watching. It being unmanned, no one is in harm's way. It truly is a wonderful airplane.

Jan. 17

Unser and the group visited the more than 4,000 men and women aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72), which is in its fourth month of Operation Enduring Freedom.

There are a lot of people in service on the carrier. That's what I really learned -- how big it is and just how many people it takes to operate it. It's truly a mobile city on the water.

[+] EnlargeAl Unser Jr.
Dave Lewandowski, INDYCAR Al Unser Jr. signed hundreds of autographs during his visit to the USS Abraham Lincoln.

It's not just about the planes but about transporting them and working on them around the clock on the hangar deck. It really is incredible how many different jobs there are, and we only saw a few decks that related to the planes.

Up on the flight deck, what I saw was organized chaos. It did remind me of how a race team would operate. Everybody in different-colored vests had a job, they knew what it was, and it was accomplished faultlessly in a quick turnaround time.

We each signed hundreds of autographs during one session early in the evening, and after we met with some petty officers and enlisted men and women over ice cream and coffee, we walked through the hangar deck. There were long lines again at midnight. The captain said he hadn't seen that much involvement with his crew with a visiting group. Items we signed included posters, cards, shirts and hats. They scooped them all up. We wanted to give them a taste of home, a reminder of the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500.

The people on the ship were truly excited to see us. You could tell that by talking to them. That was great because we truly enjoyed ourselves and hopefully broke up their six-day-a-week work week.

Everyone we met on the ship was a great host and interesting to talk with. At dinner, we sat at different tables in the enlisted persons' mess and met some really interesting people with interesting stories to tell about what they do on the ship. I met two young men from my hometown of Albuquerque, N.M., and we met people from all over the country.

It was a joy and privilege to meet the men and women who protect our country, and it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me to be on the Abraham Lincoln.

Jan. 14

During our visit to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center near Ramstein Air Base in Germany, I met one wounded warrior who said he met me when he was 8 years old. First, it makes me feel old, but it also is humbling that he would remember something like that.

His particular injury wasn't that serious -- a fractured right ankle -- and he was going to come back soon, and I wish him and all the others a speedy recovery and all the best.

Unser and Andretti
Ron McQueeney/INDYCAR Al Unser Jr., left, shown with Mario Andretti, on the Indy 500 Centennial Tour: "If we can lift the spirits of these soldiers, we've done our job. I know they'll lift our spirits."

Landstuhl is the largest military hospital outside of the continental United States and serves as the nearest treatment center for wounded soldiers coming from Iraq and Afghanistan. We met with a few of the patients who were able, and it is amazing the work these dedicated doctors, nurses and other people do -- not only with the physical injuries but the soldiers' psyche. I met one young man who said, "If it was up to me, I'd have surgery and go back." Others have a more difficult time adjusting, maybe because of trauma or coming to terms with the fact that they lost a limb.

Earlier in the day we briefly visited with wounded warriors who were being transported back to the States. We all lined the pathway from the ambulances to the plane and said "thank you" to all who were conscious. Some gave us the thumbs-up sign and others the "V" for victory sign. That was very touching and sobering.

It's been a reality check really. It's just true evidence of the sacrifice that these men and women make to protect our freedom and their freedom. They realize that they volunteered for this, and the men and women we've met so far would come back and do it again. It's a type of bravery that's unmatched in any of the sports.

Compiled by Dave Lewandowski, INDYCAR director of editorial.

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