Etta’s Holiday Spent with the Troops

On Sunday December 11th, I was on the sidelines at Hard Rock img_3425Stadium cheering on the Fins to a victory.  During the game, I was pleasantly surprised when a picture was displayed on the Jumbotron of my teammates and I  who were chosen to go on the Christmas military tour, along with a good luck message.  I was already so honored to have a second chance to visit the armed forces in Europe, but seeing my name up on the screen sent a chill through my body. While I knew that the experience to come over the next two weeks would be astounding, I never imagined how truly humbling and life-changing it would be.

We flew from Miami to England the very next day! Arriving on Tuesday afternoon after several connecting flights, we spent the evening exploring Cambridge.  Visiting the U.K. was special because my teammate Holly is originally from Bristol, England.  Being in her home country was so sweet, especially because her family was able to visit us.

On Wednesday morning, we kicked off our military tour at RAF Alconbury. This base focuses on intelligence so most of the buildings were off limits, but I did have the privilege of lunching with several members of the US Air Force. Hearing how they protect us by monitoring computer activity was so interesting (even though most of the information was confidential).  After lunch, we headed to the fitness center to teach a cheer clinic. When I’m not cheering, I’m a dance teacher, so this is part of the day I always look forward to.

The next day we visited RAF Lakenheath.  Upon arrival, we were welcomed into an F-15 hanger for lunch! The dedication that all the young men and women displayed here was so admirable.  Many of them are simultaneously deployed and in school, but they still find time to work out, communicate with their loved ones, and have lunch with me! That night, we had our first performance of the tour. The feeling I got backstage is almost inexplicable. Being able to perform for our troops and their families is such an honor. Knowing that I’m bringing them a piece of home and realizing how thankful they were for that brought me immeasurable joy.

img_3389RAF Mildenhall was our final stop in the UK.  The most memorable part of this base was our time spent with the fire department. The fire fighters and medics were so welcoming. They let us try on all their gear, and I even got to sit up in their truck and use controls to aim and spray water. Kristan jumped out of the line of fire just in time to avoid being soaked! That night we had the privilege of performing for more military families. I loved meeting the biggest Dolphins fans in England. They were even decked out out in Miami apparel!

That weekend we traveled to Belgium, where we were lucky enough to learn how they celebrate Christmas. In Brugge, there was an outdoor ice-skating rink in the center market. Skating with my teammates that night was unforgettable, as we were surrounded by stunning medieval architecture and my favorite Christmas tunes. We spent Sunday in Brussels exploring the Christmas markets. They were full of delicious chocolates, local artwork, souvenirs, and fuzzy hats galore!  The cobblestone streets and Gothic architecture were truly breathtaking. All that combined with the beautiful winter air made me feel like I was in a movie!

We woke up early Monday morning for a several hour journey to the Netherlands. Before performing at USAG Benelux-Schinnen, I had the privilege of working the a high school cheerleading team. These girls were incredible, and picked up my choreography so quickly! Their tumbling and stunting skills were exciting to watch. That night, we had a show that I will never forget! The audience was very supportive and cheerful. Once the show was finished, a commanding officer on base presented each of us with a coin. My heart was so full. Before my first military tour, I had no idea about the coin giving tradition in the military. Collecting coins bearing an organization’s emblem is quiet popular among people serving.  They can be given to anyone who provides outstanding support, and they prove membership in a unit or career field, as well as enhance morale.  Because they are normally presented by high-ranking officers, receiving one was a great honor.  I will always cherish that moment.

On Tuesday we made our first stop in Germany at Spangdahlem Air Base. About 4800 military personnel work on this NATO base.  We had the honor of personally meeting with the 480th Fighter Squadron.  Speaking with some of the pilots and crew members of the Wild Weasles was unforgettable. These men have put their lives on the line in the air and on the ground to make sure my safety and freedom is protected in America. To say I’m thankful is an understatement.  The only way to show them how truly thankful I am everyday is by living a life in gratitude, always putting others first, and never taking how much I’ve been blessed with for granted.

The other German base we toured was USAG Wiesbaden. The img_3717cheer clinic I taught here was so fun because there were over 100 dancers! While most of them were Americans living on base, an extremely talented German dance company joined in the class too. After I taught everyone the choreography, they took turns performing in small groups for each other and their parents who were observing from the bleachers.  Even though their ages ranged from 6-18, they all had so much charisma and energy. Working with the the children of servicemen and women is so rewarding. Meeting their children was another reminder of the sacrifices that entire families make in order to protect my freedom. To wrap up our stay at Wiesbaden, we put on another performance full of dance routines and audience interactions. During each set, the cheerleaders and I take turns introducing ourselves.  My famous last words are usually something along the lines of, “and I’m a huge Star Wars fan, so may the force be with you.”  That night, a garrison commander gave me his coin because he too was a Star Wars fan. After getting to know him and hearing about his children, I have a clearer picture of what these men give up to command a base out of our home country. My respect and admiration kept growing deeper at each and every base.

img_3719We spent our last weekend of the tour in Kosovo. On Christmas Eve we met troops stationed at Camp Bondsteel. Meeting the men and women deployed at this base was incredible.  We spent a lot of time with the pilots, crew chiefs, and medics at the Black Hawks hanger.  Their bravery and selflessness stood out to me.  They couldn’t believe that I came all that way to spend my holiday there. Their gratitude was overwhelming.

Spending Christmas Day at Camp Film City meant more to me than I can even begin to put into words. Not only did we spend time with the US military, but I met armed forces from Austria, Germany, Greece and Italy. I spoke with one Italian pilot who I will never forget. He was a middle aged man with 3 children in their teens and twenties. Hearing his stories about flying into Iraq and Afghanistan after the 9/11 attack was gut wrenching. He was a young father, fighting for my safety in the Middle East. I was so humbled and at a loss of words. I tried to embody those feelings later in the evening when we performed for them. Looking out into the audience and seeing his face, among hundred of other heroes, was the most satisfying and heart-warming feeling. Using my passion in this setting was a privilege that I will always treasure.  I could not have received a better Christmas present than our US Military. God bless America and everyone protecting her freedom!


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