The Washington Times - December 11, 2012, 03:19PM

Craig Stammen spent his formative years playing sports on fields in western Ohio. Long days as the shortstop with his best friend as center fielder, or as the quarterback with his buddy at receiver. 

They grew up together on those fields. And as Stammen went off to college at the University of Dayton and his baseball career continued it’s upward path, some of his friends took a different route. Several of them found themselves in the military, including one currently deployed in the army and another in the marines who just returned home. 

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Due to the nature of their jobs, their conversations became shorter and less frequent. They chatted when they could on whatever form of technology they could, but as Stammen was helping the Nationals win 98 games and the National League East title last season, he often found himself wondering what his buddies might be up to. 

When the phone rang just before Thanksgiving with Nationals PR director Mike Gazda on the other end offering Stammen an opportunity to answer that query, the right-hander couldn’t say no.

“It was one of those questions where you’re like ‘Yeah, I’ll go.’ But then you’ve got to think about it,” Stammen said Tuesday with a laugh.

The offer was a unique chance to go on a USO Holiday Tour with teammate Ross Detwiler, Capitals forward Matt Hendricks, singer Kellie Pickler, comedian Iliza Shlesinger and General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Stammen jumped at it. As did Detwiler, who cut short his honeymoon in Hawaii by two days in order to get back to D.C. and get prepped for the tour, which will take place this month at undisclosed locations overseas.

The trip will last seven days and they’ll visit military venues in four countries.

“It’s one of those things where you kind of want to drop everything and go,” said Detwiler, who literally did that, with the support of his new bride. “You never know if you’re going to get this opportunity again.”

At the core of the attraction for both players was the chance to give even a small bit of thanks to the men and women serving our country. The Nationals do an awful lot during the season to show appreciation for the troops — General Dempsey threw out the first pitch at Nationals Park twice with Detwiler catching both pitches and there are nightly salutes to veterans and active military — but the opportunity to get on their turf and gain more of an understanding about what their lives are like on a daily basis appealed to Detwiler and Stammen.

“I was talking to my buddy who was in the Marines and he was telling me how he didn’t shower for 146 days,” Stammen said. “And I’m sitting there and I’m like ‘Man, I can’t go about 12 hours without a shower.’ He was like proud of it. It was like a contest. Just that aspect of it, I’m very intrigued to see how those guys are feeling over there.

“I know how his personality changed from when he went over there and now when he’s coming back. They go through a lot of tough stuff and we live a great life being baseball players but we’re reaping the benefits of them doing all the dirty work.”

“We went up to Walter Reed, Craig and I did this year, and that was the first real interaction I’ve had with troops kind of at a wartime,” Detwiler added. “And just the feeling that I had as the bus pulled away from there, just so grateful. It’s hard to describe because it’s something that you really want to thank all of them (individually) but there’s no way to thank all of them. To see those guys and talk to them and say thank you for letting us lead the lives that we do over here (is what I’m looking forward to.”

So what exactly are they going to be doing over there? Your guess is as good as theirs at this point. The entire trip has been shrouded in secrecy due to national security and the fact that they’ll be traveling with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“We’re pretty much in the dark about the whole thing,” said Detwiler, whose maternal grandfather was a World War II pilot instructor.

“All we know is we’re going somewhere. You don’t know what to expect. You don’t know if you’re going to war-torn countries or just a base here and there. I’ve never been to any place there’s been a war so I don’t know what the terrain’s going to look like, I don’t know anything about it. I don’t really know how to take until you’re actually there, looking at it.”

While, presumably, someone like Pickler will sing for the troops and Shlesinger will likely perform a comedic routine, Detwiler and Stammen aren’t exactly sure (outside of shaking hands and signing autographs) what they might be asked to do. They’re ready for whatever, though. (Seriously. The packing list told them to prepare for temperatures below freezing all the way up to 90 degrees.)

“I think they’re going to wonder who the hell I am,” Stammen joked. “‘How’d this guy get on the trip?’”

The pitchers seemed excited about the trip, despite the lack of details on their itinerary, and they acknowledged the role playing in D.C. likely had in their getting the opportunity to do something like this.

“I think if I was playing in Cincinnati, Ohio, I don’t think I’d have this opportunity,” Stammen said. “We’re very blessed to play for the Nationas and be given the opportunity to play in the big leagues. But being in D.C. is kind of icing on top of that.”

“I just feel like it’s the only thing we can possibly do to give back to the troops over there who are fighting for our freedom,” Detwiler said. “It’s a thing we have to do for all the Americans over here who don’t get the opportunity to go.”