WASHINGTON -- As a member of the Nationals for the past three seasons, Adam LaRoche has taken advantage of the abundant opportunities to interact with military personnel, meeting high-ranking officers and visiting wounded servicemen and -women at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
But LaRoche wanted to do more, so when he was offered the chance to take part in the 2013 USO Holiday Tour, he jumped at the chance and recruited some friends to join him. As part of a group led by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, LaRoche visited five military venues in four countries over seven days, talking with and entertaining troops at each stop.
LaRoche returned to Washington on Friday, then attended a dinner hosted by the Nationals at the Occidental Grill, speaking to reporters about his experience overseas.
"Us going over there, we're going to take back a lot more than those guys did from hearing us talk for an hour or shake their hand and get a picture," LaRoche said. "I feel the same way here in D.C. Whenever I get a chance to go to Walter Reed, it's never convenient, it's never a good time, but afterward, my outlook is just refreshed. It recharges you. You can't help but not look at things the same when you go see that. Same way when you go over there and see the war and what they're doing, it's hard to come back and see things the same way."
Joining LaRoche at dinner were three fellow tour members: former New England Patriots offensive lineman Matt Light, and Willie and Jep Robertson, two of the stars from the hit A&E TV show "Duck Dynasty." All four knew one another well before the tour, and LaRoche and Willie Robertson have been friends and business partners for several years.
Also on the tour were Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Bridget Kelly, actor-comedian Thomas Miles, and Alison Haislip, a former correspondent on NBC's "The Voice."
LaRoche knew a little about what the tour would be like, because teammates Ross Detwiler and Craig Stammen went last year, but there was so much for which he couldn't prepare. The group didn't know where it was headed until it boarded the plane, due to security concerns. The instructions had been to pack for anything from 30- to 80-degree weather. As it turned out, the tour hit stops in Greece, Afghanistan, Italy and Germany, keeping mostly to a tight schedule that had the group bouncing between planes, helicopters and military bases, where it put on shows.
"I'm thinking, what could I possibly say to relate to these guys?" LaRoche said. "It's not easy for me, for sure, because I'm just -- I honestly feel like, and I told them this, we should be sitting down there, and some of you guys, some of the older sergeants and generals and guys like that, should be up there talking to us."
Despite those reservations, as well as the group's exhausting schedule, the troops always were "blown away," LaRoche said, as if this was the first tour they had seen. That enthusiasm was present even at the Camp Leatherneck Marine Corps base in Afghanistan, where some in the audience had just endured a 72-hour battle.
"I think they just want to forget for a few minutes what they're actually doing and just have a good time and relax and not worry about tomorrow," Jep Robertson said. "Just have a good time and laugh. That's what we did. Tell stories."
There also was time for some visits with individual servicemembers, including those recuperating at hospitals. LaRoche learned a lot about the challenges the soldiers -- especially those in Afghanistan -- are facing and marveled at their commitment to their jobs.
There were a few breaks from the routine as well. A half-day off in Greece led to a trip to Athens and a visit to the Acropolis.
Then there was the spectacle of Light, the 300-pound former Pro Bowler, testing one of the base's military dogs. After expressing his doubts that one of the dogs could handle someone of his size, Light found himself in front of a crowd, wearing a huge padded suit that barely fit him. His instructions: Agitate the dog, then turn around and run without looking back. In one of the two rounds, Light went down, but he still called it "a great experience."
"When that dog wanted to, that dog had a pretty good bite force, through the suit, mind you," he said. "That dog was chomping."
That was only one of many lessons the group learned on the trip. They gawked at the size of the bases, which stretch endlessly like small cities. They watched in disbelief as their helicopter flew over Afghan villages with so few modern touches that they looked like "a different world" to LaRoche. They spent a lot of time with Dempsey, who impressed them with his ability to speak positively and honestly with the troops, filtering out the messy political concerns from back in Washington.
By the end, they had come to value their look outside the comfortable bubble of the U.S. They came back determined to do more to help.
"I told the troops, 'Hey, look, at least I can help spread your story and get people talking about it and let them know what you're doing and the things you go through,'" Light said. "Because to some degree, don't we all owe it to our servicemen and -women? Not if you're a celebrity, but if you're just some dude on the street. I think we all should at least take the time to think about it, more than just on Veterans Day."
It's something LaRoche will think about before every game this coming season, when he takes his place on the foul line for the national anthem.
"I can't say I've ever really looked at the flag and said, 'Man, somebody paid the price for that, for us being over here,'" he said. "I would hope it's going to be a lot easier to not take those things for granted like we typically do."