Stunt coach Napoleon Martinez escorted the team on the most recent trip.
“The most rewarding is feeling like you're doing your part in terms of those men and women in the service,” Martinez said, “who are giving such a sacrifice for everyone back at home.”
The Ravens Cheerleaders have been working closely with Armed Forces Entertainment for these performances. The main goal of AFE is to “bring a slice of home.” Martinez feels the squad does just that.
“Honestly, those men and women appreciate our presence on those tours so much that its almost like they'd be happy just to sit down and have a conversation with you let alone perform for them,” he said. “The most gratifying is when you have those 18-year-old kids sitting there and looking you in the eye saying thank you for coming here and being with us even for just a few hours. It makes such a huge difference, and we'll find out that they still talk about us years afterwards.”
Courtney, one of the dancers on the Ravens Cheerleading Team, still remembers going on the team's first tour back in 2002.
“It's definitely a life-changing experience,” she said. “And this is what shocked me. Every single person that we went over and talked to, they were thanking us. And I was going over there saying thank you for fighting for our country. So we went to… all these countries in the middle of the fighting. When you used to turn on the TV and see the guys in the beards that haven't showed for months, that's what we were seeing. I was going over there thinking this is my way to give back, and they're thanking me everywhere we were going which was weird, but I was very grateful.”
The group, composed of seven stunt squad members and five dancers put on several shows for all the troops in several different locations throughout the Middle East . Although the performers had a lot of fun, it was still very clear that they were in a war zone.
Courtney recalls one particular performance in Afghanistan , which was right in the middle of the fighting during her 2002 visit. After landing at the airport in Kandahar , the team put on a show about two hours after their arrival. They executed their dance moves and stunts on a makeshift stage which was just one wooden plank. During their nighttime performance, they only had one light shining on them. The rest of their surroundings were kept in complete darkness.
“We were out in the middle of the desert,” Courtney said, “and they had a wooden plank for us to perform on. But there was only one light shining on us. They couldn't put lights all around because then it would attract the troops of the opposing [army]. So they couldn't put too much attention on us except for the light. It was an experience just to see the gratefulness of the men and women out there watching us and thanking us, that was the best experience.”
Aside from the profound experience of doing their part for the American troops, being along side the troops brought the team a new perspective to the war and what it meant to be a soldier fighting for your country.
“It's one thing to turn it on TV and see ‘OK, we're at war.' But after you've seen it for a few weeks, then you kind of push it back and you start watching TV and you kind of forget about it,” Courtney said. “[These men and women] are fighting and they're doing the same thing in and out and they're fighting for our country. It puts the whole war and everything that's going on into perspective. It makes it real.”
The team felt very safe during their tour. They flew everywhere on military aircraft. On one occasion, one of their planes encountered a dangerous situation and had to remain in the air, flying under the radar, for an hour longer than they were originally scheduled to. Courtney and the other cheerleaders were not alerted to the situation while airborne, something which Courtney is grateful for to this day.
“When I was there, I wasn't scared because I knew that I was protected by the troops,” she said. “But after the fact, when they told us [about the airplane], I thought ‘well I'm glad they didn't tell us.'”