FORT BRAGG, N.C. – What makes a trip to Fort Bragg so special for the Panthers who visited the military base on Tuesday?
"We are just as excited to see them as they are to see us," Ryan Kalil said. "Guys get excited about seeing soldiers, seeing the people that defend us."
The day at Fort Bragg – additionally hosted by Lenovo and USO of North Carolina – began with a Play 60 event with children of military families.
Kalil, Charles Johnson, Drayton Florence, Graham Gano, D.J. Campbell, Jeff Byers, Thomas Austin, Richie Brockel and Frank Kearse directed the kids through various football activity stations.
Kalil and former Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker then went to the church on campus to take part in a forum on head trauma as it relates to the battlefield and playing field.
The forum focused on two things.
"Awareness and education," Rucker said.
The NFL and the military are working to raise concussion awareness to provide better treatment for those injured. There is still much to learn regarding symptoms, effects and preventative measures, but by increasing awareness and education, the hope is the stigma surrounding concussions will gradually dissipate.
"We talk about removing the stigma that guys have, that if they pull themselves out (of the game) then they are not tough," Kalil said. "Part of that just comes from not understanding it. We are just starting to get a grasp of what the symptoms are and how to prevent it the best we can."
The discussion also revealed the common struggles football players and soldiers encounter with concussions.
"Obviously, (soldiers) are putting their life on the line, where football is just a sport," Rucker explained. "But there are some similarities. We are team-oriented, we are dependent on the person next us trying to get a common goal."
Captain Erin Long, who suffered from a concussion following a major blast in eastern Afghanistan, echoed that sentiment.
"The warrior mentality is indeed on the playing field as it is on the battlefield," Long said. "Not wanting to let your team down, not wanting to leave your team with a man down for the next game or the next mission is absolutely a parallel. It's a culture issue for both.
"But if you are not performing at your optimal level, you are putting other people at risk. That's the same for the NFL. If you're not able to block and react the way you should, then absolutely, your teammates are at risk. Acknowledging that is essential."
After the panel discussion, the Panthers gathered for lunch at one of the nearby mess halls before attempting a series of leadership reaction courses with the troops.
It was a unique test of teamwork and an opportunity to interact with the troops in their element.
"It was good for us to come out and interact with these men and women who do so much for our country," said Florence, who was born at Fort Knox. "These are true heroes that really aren't appreciated as much as they should be."
Added Rucker: "I have so much respect, because they put their lives on the line and this is isn't something that they were told they had to do. They signed up for it. When you look at our freedoms, I don't take that lightly. They keep us safe."
Click on the photo below to view a photo gallery from the team's visit.[