FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Several members of the Falcons organization recently returned from their USO trip to Iraq during which they learned first-hand about the men and women who are putting everything on the line for the sake of freedom, something Americans everywhere celebrate on the Fourth of July.
"After seeing all of this and seeing all of the soldiers, it's the ultimate sacrifice," Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said. "Everything that they do exemplifies team at the highest level, and there is no price that they won't [pay] to ensure our freedom. And, as an American, that means a hell of a lot."
- Photo essay: More images from the Falcons' USO tour
Among those who made the trip alongside Quinn were Falcons kicker Matt Bryant, guard Ben Garland, center Alex Mack, AMB Group CEO Steve Cannon and a pair of team cheerleaders. The Falcons are the only team in the NFL to conduct their own USO tour this offseason, and it's the latest way in which the organization has shown support for the military.
During their trip to Iraq, the Falcons witnessed a ceremony rewarding a number of soldiers with a combat patch for their ongoing service and spoke with the men and women who are on the front lines every day.
"These men and women are heroes," said Falcons cheerleader Alexandria. "We always say 'freedom isn't free,' and they're paying the ultimate sacrifice. They're risking their lives for us, so that I'm able to cheer and our football players are able to play football, and that you're able to go through your daily life and you don't have to think about what they're going through.
"I wish I could shake every single person's hand in the military and thank them for all that they've done for us."
Happy Independence Day, Falcons fans. Today we celebrate our freedom and those who make such great sacrifices for it. Falcons CEO Steve Cannon, head coach Dan Quinn, players Matt Bryant, Ben Garland, Alex Mack, and a pair of Falcons cheerleaders spent several days visiting U.S. troops in Iraq during a tour with the USO.
Quinn, who won the league's Salute to Service Award in 2016, has frequently expressed his appreciation and connection to the military through friends and family members. In a recent conversation with Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer, Quinn detailed how one soldier's story taught him lessons that guide his approach in coaching.
By making this USO tour, the Falcons were able to hear more stories and learn about the strength of those who make such a big sacrifice.
"I want them to see the power of our nation," said Lt. Gen. Paul Funk. "I want them to understand what it means to wear a nation's cloth. I want them to feel the talent, the professionalism, the determination and courage of these young men and women. They do this for us, and for you. So that these games can go on. So that Americans can live free, and that's what makes this the power of the nation."
In 2017, the team conducted more than 25 military community events, including their work with TAPS and engaging with service members and veterans in gameday events.
Garland, a graduate of the Air Force Academy in 2010, was named the Falcons' Walter Payton Man of the Year in part because of the work he's done to honor service members, veterans and their families.
"Just the small sacrifices these troops make, they're being away from their families, their kids are growing up but they're over here protecting their kids," Garland said. "It's one of those things where there's so many thousands and thousands of sacrifices – the small ones and up to the absolute ultimate sacrifice that they're making for us. It's a huge price, and I'm glad somebody is brave enough to pay it."