RICHMOND -- While Spc. Ruben Vazquez did a good job of maintaining his outward composure, the excitement he felt inside gushed out in short, simple statements. "Best day of my life," he said. "It means everything." The 36-year-old lifelong Washington Redskins fan was among a group of about 50 Fort Lee servicemembers who traveled to the new Redskins training facility in Richmond Aug. 14 and participated in a face-to-face meet-and-greet with several star players including starting quarterback Robert Griffin III. The visit was a first for Fort Lee. The Bon Secours Training Facility opened July 8, and more than 150,000 people have taken advantage of the opportunity to see the NFL Eastern Division champions run through drills at the new complex. Vazquez -- who later clarified his "best day" statement with "second to my son being born" -- is a wheeled vehicle mechanic assigned to the 54th Quartermaster Company, a U.S. Army Forces Command unit based at Fort Lee. The specialist said he has attended several regular season NFL games, but the training camp trip was unlike anything he has ever experienced as a professional football fan.
"Having the opportunity to see the players up close was amazing," said the Norfolk native. "It was a dream come true. I never thought I would be here in this environment." USAA sponsored the trip to the training facility that's located roughly 25 miles west of Fort Lee. The insurance and financial services company also bussed in another 100 military personnel from other regions of the commonwealth. Ronney Wright, the company's military affairs coordinator in the National Capital Region said it's an "expression of the company's appreciation for military service." "The bottom line is giving back," said the Navy retiree who served for 31 years. "We know this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for these folks. I'm sure it's something they'll tell their grandkids about. This is what they'll tell their buddies about. It's a good thing all the way through." Former Redskins' linebacker Ken Harvey and director of player personnel Morocco Brown welcomed the servicemembers to the camp under a tent that also contained cloth-draped tables filled with stacks of pizza and refreshments. Each servicemember was given a goodie bag that included a Redskins ball cap and other memorabilia. After the welcoming festivities, the troops went out to view the practice drills. There was plenty to see as the offensive and defensive players were running scrimmages on two fields and the troops were given exclusive access to both areas. Pfc. Ryan Steward, also of the 54th QM Co., said the V.I.P. treatment was memorable and much appreciated. "It was fun," said the Lincolnton, N.C. native. "I met a lot of nice people. The atmosphere here is great, especially for a Redskins fan who is getting a chance to watch a training camp. There is no other place I would rather be." Other troops undoubtedly felt the same way when they were getting a football signed by popular players like Griffin, or 'RGIII' as he's commonly referred to by sports commentators and avid NFL fans. After roughly two hours of 11-on-11 non-tackle drills, one of the practice fields was closed off to the public and several players, including Griffin, came over to greet the military members. They signed memorabilia, conversed and posed for pictures. Redskins wide receiver Josh Morgan said he was glad to do it. "I loved it and appreciated it to the upmost," said the Virginia Tech product whose mother and uncles served in the Navy and Army, respectively. "I grew up in it and got used to not seeing my mom or my uncles for a length of time because they were out serving our country." Morgan said many of the players who came over to greet the servicemembers are very much aware of the sacrifices of military service; perhaps even more so than many Americans. "People who don't have the connection don't know what they (military members) really go through; the effect that it has on them," he said. "Just like a lot of people who don't have connections with those who play sports; they don't really know how hard it is to do what we do. It's that respect level; you don't know it unless you go through it." Griffin, whose parents are Army retirees, seemed at home with the military members. He joked, smiled and made small talk with guests as he complied with every autograph and photo request. All in all, the exclusive access and special treatment resulted in an occasion that Staff Sgt. John Lindner of Fort Lee's 345th Air Force Training Squadron said he wouldn't soon forget. "I've been a Redskins fan since I was a little kid," he said cradling an autographed football on his way to the bus. "I grew up outside of D.C. and moved to Texas, which is Cowboys' country, of course, but I stayed a Redskins fan. Today was amazing. It was great to watch them play. We thanked them for taking the time to see us, but I appreciated the fact that they came over and actually thanked us."