SAN DIEGO — In 2012, Nationals pitcher Craig Stammen strapped into a Black Hawk helicopter as a pair of heavily armed Apaches prepared to provide cover for a flight to a forward operating base in war-scarred Afghanistan.
The USO trip, an invitation from former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey, delivered the most eye-opening chapter of the baseball player's long involvement with service members and veterans. The region's deadly daily circumstances revealed real pressure, as opposed to, say, protecting a fragile ninth-inning lead.
Nothing framed Stammen's perspective quite like a comment from "American Idol" participant Kellie Pickler.
"She had been on several USO trips," he said. "She said that was the first time she didn't have to take cover from enemy fire, so we were lucky."
Stammen, who begins his fifth season with the Padres next spring, has been named a winner of the Bob Feller Act of Valor Award for his continued support of the military. A virtual broadcast Thursday honored the memory of Feller, the Hall of Fame pitcher who walked away from nearly four seasons in his prime to man a deck gun aboard the USS Alabama during World War II.
The selfless sacrifice recalls San Diego's truest sports heroes, Ted Williams and Jerry Coleman.
Special skills. Extraordinary hearts.
"I talked to 18-year-olds on the trip who searched for IEDs (improvised explosive devices)," Stammen said this week. "Either you find them or you get blown up by them. Talk about a stressful job. You could see the wear and tear on their faces. It's a lot different, obviously, than playing 162 games.
"It was like 1,062 games worth of wear and tear on their faces."
Stammen became a sports ambassador for the United Heroes League, which provides sports equipment and camps, subsidizes fees and offers tickets and experiences to military children. He also has become the jet fuel behind opportunities for military families through the Padres.
Personal motivation underpins his commitment.
"A couple of my best friends, two college roommates (at the University of Dayton), one joined the Army and the other joined the Marines," Stammen said. "My friend Phil Ernst was deployed to Afghanistan twice with the Marines. He was shook up pretty badly the first time. He returned and completely was not himself. I think he would admit that, too.
"We grew up 10 miles away from each other. We played baseball together. We were in each other's weddings. Knowing what he had to deal with, losing guys he considered his best friends, his teammates, guys in his platoon, bearing that burden, opened my eyes."
During my time at the Des Moines Register, I interviewed Feller multiple times, including once at a golf fundraiser. Another player jokingly asked what the man who mowed down the heart of the Yankees lineup at Yankee Stadium in late April of 1946 for one of his three career no-hitters knew about pressure.
As the best right-hander of his era lined up over a ball in the tee box, the 81-year-old paused.
"Pressure is when you have a guy trying to kill somebody and they've got a gun trying to kill you," Feller said.
He calmly lined a rope down the middle of the fairway.
"It's a sacrifice, something he was willing to do that he thought was more important than baseball," Stammen said of Feller's harrowing combat experience. "I don't know if you can completely process that, unless it happens to you."
Stammen's 2012 trip began aboard the plane designated as Air Force One, when the president is aboard.
"We weren't really allowed to move around too much," he said. "It's what you can probably imagine. Very similar to what it looks like in the movies. In the front, there's rooms for them to do work. One guy was to carry around a direct line to the president, that kind of thing."
The group — including comedian and actress Iliza Shlesinger, then-Capitals NHL player Matt Hendricks and Nationals teammate Ross Detwiler — visited troops in Bahrain, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan.
In Bahrain, Stammen landed on the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis for a show.
The experience astounded.
"Flying onto and off of the aircraft carrier was quite the wild ride," Stammen said. "Landing and getting caught by the cord, then being shot off the boat like a torpedo was something I'll never forget."
Later, the group was allowed to stand on the flight deck as jets launched.
"That was a power that I can still remember feeling in my organs," he said.
The trip cemented a connection to military families. The Feller award spotlights that fact.
"When you try to help other people out, you're not doing it to get an award," Stammen said. "But when you put mind to something, it's nice to be recognized. I'm thankful I've been able to help."
This time, no helicopter rides through war zones were necessary.
Talk about thankful.