Potomac resident and Washington Redskins cheerleader Christa Aiken took her talents to far away fields when she traveled out of the country on Jan. 21 with four fellow “First Ladies of Football” to participate in the 49th Armed Forces Entertainment Southwest Asia Redskins Tour. Their mission was to entertain the troops, join them to catch a glimpse of the Super Bowl game, and experience the routines of daily life on several military bases.
#Aiken, who just finished her third season on the Redskins’ cheerleading squad said, “It’s just a huge honor to be chosen because they don’t send just anyone overseas, so veteran status on our team really matters. I’ve cheered for three years, and I never had the right opportunity, the right timing, to go on a tour before, so this was a huge honor, and I was so excited to be picked … I’ve always wanted to go.”
#The 28-year-old Aiken is a graduate of Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac and Roanoke College in Virginia with a degree in exercise science. When she is not performing with the Redskins cheerleaders, she is an assistant fitness manager at Vida Fitness in Washington, D.C.
#HER INTERNATIONAL journey began in Qatar with sojourns to Kuwait, Oman, and Afghanistan. “People always ask me what the cheerleaders do in the off season. This is what they do … they go fly on Black Hawk helicopters in dangerous areas to bring a little hometown happiness to the troops,” said Aiken’s mother, Nancy. She said she was very comfortable with the group her daughter was traveling with, but she counted every day she was away. “Christa will tell you she was away for two weeks, but it was 17 days with travel.”
#“The NFL cheerleaders are primarily dance teams because you can’t really cheer to 90,000 people because they can’t hear you. So, that’s what we did abroad … we did some of our field routines from the past season, and we have a special military performance where we all wear a different military branch and have a song representing them. I was representing the Navy,” said Christa Aiken.
#Two alumni NFL players, Matthew Hatchette, a former wide receiver with the Minnesota Vikings and New York Jets, and Isaac Keys, a former linebacker with the Arizona Cardinals, Vikings and Green Bay Packers, accompanied the cheerleaders. “They were like our big brothers, and they were kind of like the hosts of the show, and would introduce us and answer questions in between our dances,” said Aiken. At the conclusion of performances, in addition to photo opportunities, the squad members had a signing table with team photos. They also signed t-shirts, footballs, and “all the random stuff all over the place.”
#She said she felt secure and more excited than nervous during the trip. Air travel was with commercial airlines except for the flight into Afghanistan on a cargo plane. “That’s when the safety precautions really went up more than the other countries. In Afghanistan we flew right into the base and it was just a little more intense than the other three areas.”
#IN QATAR, Oman, and Afghanistan, she said they mingled during breakfast, lunch, and dinner with the soldiers and service members in the DFAC, the dining facility, to talk, “hang out” and take pictures. “If they were Redskins fans, they were so excited, and even if they weren’t, they still were really happy to see us and give us a hard time if they were Dallas fans, of course … but you could tell it was making their deployment a little bit brighter.”
#She said the food was “kind of like cafeteria food like you would find at college … they had like cereal and Pop-Tarts everywhere, fried chicken or whatever … it wasn’t cuisine from the area.”
#Lodging provided a variety of experiences. She said when they stayed in Kuwait, they were in Kuwait City at the Radisson Blu hotel and dined at The Cheesecake Factory. In Qatar and Afghanistan they slept in “kind of like dorm rooms.” In Oman, because a large group of deployed troops had just arrived, space was limited requiring the girls to sleep in tents. “Oh, it was really hot in the tents … it felt like a beach town in Oman because there was a volleyball court and we performed outside … it just felt like summer.”
#Aiken said it snowed in Afghanistan while they were there, but elsewhere temperatures were in the 80s. “They were saying that in the summer it gets up to like 130 degrees.” Though each base had its differences, she said the base at Qatar had fewer people walking around and was very quiet because work was being conducted underground.
#SHE OBSERVED the differences in the landscapes of the four regions, “The other three countries were like the desert. When we got to Afghanistan, it was so crazy because there were these huge mountains — bigger than the Rockies, and also it has the desert sort of terrain, so it was an interesting kind of geographical experience … I like Afghanistan a lot.”
#Aiken boarded flights on Black Hawk helicopters to travel to four different bases in Afghanistan. The day before one flight, she said she was honored to meet a two-star general. “I’m sitting in the Black Hawk, we’re kind of waiting to go, and then he comes in and sits right across from me, so it was like, oh my gosh, what is going on right now. So … it was really cool to feel like I was on a mission or something.”
#She said at first, she was a little nervous because she had never been in a helicopter, but once she was buckled in, it felt natural. “Oh, man, there’s nothing like it. It’s kind of like riding a rollercoaster for the first time … you’re riding up to that drop, that little hill … it’s incredible that first lift off because it’s not like an airplane … it’s more encompassing and kind of a weird feeling to describe … you know you’re being lifted off the ground … helicopters dip a little more, so every movement is really noticeable.”
#On the last day in Afghanistan, where the cheerleaders watched the Super Bowl game with the troops, they were invited to the shooting range with some of the service members. Aiken said, “There are these crazy guns like AK-47’s, and handguns, and machine guns … I was a little nervous at first, but once I got into it, and I saw how comfortable they are with shooting, it became really fun. At first, I thought, oh, I’m definitely not shooting those big guns, and then, by the end, I’m on the ground shooting a machine gun. They paired us with a service member to help us kind of balance ourselves.”
#“It was a lot of fun performing and seeing people and, you know, hanging out, and making their day. It’s definitely a great experience, very professional, and I would do it again,” said Aiken.