The Miami Dolphins cheerleaders on a military tour in Japan.

On a spectacularly clear and bright Fort Lauderdale morning, way past the armed guard gate, deep into the docktastic labyrinth of Port Everglades, the Navy Destroyer USS Cole floated proudly against azure port water. It’s a serious sight, the behemoth decked out with missile launchers, guns of all ilk and deep history—after all, 17 young service members tragically perished onboard in 2000 when terrorists blew a hole in her hull in Yemen, signaling the beginning of the modern age of terrorism. So after the Cole’s extensive repairs and structural rehabilitation, the sailors aboard are careful not to step on the 17 bright and polished gold stars embedded into the floors outside the mess hall, a fitting memorial to their comrades.

But on this special Friday, Navy business took second place to, of all things, the Miami Dolphins cheerleaders, a sparkly party squad charged with one vital responsibility—to make the 272 sailors here on three-day shore leave feel like a million bucks, giving out handshakes, hugs, autographs, photographs, feelgood stories and overwhelmingly positive vibes. It turns out these women with movie star smiles, flowing locks and barely-there uniforms are actually really, really good at spreading cheer.

  Visiting members of the Armed Forces in Haiti, 2010

Just imagine cheerleaders—the prettiest, perfectly composed, perkiest Charlie’s Angels-like ladies—in flak jackets and night-vision goggles, dangling out of Black Hawk helicopters, seated on tanks or socializing on aircraft carriers. Behind the gridiron glamour we see on Sunday is an altruistic outreach program with breadth, depth and scope that boggles the mind, virtually marginalizing, or at least seriously complementing, their sideline antics on a global basis. All year long, both individually and together as a team, the Miami Dolphins cheerleaders take to local streets or traverse the planet supporting our troops in foreign (and at times unwelcoming) lands, from Iraq and Kuwait to Japan and Haiti, and yes, even Fort Lauderdale. Programming is arranged through the United Service Organizations (USO) and Armed Forces Entertainment, with a mission of spreading love and downright homegrown normalcy to every chapter of our armed forces.

The squad, formed in 1966 and initially dubbed the Starbrites, has come a long way from simply cheering. On Thanksgiving 2001, just months after the 9/11 attacks, the squad members took their first military-specific overseas trip to the Middle East. But who are these patriots? The 2011 roster consists of 42 articulate go-getters ranging from 18 to 28 years old. Making the squad isn’t easy—far from it. And those who flock to the yearly tryouts and fail tend to try, try again, as did Andrea, a 26-year-old Argentinean-born bombshell who holds a day job in human resources at a beverage company. “I always looked up to the Dolphins cheerleaders because I live in Davie where the team practices. I saw them everywhere, thought they were awesome, and as a dancer, it made so much sense to try out.” Which she did, three times, until she made the squad. Now she’s pompom-deep into the unexpected perks of the job. “Last year I went skydiving with the US Army Golden Knights at Homestead Air Force Base. It was amazing. How much more safe can you be than to skydive with the US Army? It’s what they do for a living!”

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