I'm not sure you could have asked for a better soldier than Dave. He was the size of a double-wide trailer, as strong as a cart ox, and he worked like a team of draft horses. When I think of my time in Iraq, I can still hear his voice, always on time with some sarcastic joke to break the tension. Dave was a football player before he joined the Army. He played at the University of Miami at some point in the 80s. I don't know what type of career he had in college or whether he was ever good enough to go pro but he looked like a guy who could block: big, thick, and with a tree-trunk for a neck. Somehow he ended up wearing Army Green instead of Eagles' Green, and the country is a better place because of it.
Our unit spent 15 months in Northern Iraq and it didn't take long for us to turn to sports to provide us with a respite from our daily grind. Each of us had a team or a sport that we turned to connect us back to the places we had left.
Brian was a proud Notre Dame alum. He spoke of his beloved Fighting Irish with all due reverence and forced us to watch his "cameo" in Rudy repeatedly. He would stay up deep into the night on Saturdays to try and "watch" Notre Dame play on the computer. Watching meant battling the spotty Internet connection to watch an animated ball move down the field occasionally accompanied by the radio call of the game. Notre Dame went 5-7 that season, but Brian never once wavered in his support.
Jim was a New York Giants fan, who found out right before he was called up to active duty that he had, finally, gotten season tickets for the Giants. All those years of waiting and he was not going to be able to see a single game live that season. I guess it was all for the best because the Giants finished the 2003-2004 season 4-12 overall with a 2-6 record at Giants' Stadium. Jim always said they weren't winning because they knew he was overseas.
Tom was a diehard New England Patriots fan from Rhode Island who could recite Patriots stats like Rain Man. When his Patriots beat my Eagles 31-10 in the second week of the season, Tom let me know about it. He even had his wife record the game and send it over on VHS so he could watch it... repeatedly.
We found out that we had a number of things in common; unfortunately, baseball teams were not one of them.Tom's team sergeant, Ronny, was one of the best NCOs I ever served with and a devout baseball fan. A police officer in Rhode Island, Ronny was a devout and practicing member of Red Sox Nation. Ron had a wiffle ball set sent over so he could teach the local Kurds how to play. He told me that he was determined to bring baseball to Iraq, and he was successful. Every night at 7pm, there was a wiffle ball game between the soldiers and our guards, and they won more than their fair share. He even managed to teach them the art of trash talking, because what is sport without bravado.
Like me, Matt was in his early 20s, which made him one of the babies of our unit. We found out that we had a number of things in common; unfortunately, baseball teams were not one of them. Matt was a Red Sox fan, and I like the Yankees. Matt wore his beat up Red Sox hat every day and everywhere. He swore that if he was going, it was going with him. When Aaron Boone hit his home run to beat the Sox in the ALCS, he woke me up by dumping cold water on me.
Finally, there was my own team sergeant, Steve. Steve was what you would expect from a Non-Commissioned Officer and a Flyers fan: he was big and burly, he drank like a fish, cursed like a sailor, complained about everything, and turned fire-engine red when he got mad, which was a pretty common occurrence. When Steve was assigned his Humvee, the first thing he did was put a Flyers license plate on the front. We arrived in Mosul just as the Flyers were playing the Toronto Maple Leafs in the playoffs. At the time, communication with other Army units in the country was tough, let alone trying to get information from home. But Steve always seemed to know what the Flyers were doing. He managed to follow every game despite being half a world away. I was able to get him an autographed picture of Jeremy Roenick, and when I gave it to him I thought he might break down.
Although it has been more than eight years since we all served together, I will never forget those men. I can't think of any better way to remember them, and all the other men and women who served this country, than to pay tribute to them by paying tribute to the sports and teams that they loved.
This post first appeared on Constitution Daily, the blog of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.