CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait –
Staff Sergeant Bo never took to sports.
You meet him and it surprises you. V-cut. Spreads that Tim Riggins smile. The swagger.
I never really got into ‘em, he said. Always working. Always with my brothers. Enlisted at 17. Didn’t even think to sign up for the GI Bill – wanted that extra money in my pocket every month. Prolly should have.
He’s 25 now. Army is all he knows.
I’m deployed right now with Sar’n (how you pronounce “Sergeant” if you know how to tie your own boots) Bo to the Middle East. Not Junger’s Middle East, but her Middle East. I’m writing this in a Starbucks. One of two at the camp. My mint tea is getting cold. I have a pretty nice little night planned. Going to “The Hangover 2.” Maybe the MWR (“Morale, Welfare, and Recreation”) center for the Hold ‘Em tournament. Stuff like that. Maybe hit up the midnight DFAC (“dining facility”) for cheeseburgers and soft serve...I don't know, I don't know if I'll have the time.
It’s not all country club and almond croissants. In a typical Johnson-day, he’s awake at 0400 and the air is already thick like kindled cotton candy. He emerges from the tent shared with 20 other dudes, and he steps on imported rocks because rocks are cheaper than asphalt, and then onto sand because desert sand is free, and then up to the portable “hot box” bathroom to wash his dirty bits with water designated: “Non-potable – Do not drink or brush teeth.” At 0500, he’s leading his soldiers in PT (“physical training”) in an Army amalgamation of yoga and old Russian-wrestler stretches and he wonders whether the Taliban is at that very moment “power-skipping”
. Somewhere John Stockton is head-nodding at Bo’s Army-PT shorts
Then Bo’s day starts. He’s out at the motor pool in heat that just gets you pissed, cow-skeleton heat, counter-intuitive heat where you’re cooler in long sleeves. He’s in the heat and fixing MRAPs
or moving the containers
that hold the things of war, and he’s singeing his hands on metal and chains, but what he’s really doing at the age of 25 in the heat and sucking in the warped air is leading soldiers. Taking care of them. Directing, cajoling, encouraging, back-slapping, yelling. Men. Women. Boys. Girls. White. Black. Smart. Fat. All his soldiers.
Bo never took to sports but I bet he could’ve. And not because of his Robocop handshake.
I met Bo this month in my air-conditioned office. I’m an officer and he’s not, and I offered him an espresso from the machine I had shipped here. He had his choice of two flavors. He shook his head. I’ve got my Camelbak, sir.
Of course he did.
Bo doesn’t play sports, but we were meeting about an audible one of his soldiers called. One that worked in the past. The details aren’t important – a decision after 13 hours in the sun, amidst a sandstorm and a deadline, to dislodge a wedged container in a way not exactly contemplated in the manual. Container was damaged. Containers are expensive. Somebody is paying. We have a debt-ceiling.
Bo had to write a memo about the incident, and, depending on his verbiage and how strongly he pressed, the blame could easily have been deflected any which way from him. At the Specialist who was dislodging. At the Sergeant on the ground directing. Any which way.
Bo didn’t write that.
I’m new to the Army, but Bo’s memo confirmed in nine of its forthright three-fifty words my decision to leave the civilian world and join. Reminded me of high school football and lining up on the D-line and seeing Big Jim at nose guard clawing the dirt and hearing Brian at outside ‘backer behind me barking out which tackle gap he was blitzing.
If my soldiers are paying, then I am paying.
Bo wrote that.
Wrote it straight. Like his stare.
Let’s not exaggerate the point. Bo didn’t throw aside a live grenade while bleeding out from both legs (this soldier did
), nor did he save the lives of multiple brothers under fire in a combat zone (this soldier did
). I get that. I’m tracking.
What I’m also tracking on, though, is the typical loyalty quotient on the “civvie” side – between Paint Specialist and Manager at Home Depot, for instance, between doctor and the board of a medical practice. I’ve seen it, I’ve felt the tensile strength of those connections and witnessed the point at which they snap, and it’s usually not the stuff of medals.
But it’s there in sports. On the teams that matter. Within those games we remember. In the athletes truly celebrated. And Bo’s got it.
So, yes, I’m making the military-is-like-a-sports-team analogy, and, yes, I recognize the cliché, but you should acknowledge in equally candid fashion that clichés might pull from somewhere genuine and ancient and repeated. Maybe Kellen Winslow was right
. OK, maybe ½ right.
What we cherish about team sports -- pure, team sports -- is what has stuck with me about Bo’s statement. Its simplicity, its entrenchment in foundations solid and good, its recognition of the supreme value in that buddy to your right and left. There’s something there.
Clay asked me to write to you on occasion about how the military intersects with sports, and I so I wrote about Bo, who cares nothing for them. In the future, there will be the Middle East game day diaries that you expect, and maybe some profiles on the ridiculously talented athletes we have in the military, or about how I spent all night at dinner last week trying to talk to one of the visiting Kansas City Chiefs cheerleaders.
We’ll get to all that.
But, I wanted to bring you Bo first. There are wars going on, and he wakes up early and he goes to bed late, and it’s mission first all day every day, and, if his soldiers are paying, then so is he.
I saw Sar’n Bo in the DFAC yesterday. He’s headed home soon.
Before I leave though, sir, I’m gonna come by and have you sign my unit flag.
Of course he is.
Better than a jersey.