Missouri National Guard Cards fans cheer from Afghanistan

ST. LOUIS — Next time you’re watching a St. Louis Cardinals playoff game, nestled comfortably in your recliner, surrounded by friends and family, think of the men and women of the 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 135th Aviation Regiment of the Missouri National Guard. Some of them will be watching, too, but in extraordinarily different circumstances.

One big difference: They’re in Afghanistan and you’re not.

Another: They have to schedule their sports viewing around military missions providing wartime aerial security and transport through the country’s rugged terrain.

And one more: You can gather with as many people as you can fit at your home or favorite watering hole. They, on the other hand, must limit the viewing audience because if too many of them are in one place, they could become targets for enemy fire.

“Normally,” says Capt. Adrienne Hatcher, a Battalion Logistics Officer from St. Louis, “we try not to do too big a gathering because it makes us sort of a target.”

But what bonds these soldiers with each other — and with St. Louis fans — is a shared love of the Cardinals. The 1-135th is from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, and roughly 80 percent of the personnel are, according to Hatcher, Cardinals fans. When FOX Sports Midwest and the Cardinals presented their annual “This One’s for You” telecast to troops around the world in July, the focus was on the 1-135th.

Though they’re thousands of miles away fighting a war, the soldiers in the 1-135th catch every minute of the 2013 playoffs that they can. Even if it means being up at 4:30 or 5 a.m. local time when the game is on.

“People will gather around (offices and conference rooms) and tune into the game,” says 1st Lt. Joe Carlile, a Unit Movement Officer from Nixa, Mo. “People will adjust their schedules to come in whenever the games are played so we can sit around and eat some chips and goodies the people back home have sent us. …

“It’s definitely worth it to stay up a few hours late or come in a few hours early to catch a good Cards game, especially in the playoffs.”
The American Forces Network has carried the TBS telecast of several Cardinals playoff games, but not all of them. “With the government shutdown, they shut down all our TVs, so we missed some games,” says Chief Warrant Officer 2 Greg Schulte, a Task Force Tactical Operations Officer from Jefferson City.

Even when games weren’t televised, the soldiers kept up with the Cardinals’ playoff adventures, sometimes via their own form of intelligence gathering.

“During our intelligence briefs, we have our intel analyst give us the Cardinals updates as we brief, as one of his duties,” Hatcher says. “So as he’s telling us about the enemy situation, he also tells us the Cardinals’ latest and greatest. And (a guy) from Pennsylvania was in there when we were playing the Pirates, and so he was very disgruntled.”

For the soldiers, watching the Cardinals isn’t just about following their favorite team. It’s about staying connected to the folks state-side, about establishing a bit of normalcy, if that’s possible, in an environment with precious little.

When watching the Cardinals, “it kind of feels like we’re back home,” Schulte says.

While there might be worry and dread on the home front about the Cardinals’ potential for another NL Championship Series collapse, given what happened against the Giants a year ago, you won’t hear any of that from members of the 1-135th.

“The last time I was out of the country and the Cardinals were in the playoffs (2011), they won the World Series,” Schulte says. “Then I was back home last year and they didn’t. I’m out of the country now, so …”

Hatcher can complete that thought.

“When they do win the World Series,” she says, “we’re all going to be extremely proud of them.”