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thedrifter
04-27-09, 08:18 AM
In war zones, troops use sports for mental escape

VIC DORR JR. TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER
Published: April 27, 2009

Squeezing off a shot. Throwing a grenade. Digging in to defend the perimeter.

U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan frequently perform these acts -- but off the battlefield.

Competitive sports offer a wel come escape and a valuable training tool for troops in a war zone. Athletics provide relief from the grim reality or, at times, crushing boredom of daily duties, and they even can break down cultural barriers.

Dr. Paul Davis, former chief of psychology at Fort Lee's Kenner Army Health Clinic, said games played by troops enhance morale. They provide a shelter from the stress and apprehension that accompany life in a combat zone. And they reinforce a unit's commitment to teamwork. When members of a unit play together, Davis said, the benefits can be significant: empathy, trust and mutual respect.

Several local servicemen and women with experience in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Persian Gulf agree that athletics provide a sense of normalcy, which can provide a diversion, albeit briefly, from the reality of being in harm's way.

Organizing and participating in a road race in Kandahar, Afghanistan, stands out for Army Capt. Paul Belmont.

"The best part of it all was that for 6.55 miles, life didn't feel that much different from back home," said Belmont, a graduate of Benedictine High School and Virginia Military Institute. "Nobody had to worry about cutting down poppy fields, driving in a combat convoy, flying into a firefight or patrolling through the mountains and valleys."

Davis, now in private practice in West Fargo, N.D., echoed that sentiment. He said the familiar rules and rhythms of games played since childhood bring a piece of Glen Allen or Midlothian to troops who are shooting baskets or scooping up grounders in Baghdad or Kabul.

"You're doing something that for a few hours, at least, makes you feel like you're not so very far from home," Davis said.

Abi Campbell Dryden, a Navy lieutenant junior grade, said sports require a level of focus and concentration that often is cathartic.

"Physical exercise is a great way to release stress on board a ship," said Dryden, a graduate of Douglas Freeman High School and the U.S. Naval Academy. "No matter if I have stood the longest, most stressful six-hour watch, if there is time to exercise, I'm going to use it. There's no question about it, exercise clears your head and allows you to perform at a higher level."

Brett Prillaman agreed. The Army captain, who attended Midlothian High School and VMI, is serving his second tour in Iraq. He said the most basic benefits of any sustained athletic endeavor -- improved strength and stamina and heightened mental acuity -- are indispensable to a soldier who tomorrow might be thrust into combat.

Regular exposure to exercise and athletic participation, Prillaman said, "heightens a soldier's ability to think, judge, react and maneuver during a fight; increases his endurance and ability to stay in the fight and increases his chances of surviving" should he become a casualty.

"The more conditioned a soldier is," Prillaman said, "the more efficient and effective his unit is."

Army 1st Lt. David Bhatta, who also attended Midlothian and VMI, said: "If you are bent over with your hands on your knees after sprinting up a flight of stairs, you can't immediately kick down a door or have your eyes open and remain alert."

Opportunities for athletic participation in Iraq and Afghanistan are diverse. Some activities, such as weight training in a makeshift gym or distance running on a dusty road within the secure perimeter of a U.S. installation, are solitary and basic. Others are team-oriented: flag football, basketball, volleyball and soccer.

Some are boisterous hybrids of other games. Bhatta said the game of choice at his unit's base in Iraq was gatorball, "a cross between football, rugby and ultimate Frisbee with no timeouts, water breaks or substitutes. We played for 45-60 minutes at least two or three times a week."

Some games are simply, well, games. Belmont said darts are a big pastime among U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

"We played a lot in our downtime," he said. "Winning at darts meant massive bragging rights."

When the challenge offered by a conventional game of darts grew stale, Belmont said, soldiers sometimes took the board outside to see who could hit it "from distances as far as a pitcher's mound."

The quality of facilities varies. Army Capt. William Angle, a graduate of Goochland High School and VMI, served with the 82nd Airborne Division near Tikrit, Iraq. His unit's base, he said, included athletic venues formerly used by the Iraqi army. Among the amenities were a gym with a wooden basketball floor, free weights, resistance trainers and two cardio rooms.

Nearby sat a bumpy dirt soccer field surrounded by a quarter-mile dirt track.

"Near the end of my deployment, a company of engineers came in," Angle said. "They paved the track and leveled the soccer field -- which obviously made it easier for our troops to stay in shape and enjoy themselves."

Angle said most of the smaller bases in Iraq "don't have these types of facilities. We were lucky."

Improvisation is often necessary. Dryden served as the training officer aboard the USS Gunston Hall, a vessel that transports Marines to amphibious assault sites. The ship's most unique feature is its internal well deck, which can be flooded to allow the entry and exit of landing craft.

Dryden estimated that 17 laps around her vessel's well deck are roughly equivalent to a mile. During slack times, the crew set up a portable basketball goal in the well deck for nightly games.

Sports sometimes sow the seeds of friendship and good will. Belmont recalled a "running game of volleyball with the local interpreters on one of the forward operating bases" in Afghanistan.

"That was always a ton of fun," he said. "Those guys were the biggest cheats I ever played. You could never argue a call, and somehow the calls always went their way when they were behind. It was a real accomplishment to beat those guys because you pretty much had to play perfect."

Angle, a former Goochland High School soccer player, played in pickup games with Iraqi troops on a small base near Tikrit.

"This became a weekly event," he said. "Pretty soon we knew the names of the Iraqi troops we were playing against and we became friendly. Everyone in Iraq plays soccer, and occasionally we would hand out soccer balls to kids" when probing the remote northern areas of the country.

Angle said his interpreter, an Iranian refugee of Kurdish descent, "was an amazing soccer player who helped us overcome the [cultural] barrier with the Iraqi troops."

Playing soccer with Iraqi soldiers, Angle said, is "by far one of the better memories I have of the deployment."


Contact Vic Dorr Jr. at (804) 649-6442 or vdorr@timesdispatch.com .

Ellie