Memorial Day: From college football to combat
Religion & Liberty Online

Memorial Day: From college football to combat

Army and Navy have met for battle on the football field 114 times. The two service academies have played big time college football for well over a century. Navy leads the series by nine games and holds the current and longest winning streak at 12 games. Army hasn’t won since quarterback Chad Jenkins led the Black Knights to a 26-17 victory in 2001. That game was played just a few months after 9/11 and many of those on the field would soon lead men in combat and a few would make the ultimate sacrifice.

In All American: Two Young Men, The 2001 Army-Navy Game and The War They Fought in Iraq , author Steve Eubanks tells the story of Chad Jenkins (Army) and Brian Stann (USMC) on the gridiron and their multiple combat deployments to Iraq. The patriotic fervor that swept the nation after 9/11 was extended to the football field, as Army and Navy were wildly celebrated and cheered by opposing fans and teams.

The game in 2001 had raucous pregame speeches from General Norman Schwarzkopf for Army and Senator John McCain for Navy; both men are alumni of the service academies in the military branches they served. Eubanks does a superb job of capturing the emotion and meaning of the game for the cadets and midshipmen. Everybody understood that after graduation, many of these young men would soon be sent to the field to fight and sacrifice in defense of their country.

Tradition and leadership at the service academies are essential characteristics. Men like Dwight D. Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, and Norman Schwarzkopf have suited up for Army. Navy’s most notable football player is former Heisman Trophy winner, Vietnam veteran, and NFL quarterback Roger Staubach.

Graduates of the service academies, which is highly competitive for entrance, receive a first class education for free that requires a five year military service commitment. The academic studies are rigorous but the main emphasis is to prepare men and women to be leaders. Graduates are immediately commissioned as second lieutenants.

After football, Chad Jenkins attended Airborne and the elite Army Ranger school. Soon he was leading men on combat patrols in Iraq. A Marine, Brian Stann was serving in Iraq’s Al-Anbar Province. Both officers had to deal with ambushes, IEDs, troop morale, and the stress of long deployments and combat. According to Eubanks, at the height of the Iraq war, Marine corporals and sergeants “had a one-in-twelve-chance of being injured. They had a one-in-twenty-four chance of being killed.” Stann’s Naval Academy teammate, J.P. BleckSmith, was killed in action in November of 2004. Teammate Ronald Winchester was killed a month earlier.

Eubanks tells the difficulties Stann and Jenkins face in trying to balance family life and their military career. Stann understandably struggled with guilt for those who were wounded or killed under his command. Stann, who is a recipient of the Silver Star, left the Marine Corps to pursue his mixed martial artist career. He is a former WEC Light Heavyweight Champion and used his notoriety in the sport to raise awareness for Memorial Day and the sacrifice of his fellow Marines. During an interview he explained,

Fans can’t stand that my military service is brought up all the time, but what people don’t understand is that there are men who died under me or were permanently injured under my command. One guy has had three brain surgeries. Another will never walk again. People who think I pound my chest over what I did are out of their minds. I’ve lost more sleep over decisions I made, thinking, what if I had done this, or what if I’d done that, maybe this guy would still be walking or this guy would be able to speak clearly and live a normal life.

Currently, Stann is president and CEO of Hire Heroes USA, a non-for-profit organization that helps U.S. military veterans. After three deployments in Iraq and distinguished Army career, Jenkins joined the FBI, and after his service there, now runs his own counter-terrorism security firm.

Eubanks has succeeded in telling an amazing story about just a couple of courageous leaders. Memorial Day honors those that have given their life in defense of our nation and its ideals. Both Jenkins and Stann have a unique story to tell, but are more committed to reminding America about the men and women who gave their life. If we lose the importance of sacrifice in this country, we lose an essential virtue necessary for the survival of the nation.

Already in some ways, given the problems we see that plague the Veterans Administration, we see a diminishing value in the virtue of sacrifice, and veterans are paying that price. They are becoming less of a national priority.

Our inability to collectively sacrifice as a nation is a problem. It’s too hard. It demands too much of us. Sacrifice is the opposite of self-worship. But a nation that is worth living in requires sacrifice. Brian Stann carries a laminated card of a poem written by his Naval Academy classmate Travis Manion, who was killed in Iraq in 2007 by an enemy sniper while aiding and drawing fire away from his wounded comrades. The poem reads:

Make my lonely grave richer
Sweeter be,
Make this truly the land of the free
And the home of the brave.
I gave my life to save
That I might here lie
Forever Free

Ray Nothstine

Ray Nothstine is editor at the Civitas Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina. Previously, he was managing editor of Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty quarterly. In 2005 Ray graduated with a Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He also holds a B.A. in Political Science from The University of Mississippi in Oxford.