Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
October 5, 2004
PATRIOT GAMES: Gunfighter Day

Third in a continuing series by our Iraq correspondent, blogging under the pseudonym Andy Tollhaus.

May 13, 2004
Camp Speicher, Iraq

What Gunfighter Day lacked in facilities, it made up for with spirit. Gunfighter Day was an event that we planned to take a break and let our closely cropped hair down. We picked the 11th simply because we are 1-1 Aviation (read aloud “one-one-Aviation”). We’re the Gunfighters, so the name was an easy choice, too. On Gunfighter day, the battalion continued to employ our Apache helicopters to support the First Infantry Division, but the command recommended that companies work with the minimal personnel necessary to accomplish the mission. Tasks that weren’t time critical were put off for a day and efforts were made to involve as many Gunfighters as possible.

Those of us losing early in the 3-on-3 double elimination basketball tournament were spared the worst of the heat and were free to enjoy the other activities. Along with 3-on-3 basketball, tournaments were held for horseshoes, dominoes, darts, ping-pong, scrabble, spades and video game Halo. Chief Warrant Officer (CW4) Marty Calkins, hailing from USC and Raider Nation, was the DJ with his MP3 Player and the chaplain’s PA system. We arranged to have our lunch served outside with coolers full of sodas and Gatorade. It all had the feel of a large church picnic or summer barbecue, except we all wore uniforms and carried weapons with us.

All of these activities were held in and around a former Iraqi Air Force concrete hangar/bunker. Since we live and work on the former Iraqi Al Sahra airfield, we “inherited” several of these massive bunkers, designed to protect Saddam’s aircraft from the numerous enemies that the former regime faced. We use some of these facilities for aircraft maintenance and some for vehicle maintenance. This one, though, is designated for our Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) facility. Inside this hangar, we’ve built two rooms, one serving as our “internet café” and one serving as a multi-function room, where we hold our church services and other meetings.

Converting the concrete taxiway in front of the hangar into a basketball court was more complicated than one might think. The backboards were purchased from a market owner in Tikrit who delivers to our front gate, saving us the danger of traveling off base to get supplies. We normally buy things such as office products and building supplies from him, but we figured a basketball court would be good to help us with our level of fitness and to let us blow off some steam. After several weeks of promising that the rest will be here “not tomorrow, but after tomorrow,” all the pieces finally arrived – and none of them went together. The purple poles had braces with holes that didn’t quite line up with those on the massive and unforgiving backboards. And the holes on the tight, shooter-friendly rims didn’t match anything. Sergeant First Class (SFC) Eric Hughes and SFC Mark Zimmerman (a cook by training, but spending the deployment as our construction supervisor) spent several days trying to assemble our “special Iraqi quality” basketball hoops. With the help of a large drill, several cans of spray paint, and a forklift they finished just in time. The concrete around the base of the poles was just about all the way dry when the first game tipped off.

For many, the highlight of the day was the entry into the basketball tournament of our three top ranking Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs or in a word, Sergeants). Even though, they’d combined for close to 70 years of Army experience, they couldn’t manage a victory. Their team, “Old School”, consisting of our Command Sergeant Major and two of our First Sergeants, was edged out in the first round, but not before a lot of whining and dirty play.

Three guys not relying on dirty tricks were Sergeant First Class Hughes, Specialist (SPC) Shawn Williams and Corporal (CPL) Maurice Looper, all from our Fuel and Ammunition platoon. These three “co-workers,” who made up the “Ankle Breakers,” had been the team to beat from the moment we planned a tournament. Looper, 25, a High School sprinter in South Carolina before joining the Army six years ago, is the bruiser on the team. Williams, 27, who played on Allen Iverson’s High School basketball team in Virginia, provides the spark on the team -- liable to get the hot hand at any moment. Hughes, 34, who helped construct the court, is the Platoon Sergeant and therefore responsible for these guys off the court. He’s the guy who sets the tempo for the team on the court as well. Hughes joined the Army when he was only 17 having never really played organized sports. Once in the Army, he started playing on unit level basketball and flag football teams. He’s moved to refereeing now and his post-Army aspirations include working a Division 1A basketball game. These three guys had only played together a handful of times, but knew each other well from working together in a demanding job on a daily basis.

The excitement of the day peaked, along with the heat, at about 2 PM when the “Ankle Breakers” and the “Hotshots” got set for their rematch. The first game had been a heated (no pun intended) struggle to the bitter end. The underdog “Hotshots” battled all the way back from a 14-5 deficit to tie the score at 14, before finally succumbing to the older “Ankle Breakers.” Being exiled to the losers bracket and playing an additional four games in a row can be tough in any tourney, but in the 95 degree heat here, it can be downright devastating. The “Hotshots” set their sights on a rematch, put their heads down, and kept their legs driving. They shook off a couple of would-be tacklers with 5 point wins to earn their rematch.

As much as the “Ankle Breakers” were the favorites, the “Hotshots” were the favorite to be the spoiler. SPC Alfred Bonilla, 28, grew up in the Philippines and Hawaii, and has only been in the Army for about a year. His sporting career started at age six with his father and grandfather teaching him Tae Kwon Doe. In High School, he played on the runner up team at the State Volleyball Championships in Hawaii and played in college for two seasons. PFC Lawrence Waller is 21 and hails from a small town near Richmond, VA. He joined the Army after passing on a football scholarship and is constantly working out, trying to put on enough size to play NFL Europe when our unit returns home to Germany. The third member of the Hotshots team was SPC Leon Harrison, who works with our Motor Pool, conducting vehicle maintenance in one of our massive hangars. Harrison grew up in Chicago, playing football and basketball in the street. He’s a huge Michael Jordan fan, but appreciates Dr. J even more because, as he says, “someone had to inspire the greatest.” Harrison, 21, played football for the Northern Illinois Huskies for a year, before joining the Army.

By the time of this rematch the other contests were just about all wrapped up. Marty, the DJ, was starting his 6th hour of music as the game started. The “Hotshots” won a quick 15-9 victory forcing a winner-take-all final. This was for all the marbles. Or at least some $10 prizes that we’d scrounged together for the winners of these tournaments. Some items to choose from were large extra-large fans, Operation Iraqi Freedom T-Shirts or “Three Pack -- Thrill Packs” of FHM, Maxim and Stuff magazines.

The final game was actually kind of anti-climatic. The “Ankle Breakers” regrouped and beat the underdogs easily. But it wasn’t really about the winner or the loser of the final game, anyway. The tournament was just for fun, and everyone knew that.

At the conclusion of the day, we held a battalion formation on the basketball court and awarded some deserving individuals medals that they’d earned. These awards were given for a wide range of efforts. SPC Bonilla and PFC Waller (cooks on the “Hotshots”) received awards for making the holiday meals of the past Thanksgiving and Christmas something to celebrate back in Katterbach, Germany. Some others received higher awards for exposing themselves to hostile fire in order to kill enemy forces when our convoy came under fire on our first day in Iraq. Our Brigade Commander was invited to award these medals. He spoke to us about the importance of these events and the fact that we’d passed the three month, or one-quarter, mark on the deployment. After his comments, our Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Dave Moore (a lefty outfielder and first baseman for the vaunted West Point baseball team of the early ‘80s) made some more informal presentations. LTC Moore gave some framed Gunfighter posters to several of our civilian support agencies and then our $10 prizes to the victors of our various Gunfighter Day activities.

As it turned out the crude facilities weren’t even noticed. The fact is these facilities are better than they were on April 11th, and on June 11th they’ll be even better. I wonder what Saddam Hussein would think if he ever saw his facilities in this state.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 6:15 AM | Patriot Games | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
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