The other day, new soldiers stood on the parade field near the National Infantry Museum while their parents sat in bleachers and clapped.
For a minute, it felt like a high school football game: Strong youngsters, most of them teen males, wearing uniforms; marching band music; a broad swath of grass; cheering crowds.
When it was over, the troops marched between a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, which bears the names of 58,318 fallen soldiers, and the new national memorial to the Global War on Terrorism, which bears the names of 6,915 more fallen and will be dedicated Monday morning.
Watching them, I thought how people frequently compare football to war. Coaches and players at all levels talk about “going to war” or having a “warrior mentality” or even “being a soldier.”
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I remembered in 1991 when I reported to my first Army unit, a tank battalion in Germany. Operation Desert Storm had launched. My commander gave me a crushing handshake and told me, “Welcome to the NFL. Have a nice day.”
Things were different back then. No officer in our unit, not even the lieutenant colonel and the two majors, had ever been to combat. We were loaded with young soldiers and fresh lieutenants, and we trained all the time, spending weeks at a time at the tank gunnery in Grafenwoehr and in the box at Hohenfels.
We were playing war games while waiting for a call to war, so the old man came up with the NFL thing to put some swagger in our step. Instead of the Steelers, we were the Steel Tigers. Instead of making millions, we drove 60-ton tanks powered by rocket engines.
That was a long time ago.
Today, most soldiers are war veterans. They’ve had friends killed in combat, and a good portion of them – 20 percent of Iraqi War veterans and 11 percent of Afghanistan War veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs – struggle with PTSD.
And still, people continue to compare football to war.
I called my brother, Clayton Kendrick-Holmes, a veteran of the Afghanistan War who’s the head football coach at Maritime College in New York, to hear what he thinks about this.
“I absolutely abhor it,” he said. “I’ve never seen in a football locker room what I saw in Kandahar, kids with limbs blown off. It’s not the same as some guy spraining his ankle.”
A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a Navy Reserve officer, he left his team in 2010 after an undefeated season to serve in Afghanistan. If he wrote a book about his experiences, he says, it would be called “Football’s Not War.”
“I’ll ask my team, ‘Is this hard?’ Is practice hard? Is conditioning hard?’
“Football’s not hard. It’s a grind, but it’s blocking and tackling. Curing cancer is hard. Achieving racial equality is hard.”
Equating football to war, he says, is a “macho thing to say” and makes it something it’s not.
“I do think young men and boys need to know how to battle, how to fight in the right way,” he says. “I’ll say it’s a battle. I’ll talk about the insurgents in our mind that we have to fight against, that battle that goes on in a kid’s mind when you have to go against someone else and beat them.”
At the new memorial for the Global War on Terrorism, there are eight panels of black granite – 16 sides in all.
Twelve of the sides contain names of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who’ve died in service since Sept. 11, 2001.
Four of the sides are blank.
If you’re tempted to compare football to war, go take a look at those young people marching, and those blank slabs.
It’s no game.