Philadelphia, PA — For most football fanatics, this is the time of year for watching the big conference championship games and wondering whether their favorite college team is going play in a major postseason bowl. Many of the players in these contests will be hoping to shine for the NFL scouts looking to recruit new talent. That’s not the case this weekend.
Few of the players I’ll be watching on Saturday are likely to get a call from Jerry Maguire. They won’t be hearing an agent shouting, “Show me the money!” In fact, all the players on the gridiron here in Philadelphia have already been “recruited.” And the outcome of the game on Saturday isn’t going to alter their paychecks next year by a single cent. They will be playing in one of our greatest sports rivalries — the 122 year-old contest between the United States Military Academy at West Point and the United States Naval Academy — known more widely as The Army-Navy Game.
As the two teams take to the field, millions here in the United States will be watching on CBS. And around the world, tens of thousands more will be watching on the Armed Forces Network. Though officially frowned upon, wagers will be made aboard ships at sea, at lonely outposts in the shadows of the Hindu Kush and on U.S. military bases from Japan and the Korean peninsula to Europe and all the way to Mesopotamia. The seniors playing here won’t be going to the NFL. Instead, many of them will go to war.
Within months of graduating, the cadets and midshipmen at these schools, and at the Air Force Academy and in ROTC and NROTC units across the country, will set aside their cleats and pads — and don flak jackets, combat boots and flight suits. Unlike many of their civilian peers, these young Americans won’t be looking for work. Instead, they will prepare to go into harm’s way to defend our nation.
Since 2001, graduates of our military academies could be almost certain that they would see combat in their near future. While the commitment in Iraq is over and the number of troops in Afghanistan will be significantly diminished by 2014, the world is still not a safe place. The North Koreans are about to conduct another intercontinental ballistic missile test. The so-called “Arab Spring” has created a host of new dangers. Syria is in flames. Though Osama bin Laden is dead, radical Islamists are ascendant in Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, Mali, Gaza, Yemen and Bahrain. And worst of all, the hagiocracy ruling in Tehran is racing to acquire nuclear weapons.
That’s not much different than it was when my classmates and I graduated from Annapolis, West Point and Colorado Springs in 1968. As we tossed our hats in the air, there were two things we knew for certain: the war in Vietnam awaited, and it had bitterly divided our nation.
By the time we reported to our first duty stations, the anti-war movement had become an anti-military movement. Returning heroes — Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Guardsmen and Marines — weren’t being welcomed home to the cheers of our countrymen. Our wives and families didn’t dare put bumper stickers on their cars proclaiming pride that they had a loved one serving in uniform. The treatment the veterans of Vietnam received was simply despicable.
That’s why, when Operation Desert Shield — “Gulf War I” — began 22 years ago, Lieutenant General Ed Bronars, USMC (Ret.) and I founded Freedom Alliance — an organization dedicated to fostering, honoring and supporting the men and women of our armed forces. We were adamant that what happened to those who served in Vietnam should never happen again. That commitment remains inviolate.
The Army-Navy game provides an opportunity for us to thank our supporters, invite hurt heroes to an iconic event and remind our scholarship recipients that their fallen parent will never be forgotten. This year, on the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, Freedom Alliance pays tribute to veterans of that conflict with a special guest — Medal of Honor recipient Sammy Davis.
This gridiron contest in Philadelphia is more than a sporting event. It’s a celebration of selfless service for those who place themselves at risk — not on a football field but on the battlefield. For three hours or so, the teams and their fans will treat the opposition as it greatest foe. But when the game is over, they’re all back on the same team — the brightest and best-educated, trained and equipped military force the world has ever known.