Friday, March 22, 2013

Rugby in Afghanistan, Part I

The mid-morning sun beat down on the sweat-soaked soldiers, as dust kicked up by the steady wind circled across an open field. Apache helicopters in the distance conducted search patterns, scanning the area of operations for threats, while F-15's with voices of thunder roared off of the runway at the nearby airfield. Having placed my men in the appropriate tactical formation I, Captain Repshire, prepared to give the orders that would send them into action:

"Crouch! - Touch! - Pause! - ENGAGE!"

The three forwards [linemen] [henceforth I'll translate Rugby terms into American Football terms for my American readers] in each side of the scrum slammed together as I rolled the ball between them and the contest began for possession, feet chopping at the ground to gain a hold on the powdery dust and rocks that were reluctant to cooperate. The ball came out on my side; I picked it up and pitched it with a twist of the wrist to Sergeant 'Doc' Lomelli, who charged for the tryline [endzone]. He passed the ball at the last second before he could be tackled by Captain Erb, an Air Force A-10 pilot whose physically descriptive call-sign was 'Tank' (and had once played college Football).

Me throwing the ball into a line-out.
The ball was caught by Specialist Neal, an unusually gifted athlete who had once been a Football kicker at a junior college. As Chief Warrant Officer Maher from the other team closed on him, he decided to play to his strengths, kicking the ball down-field to gain position. However, he was a bit too good of a kicker for our limited length "pitch", and the ball soared into touch [out of bounds], and struck one of the myriad imperfections in the ground and bounced at a seemingly impossible angle over a tall barbed wire barrier with boldly painted signs pronouncing "DANGER - MINES!"

"F***!" both sides seemed to chant in unison.

Twenty years after leaving the country, the USSR had struck another blow at western forces with its reckless mine-laying.

This was Rugby in Afghanistan.

Early members of the Parwan Rifles RFC,
 making our mean faces. Typical playing conditions.
From April 2009 to June 2010 I was deployed to Afghanistan with the headquarters of the 82nd Airborne Division. I hated it. No true combat arms serviceman (technically those in the cavalry, infantry, artillery, combat engineers, attack aviation and special forces, but we extend the term to those who deserve it, such as combat medics) wanted to be away from "the line" and instead in "the upper-echelons of unreality". I helped to run the Current Operations section, which was the best job a combat arms guy could ask for at that level of headquarters. Current Ops is the section of a headquarters responsible for tracking actions on the battlefield, receiving reports from lower commands, passing on orders from our commanding general, and coordinating all efforts in our area of operations. At least in this role you knew you were supporting those still in the fight, rather than contributing to military bureaucracy with the rest of the staff.

We had servicemen and women from every branch of service attached to Current Ops for the deployment with marines, sailors, and airmen in addition to our soldiers. Many were also from allied nations; Britain, France, New Zealand and Poland being most prominent. Most of the key personnel on my team in Current Ops were combat arms, intentionally placed in Current Ops as we best understood the needs of soldiers in the fight, having been there ourselves. However, we would rather be in the fight, and all had more aggressive, action-oriented personalities. It ate at us like heartburn to monitor our brothers in arms fighting and dying in the mountains of east Afghanistan, while we worked in the relative comfort and safety of the operations center.

We needed a way to get some of that aggressive energy out, and we found exactly what was needed one day when Major Miles of the US Marine Corps and I were talking about Rugby. I had never played but had always had an interest, and he had not played since college, but we realized that Rugby was the perfect way to get some of our guys out of the Joint Operations Center and into some form of action again. Sports have always had a strong place in warrior culture, often seen in popular depictions of British soldiers playing soccer and Rugby in rest areas during WWI, or "Yank" soldiers playing baseball in foreign fields during WWII. Rugby was physical enough to help burn that excess aggressive energy; it was true team sport that would develop cohesion and pride; and it required minimal equipment.

The Parwan Rifles RFC logo, with
the outline of Parwan province in the
background, and an Irish wolfhound,
a fearless dog that protects its people
from wolves.

We decided to form a Rugby club, using the same naming convention used by Britain for its colonial regiments in the 19th century. This used the Afghani province that we were based in, combined with the symbol of the infantry, the branch the majority of our initial players claimed.

On that day, the Parwan Rifles Rugby Football Club was born.

(To be continued.)

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