by Austin Bay
January 4, 2005
When the team took the field on New Year's Day, the crowd
cheered, shouted and shed tears.
These were not tears of joy, but tears of impending sadness and
tears of intense pride.
The team on the football field -- the 3,000 troops of the 56th
Brigade Combat Team, Texas Army National Guard -- wore camouflage uniforms
and desert boots, not shoulder pads and cleats. The 35,000 people in the
stands of Baylor University's Floyd Casey Stadium in Waco, Texas, were
family, friends and citizens drawn from the same long roster of small towns
and cities as the troops.
They were attending a ceremony, not a celebration -- at least,
not a celebration in any routine, sybaritic sense of New Year's Day. This
was ceremony as salutation -- a moving, public salute to personal courage,
responsibility and imminent sacrifice. For the next day, the 56th began
deploying to Iraq.
Don't read this as a hiss at New Year's hoopla. Good times and
great bowl games have their place. But the good life comes at a price
steeper than the cost of tickets and beer. Smart network TV producers would
have earned kudos if they'd had the wisdom to cut, for a thoughtful moment,
from national bowl game action to that stadium in Waco.
Here's that could-have-been: The camera scans the faces of the
soldiers on the field and the families in the stands. The producer shushes
the announcers in the booth, for this visual requires no color commentary.
It's a moment of genuine journalism, capturing the sharp contrasts of the
day, le jour.
But that break in scheduled programming didn't occur. If there'd
been 100 protesters calling President Bush a war criminal instead of 35,000
citizens honoring 3,000 soldiers, perhaps the producers would have taken
notice. Or maybe the TV execs thought the politicians on the podium would
deliver windbag speeches. I thought two or three might make that mistake,
but they didn't. A governor, a senator and a clutch of generals kept their
remarks short and poignant.
The 56th calls itself a Texas team, but the tag above the left
pocket of their uniforms reads, "U.S. Army." The unit joins other National
Guard and Reserve outfits deployed in Iraq.
I served on the same base as citizen-soldiers from Washington
state's 81st Brigade. The men and women I met in the 56th remind me of the
troops in the 81st. They have the same energy, eagerness, doubt, fear,
idealism and professionalism.
Their character and skills will be tested. Troops from the 56th
Brigade will man forward bases and run convoys -- missions exposed to
shelling and ambush. The U.S. 5th Army trainers at Fort Hood put them
through a stiff training regimen, but the truth is no soldier is ever quite
trained enough for that first moment in the combat zone or that first
patrol. That's where leadership matters. In October, I had the chance to
work with Col. James "Red" Brown, commander of the 56th.
Red, his wife and three kids live in Lindale, Texas, population
2,954. As a civilian, he runs a small business in Tyler. Based on what I saw
of him as a soldier, Brown is ready to take his troops through that tough
His brigade deploys to Iraq in one of the most critical months
in Middle Eastern history -- and that covers a lot of history. Palestinian
elections on Sunday and Iraqi elections on Jan. 30 offer oppressed people an
extraordinary opportunity. The 56th immediately joins the fight for the
future, a battle between our free, open political system and the unholy
alliance of despots and millenarian Islamofascists whose very existence
depends on denying liberty. A successful Iraqi election on Jan. 30 will help
break the Middle East's endless cycle of robbery and violence.
These are noble goals. Achieving them requires the effort of
troops like those in the 56th. It's why a crowd will fill Floyd Casey
Stadium in January 2006, welcoming home a brigade of heroes.
On that bright afternoon, I suspect even the networks will pay