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 first moment.
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 attention.