The five of us had just staggered across the finish line. Even in the morning, Central Texas was far too hot for running. I was soaked with sweat, hands on knees. None of the rest of our little group looked any better.
We weren’t young, we were older than most soldiers. Experienced Artillery Fire Support (Forward Observers) and variously Senior Fire Direction and Artillery/Air Support Planners. This was not our first rodeo, maybe our last.
One of the organizers walked over to me. A black-haired lady about my age. She assumed that I must be the leader because I was the oldest, tallest and loudest.
“We have your race shirts, honey. For the Spirit Team. You know we made them special, like you asked back in March.”
Said the race lady.
”We are so happy you could make it down from Ft. Hood to join us. I’m sorry the shirts are late, we had a little mix up with the supplier. And well. I’ll have em for y’all next week though. If we send em up it could take longer.”
I was stumped, then I realized! She had mistaken the US Cavalry Corps Artillery running club for the Spirit Team!
The real Spirit Team were mostly Comanche Indian US Army Veterans who preached the gospel of Christ while running. I had run a 5k with them once in Neu Braunfels and another time at San Antonio. I had a nice chat during a race once, with their leader, a Comanche fellow, about 70 years old, who easily outran me as he taught me from Corinthians.
Our current group were an accidental mix, We ran together to get in extra shape for the upcoming deployment to OIF. We were an interested group when viewed from afar:
Black from KCK,
White from The Mohawk Valley of New York,
Tex-Mex from El Paso, Texas,
Sioux Indian from Leavenworth, Kansas and
Asian-American from Honolulu, Hawaii.
It wasn’t planned that way. We were in the Air-Ground Section and we were all runners. Every free weekend we ran a 5k, 8k or a 10k somewhere in Texas.
We never noticed the coincidence. We all looked a little bit different. The Army was already a pretty diverse place.
In ten days, we would be on the plane to Iraq 🇮🇶 to fight in the forgotten theater of the endless Savage War of Peace. But first, I had single-mindedly resolved to drive back to Round Rock before we deployed to get the race shirts.
The Spirit Team, having not shown up for the race we had run in due to superseding commitments and they being deregistered, the race organizers thought we were the replacements, so I didn’t feel too bad about driving down the Centex and the I-35 South a week later and grabbing the shirts from the kind ladies of the Central Texas Social Workers Society who had organized the race.
I gave a generous extra donation to their cause as a thank you for the shirts.
I carried the shirts with me, prime for distribution, like it was a secret mission:
Even when the hugs lady hugged us 1st Cav guys as we got onto the plane,
Even when I spent a couple weeks at Buering in Kuwait 🇰🇼,
Even when we worked out of Ur of the Chaldeans West of Nassiriyah and North of ‘Sugar Shack’ and then
Even really everywhere from Basra up to Baghdad.
We got scattered. Forward Observation Air-Ground Teams get parceled out to the Cavalry Squadrons all over the region. Yet I carried the shirts with me always. Handing out the shirts was a quest. I recorded each awarding of the shirt in my little green not really waterproof notebook.
Month by month, like a traveling hobo, I would be living with a different Squadron or detachment. I would then run into a member of our ersatz ‘Spirit Team’
Shirt One – size XL
Evans – KCK
El Numiniyyah, July
Shirt Two – size L
Walks Like Puma – Leavenworth, Kansas
Majjar El Kebir, September
Shirt Three -size M,
Hayakai – Honolulu, Hawaii
Qala’at El Salih, November
Shirt Four – M-Long
Lopez – El Paso, Texas,
Balad, Camp Anaconda, December
I hadn’t realized that Lopez was on the base. I was at the post laundry, being that I had just arrived from 30 days on the border in a filthy state and a terrifying ride in a C-130’in a sandstorm, then I showered in a transient barracks and subsequently went to finally do my petrified laundry.
I was dressed in PT gear, looking rather pedestrian, lugging my Bug-Out Bag, Rifle and Mechanic’s Bag. My BOQ would be ready that night over at the ‘Winfield Scott’.
”Sir! Long time no see!”
It was Lopez!
”Chief! Good to see you man! How goes everything?”
”Copasetic, Sir. I’m good to hook.”
We chatted for a while about life along the Centex (Central Texas Expressway – Harker Heights to Copperas Cove) as he waited on the dryer and I waited on my wash.
We heard the brand-new and near useless iron dome go off like a giant 4th of July sparkler. Then we heard the ominous ‘incoming, incoming, incoming’ Lights went out, we hit the deck, then the lights went back on and after a fashion and a little tinkering, the laundry mercifully resumed.
”I have your shirt, from the Round Rock 8k!”
I brought out the magnificent maroon running shirt for Lopez. He marveled at its beauty.
”Sir, this is truly a Merry Christmas! The Round Rock 8k! We did so bad!”
We ran 3.1 miles together the next morning on the track inside the old stadium. We each wore our Round Rock Spirit Team Race shirts.
We had, coincidentally, a tasker to the same base the next day to talk about Air Ground Support and ISR airframes.
The convoy was the usual, Hummers, Rhino’s, MRAP’s then an ungodly long and boring day of going through the motions of doing tedious Army stuff for a good OER in a played-out (mature) theater of operations.
We got back around 1530, in a light hazy sandstorm. There was the usual backup of US and Iraqi vehicles, contractors, diplomatic vehicles and then the local national workers queued up for the next shift, as they waited to be vetted by private security contractors at the side gate.
The Infantry Hummers dumped us out unceremoniously just inside the secure area, being that we were both journeyman vagabonds, as are all Forward Observer types.
We walked with our heavy packs and soul-crushing body armor about 600 yards, when we heard a thick chilling thud. We turned around to see a massive column of black smoke rising cruelly in the gloaming.
Inevitably, we heard sirens and then we watched as QRFs and security teams rushed to the gate.
Lopez was assigned to incident response, so he raced instinctively towards the explosion, as some of our convoy was still in the traffic line.
I had set down my pack and by the time that I had untangled my M-4 Rifle, Lopez had disappeared into the golden hazy dust.
I ran to the gate (against protocol as they often set off a second bomb to kill responders).
As feared, on cue, there was another bang when I was only 100 yards away. I was shielded by the concrete guard posts and my ears protected by artillerymen’s earplugs.
I dropped my pack and against common sense, I waded into the backlit dust and debris amidst almost complete silence.
I could barely discern civilians and soldiers laid out awkwardly in the sandy dirt. I could see soldiers and contractors emerge cautiously from damaged vehicles.
I saw figures on the ground, any wounds hidden by the ubiquitous golden-gray dust.
There, on his side, was a soldier, his uniform almost white and it was in fact, Lopez. Still. Completely still and he was gone.
Time passed, as that is the way the world works.
I came home eventually.
Finished out my career a few years later in New York City of all places.
The race was more than a decade ago, now.
I think about it sparingly anymore as day to day reality often intervenes to smother the not so distant past.
If you just so happen to stop by for a workout and you pause to look up from doing sit-ups, there, hanging from a silverine metal hook on the pegboard, in a corner of my gym, you may find a permanent reminder, a Spirit Team Round Rock 8k race t-shirt, maroon, 100% cotton, long-ago cleaned, dutifully ironed and hung from the wall amidst other race shirts, race ribbons, assorted diplomas and panoramas of my hometown.
Shirt Five – 2XL-Long
The Author – Cooperstown, New York
Laurel Highlands, Pennsylvania, April
Peace be the Botendaddy
Dedicated to my true friend Troy.
Names are changed and events are heavily fictionalized to protect the decent.