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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

And you wonder why the Army-Navy game matters...

Austin American-Statesman: Combat deaths especially hard on West Point athletes
West Point, NY — The words echoed through the mess hall: "Please give your attention to the first captain!"

Standing at attention at their dining tables, the 4,300 cadets at the United States Military Academy braced for bad news. From a balcony above the cavernous room, the top-ranked cadet addressed the corps.

"I regret to inform you of the death of 1st Lt. David Fraser, class of 2004. First Lieutenant Fraser was killed 26 November in Baghdad, Iraq, when an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle.

"Please join me in observing a moment of silence for this fallen graduate."

At several tables, cadets on the track team exchanged teary glances, again. For the second time in about two months, a former teammate had died in Iraq.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have taken their toll on West Point, which educates men and women to be Army officers. The academy has experienced a rising number of graduates killed each year, from seven in 2003 to 15 this year; November was the deadliest month, with five deaths.

At least 14 of the 44 former cadets killed in action since 2003 played intercollegiate sports. They included former captains of the baseball, hockey and swim teams; a hammer thrower; and men's soccer players.

2nd Lt. Emily J.T. Perez, a sprinter in the class of 2005, was the first female graduate to die in Iraq, killed Sept. 12 by a roadside bomb. She was the highest-ranking black and Hispanic female cadet in the academy's history, and also helped set a team relay record.

1st Lt. Derek Hines, class of 2003 and a captain of the hockey team, was killed by small arms fire Sept. 1, 2005, in Afghanistan. He was so charismatic that his fans used to bang Heinz ketchup bottles against the plexiglass in his honor during games.

Coaches and teammates have had a particularly difficult time dealing with the deaths because West Point teams grow so close. They weather the pressure of juggling military training and studies with Division I sports, the highest collegiate level. They spend more time with one another than with anyone else, at practices, on trips and at meals, where the teams sit together.

When athletes graduate, they share their war-zone experiences with cadets via e-mail to remind them that teamwork is crucial to success at West Point and on the battlefield. But death severs those relationships.

"This was my worst fear, to lose a teammate," said Doug Pelletier, the captain of the men's cross-country team and a friend of Fraser. "It's hard to explain, but being an athlete here is different than being an athlete somewhere else. You learn to genuinely care for each other."

When Maggie Clark, a senior middle-distance runner and a cadet leader of the corps, contemplated quitting the track team during her sophomore year, her friend Fraser persuaded her to stay.

"He told me, 'Unless you know for sure that you can step on the track and not love it, then you'd be making a big mistake,' " she said, recalling a conversation they had after he graduated. "Of course, he was right. Dave was always right."

Fraser was the kind of cadet others wanted to be, always upbeat and one who made everything look easy. He ran track and cross-country, a year-round commitment. He majored in civil engineering, perhaps the most difficult course of study at West Point, and he was offered a future faculty position. On mornings when cadets had the rare chance to sleep in, he was up at 7:45 to teach Sunday school.

Even when he was a platoon leader in Iraq, he reached out to teammates who needed advice.

"We're forced into a lot of hard situations here," said Pelletier, who had also kept in touch with Fraser. "And you learn that you can't make it through this place on your own."

Soon after arriving at West Point, cadets figure out that they cannot survive alone. Six weeks before classes begin, they take a basic training course nicknamed Beast Barracks, or simply Beast.
They are yelled at, tear-gassed, deprived of sleep and, at times, humiliated. During those physically and mentally challenging weeks, they learn to be soldiers.

Those who play sports, however, get a breather. After the first week, athletes escape to practice with their teams three to four days a week. Right away, something special happens to them.

"They laugh with one another and say, 'Hey, I saw you getting yelled at,' " said Brian Riley, the hockey coach. "Then you can just see — boom! — from that day forward, this bond starts to develop.

"They start trying to help each other out, like telling each other how to get ready for an inspection. They're already helping each other through, and this friendship begins to develop that is unbelievable."

Some, like the track athlete Kevin Kniery, saw that bond on his recruiting visit. He said he wanted to be a part of that, even if it meant he would probably have to go to war.

Kniery said his parents urged him to drop out before his junior year, when he could have left without any military commitment. West Point graduates must serve five years on active duty and three years in the Reserve.

"For me, it wasn't really the military that drew me in," said Kniery, who was a freshman when Fraser was a senior. "It was guys like Dave." Fraser designed a footbridge over a creek on the academy grounds as part of a senior project with Seth Chappell, another distance runner from the class of 2004. He enlisted help to build it so children would have a safe, direct route to the Youth Services Center. Its graceful timber arch is a feat of engineering.

A memorial service for Fraser was held at the base of his footbridge on Dec. 9, the first day of final exams. Teammates, coaches, instructors and friends huddled together to remember Fraser, who they said was much more than a cadet. He was more like a brother or a son. Some fought back tears. Others wept silently.

Fraser had been buried four days earlier in his hometown of Houston. He could have chosen West Point Cemetery, which sits on a bluff above the Hudson River about a mile from the bridge. That is where a handful of former athletes killed in Iraq or Afghanistan are buried.

Other athletes occasionally visit the cemetery to pay their respects.

The day before the women's basketball season opener in November, two players from last season's team walked a visitor down a narrow road that skirted the headstones. The players, Adrienne Payne and Megan Vrabel, paused at the grave of Maggie Dixon, their former coach. Dixon was 28 when she died of a heart ailment in April, one month after leading the team to the first NCAA tournament berth in the program's history.

Payne and Vrabel, both lieutenants, continued to the graves of some of the graduates who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq.
They read the names: 2nd Lt. Emily Perez, the track star; 1st Lt. Dennis Zilinski, the swim team captain from the class of 2004; Maj. William Hecker, Payne's freshman English teacher. All were killed in Iraq in the past year.

"I feel like we were just in class with some of these people," Vrabel said. "And now they are here beneath this grass."

Payne and Vrabel have been best friends since meeting on their recruiting trip in 2001. But after spending so much time together during a trying period for their team, their lives are beginning to diverge.

Payne will soon be serving in Iraq in the ordnance branch, which provides ammunition and explosives. Vrabel, a team captain last season, is an intern in the West Point basketball office and engaged to Ben Mayhew, a pitcher for Army's baseball team. She will leave in the spring to begin training in air defense artillery.

"We needed each other at school, but we really need each other now because the stresses are there, and growing," Payne said.

Unlike some athletes who attend West Point largely for the chance to play a Division I sport, Payne wanted the test of military training, too. But then she had three shoulder operations, each one putting her athletic and military careers in doubt. She refused, however, to let that jeopardize her future. So she pushed through the pain.

As a senior, Payne was the point guard of the scout team, peppy and positive for the other players who rarely got much game time. Now, she said, she must be just as positive for the troops she will lead. That is what being an Army basketball player taught her, she said.

"I'm not scared for myself because if it's my time to go, it's my time to go," she said. "I'm scared for my friends."

She will be the first member of last season's basketball team to deploy. But she knows soldiers in Iraq, including her boyfriend, 1st Lt. Corey Sherk, once a quarterback and tight end for Army.
Payne said she prayed for Sherk's safety even more since Capt. John Ryan Dennison, the husband of a former women's basketball captain, was killed in Iraq in November.

Now that she is headed there, Payne will be on the receiving end of prayers.

"When will I see my best friend again?" Vrabel said as she and Payne stood next to Perez's grave. "Will she make it to my wedding? Will I make it to hers?

"You can't help but wonder: Is everything going to end over there?"

The former teammates locked eyes. Then, taking one final glance at the headstones, they walked out of the cemetery in silence.

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