Military academy bowl victories shine light on armed forces

  • Published
  • By John J. Kruzel
  • American Forces Press Service
The Air Force and Naval academy football teams triumphed in their respective bowl games Jan. 2, shining a spotlight on the servicemember-athletes comprising the rosters and the armed forces they represent.

Military honors were replete here at the 5th annual Armed Forces Bowl, which pitted the underdog Air Force Falcons against the University of Houston Cougars in a rematch of last year's bowl game that saw the Falcons falter.

The nation's highest-ranking military officer, who has a penchant for handing out coins bearing the insignia of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accepted a coin at the 50-yard line for the official toss that would grant the Falcons first possession of the ball.

In a reverse of pessimistic prognostications that favored the University of Houston by more than four points, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen sounded a hopeful prediction for the Falcons before kickoff.

"We come in as underdogs routinely in games like this, and I can't think of a team that's better prepared than Air Force today to go up against this very good team, and Navy a little later on to go up against Missouri," he said, referring to a separate bowl game that played out later. "I look forward to both service academies winning."

As the Falcons took the field, their helmets shone under the lights at Amon G. Carter Stadium on the campus of Texas Christian University. But for today's game, the familiar lightning bolt adorning the helmet was changed from solid Air Force blue to a camouflage pattern in a show of solidarity with Airmen deployed downrange.

More than a quarter of the estimated crowd of 40,000 fans comprised servicemembers and their family members who took advantage of complimentary tickets donated by Bell Helicopter, which joined ESPN as a cosponsor of the game in 2006. The sponsorship was a natural fit, said the company's top executive, since more than half of Bell's business is with military clientele.

"This is an opportunity for us to not only recognize the uniformed services, but also to recognize the families and the sacrifices the families make for the uniformed servicemembers," said John Garrison, the president and CEO of Bell Helicopter and a former Army Airborne Ranger.

During the first half, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs made his rounds throughout the stadium, greeting military personnel and civilians alike and frequently replenishing his handshake with supplies from the hulking change purse containing his military coins.

One of the troops to accept Admiral Mullen's coin-laden grip was Army Spc. Jason Williamson, who was assigned to the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment when he was injured in Mosul, Iraq, in July 2008. Specialist Williamson, taking a break from his recovery south of here at Fort Hood, Texas, and his family took advantage of the complimentary tickets along with some 12,000 others.

With the Air Force taking a commanding lead at halftime, the teams retired to their locker rooms as Admiral Mullen and servicemembers representing each military branch congregated at mid-field, where the chairman accepted the Great American Patriot Award on behalf of the 2.2 million men and women in the armed forces.

After accepting the award in honor of troops already in uniform, the chairman then officially enlisted some 125 recruits, comprising 25 members of each service branch and a cross-section of troops that included both enlisted members and officer candidates.

The columns of young recruits repeated the oath of enlistment in lock-step with the chairman, after which Admiral Mullen told them over the audience's applause, "Welcome aboard!"

One member of the wave of America's newest troops to receive the oath of enlistment and the coin from the nation's top military officer was Army cadet Capt. Travis Barrington. The young recruit, somewhat awestruck, remarked that he'd never seen so many ribbons on one uniform.

"I've been to general promotions before," said Cadet Barrington, a student at Texas Christian University, "but I've never met someone this high up.

"I wanted to serve my country in the best way I knew how, and the best way I knew how to do that was to join the ROTC and become an officer and lead soldiers," he said, describing his reason for enlisting. And in contrast to Admiral Mullen's vision upon his joining the ranks, Cadet Barrington, an aspiring transportation officer added, "I'd like to make a career out of it. Then I'd like to become a minister someday."

As a young sailor at the U.S. Naval Academy, Admiral Mullen never would have predicted he would be reading to someone like Cadet Barrington the military scripture that turns civilians into troops. In his own words, Admiral Mullen arrived at the academy with "no long-term vision" of remaining in the military for the long haul. But in hindsight, he advises young servicemembers to remain open to considering the military as a long-term career, reflecting his own serendipitous decision to stay in uniform.
Admiral Mullen's prediction for the games' outcomes proved much more accurate than the personal vision he divined as a young sailor looking into his own future. At the conclusions of today's matchups, the Air Force trounced Houston 47 - 20 before Navy took on Missouri at the Texas Bowl in Houston, where the academy torpedoed their opponents 35-13.