During the first part of this month, CU basketball coach Jeff Bzdelik saw up close and personal the men and women who are involved in the real thing.
Bzdelik joined a group of college coaches from The Citadel, Virginia, UC-Davis and West Point on Operation Hoop Talk from June 2-10. The group toured military hospitals in the Washington D.C. area, then flew to the Middle East, where they spent time at U.S. military bases in Kuwait City, near Basra, Iraq, Mosul, Iraq, and near Baghdad.
Bzdelik, who served six years in the National Guard as a young man, spoke about the USO experience Thursday with reporters at the Coors Events Center.
"As a coach, you're simply in awe of a collective will, as a coach you're in awe of sacrificing individually for a greater cause," Bzdelik said. "You're in awe of unselfishness, dedication, discipline, commitment. There's no greater example of that than the men and women who serve this country in the military."
Bzdelik had several stories to tell of individual soldiers and civilians he encountered during the trip. Here is a sampling:
• A 21-year-old soldier in a military hospital in Washington D.C. lost his leg in battle roughly a year ago. The soldier, who ran track in high school, told Bzdelik he has been rehabilitating the past year. He recently ran a 7-minute mile, and his goal is to cut his time to around 5 minutes, a time he ran in high school.
• In Camp Buerhing, near the Kuwait and Iraq border, Bzdelik met a 20-year-old soldier from Colorado who had just landed in the Middle East. He told the coach he loves basketball and he's a big Buffaloes fan.
• Bzdelik met a female soldier from his hometown of Chicago. She weighs about 110 pounds, and was carrying an M-16. She's a combat nurse, and among the first medical personnel to serve wounded soldiers in battle.
"To think about the impact she has in helping to save lives. It's incredible," Bzdelik said. "And what do we do? We coach a basketball team. If we have a bad day, we lose. If they have a bad day, someone loses their life. There's so much significance and impact in a positive way to what she does.
It puts things in perspective."
• The coaches flew on a C-130 plane to a base in Mosul, in northern Iraq, the country's second-largest city. On the plane, Bzdelik sat next to a young soldier on his first tour in Iraq.
"I was about six inches from him," Bzdelik said. "I'll never forget his face. You talk about an athlete's game face, well here was a young man that had a game face on. This was real; more so than we can ever imagine."
• In the camp at Mosul, he met a 28-year-old Iraqi citizen who was an industrial engineer. He had moved his family north where the insurgents wouldn't know them, and they were safer. He told Bzdelik the reason he did that was because he was dedicated to helping rebuild Iraq's infrastructure, a quest that was dangerous for he and his family.
• Bzdelik also met a young soldier named Andy Roe in Mosul. Roe grew up near Stillwater, Okla. He had recently been given a Purple Heart because his hand was shot while he was protecting a general, his specific duty in Mosul.
"He grew up near Stillwater and was a big Oklahoma State fan," Bzdelik recounted. "He said, ‘Coach, you came all the way out here to see us? You know what? I'm a Buff fan now.'
"You talk about his spirit. Here's a young man who had gotten shot, and his wife is back in the States. His whole thing was that he was upset that he had got shot because he was taken off duty protecting the general. His whole thought process was – ‘I've got to get healthy so I can get back out and protect the general.' You talk about loyalty and dedication. No one takes a back seat to these people."
• The USO group next flew to Camp Balad, 70 miles north of Baghdad. They had to fly at night in a special forces plane, which flies under the radar, with no lights and very little sound. At Balad, Bzdelik encountered more soldiers from Colorado.
The head nurse at the hospital at Balad was from the Air Force Academy. Another nurse from the Centennial State hadn't seen her three young children back home with their father in 10 months due to her service. There was a male nurse from Parker, Colo., and a female nurse from Highlands Ranch, not far from where Bzdelik lives in Lone Tree.
• Bzdelik noted the Balad hospital, which is usually the first place wounded soldiers go because it's centrally located, serves U.S. soldiers, Iraqi civilians and insurgents, too. He watched an 18-month-old baby bounce in his crib despite the fact he had undergone 36 surgeries in his young life, the result of biting into an exposed electrical wire. He stood not 10 feet from insurgents recovering from surgery. He met a 60-year-old soldier who had retired from the military, but re-enlisted and took a desk job in Iraq to be close to his song, also a soldier.
Asked what he thought a visit from the basketball coaches did for the soldiers they encountered, Bzdelik put it this way.
"The soldiers work 12-hour shifts. They don't have days off. It's 130 degrees. Someone's shooting at you…They have these dust storms where you're breathing dust all the time. You're in this confined area for months upon months. So to have someone drop in and talk to you about (back home) or talk about basketball – get their mind off their daily life, that's what they enjoy.
"I'm asking them a question and they'll say, ‘Coach, the Lakers gonna beat the Celtics? How are the Buffs gonna be next year? How's Kansas gonna be next year?'
"They like to see someone come into their world."
Bzdelik said he plans to share his experiences with his CU basketball team, one that promises to be young in 2008-09.
He also said he wouldn't hesitate to have the experiences again.
"I'd go back tomorrow," Bzdelik said. "There's a special spirit there that I think just engulfs one. You just feel it. You just want to be around it."