I receive a daily email called On This Day which reminds me of significant events in world history. I usually give it a cursory glance without much thought but on August 7 an item jolted my memory into a nostalgic flashback. On that date in 1990 President George H.W. Bush ordered the US Military to prepare for Operation Desert Shield, later to become Desert Storm, to free Kuwait from the grips of Iraq’s Suddam Hussein.
I was not in the military, but I was embedded in the small, military town of Hinesville, Georgia, the home of Ft. Stewart and the Army’s 24th Infantry Division. I was teaching and coaching football at Bradwell Institute, then the only public high school in Liberty County. With over 2,300 students, Bradwell was the state’s sixth largest high school at the time, and half of its students were military dependents.
When we moved to Hinesville in 1989, I was clueless about anything military, but I would soon get a lesson that I can never forget. My students were from all over the world and diverse before that became a thing. What immediately stood out to me was their immense respect for authority. They would become filled with apprehension in August 1990.
Our football equipment manager was a retired Army sergeant still with an ear to the Ft. Stewart grapevine. When summer practice started in 1990, he told us that the base was preparing to go on “lockdown.” Traffic was picking up between Hinesville and Hunter Army Airfield and the port in Savannah. In stunned disbelief, our military dependent football players were mostly silent about what was happening.
Soon enough the news broke that all active duty soldiers at Ft. Stewart would be deployed to the Persian Gulf. We were heading off to football camp all the way across the state to Blakely, Georgia as our players’ fathers, and some of their mothers, were heading off to Saudi Arabia for a presumed long war. Would they ever see them again?
Practicing football had to be a welcomed distraction for those young men. CNN had unnerving, wall-to-wall coverage of the deployment and nonstop speculation about the disastrous toll a war would take on military families. We toiled on as Hinesville suddenly seemed deserted. Taking 17,000 soldiers out of a small town will do that. It would be after Christmas before serious action in Kuwait and Iraq occurred, so the anxiety lingered.
We won a brutally hardfought opener against Effingham County 13-10 in front of a flag-waving crowd in a packed stadium. That game was a war of its own and the emotional taxation cost us the next week in an 8-7 loss to Brunswick. With the season just underway, our coaching staff could sense that our squad was understandably already mentally drained. School had started and we felt it in the classroom too.
In week three we headed to Savannah for our first road game against a team we should beat, Beach High. They were loaded with quick, fast athletes and we ended up in a dogfight. Every play that we called seemed like a Supreme Court decision within our staff. Our players were struggling as we worked to get them into winning positions. We were putting younger backups into the game, not because of injuries, but due to the need to overcome tension and mental fatigue among our starters, if only for a few plays.
Our kicker, Vernon Loree, won the game 17-14 on the last play with a 47-yard field goal that hit the upright and bounced in. Vernon’s daddy was on the other side of the world with the Army, so he didn’t get to see it. We counted that 28 of our 60-man roster had a parent that was deployed. In Hinesville, if your parent wasn’t in the Army, your neighbor was.
The kids were too exhausted to celebrate that victory, but our coaching staff was suddenly brimming with confidence. We were so proud of our players because few high school teams have ever managed such adversity so well. Perhaps they were too preoccupied to panic over a mere game. As coaches we were forced to adjust to the rarest of challenges.
That game started a seven-game winning streak, but we lost our last two to finish 8-3. The military quickly took care of business and the 24th returned home in March. We all watched President Bush address the returning soldiers and their families on the parade grounds of Ft. Stewart. Transition scattered our coaching staff after that, but that season must certainly linger in their minds, as it does mine.
My 13 years in coaching were unremarkable, but not that 1990 season. Spending two years in the uniqueness of a military environment molded my point of view forever. I figured that if I could teach and coach kids who heard daily that their fathers would die in a blood for oil war, that I could manage anything. I learned a lot about myself 29 years ago this month and was glad to be reminded last week.