Tuesday, June 24, 2008

US Army Sending Eight Soldiers To Beijing In Special Mission Involving A Lot Of Shooting

...a lot of shooting for Olympic Gold, that is.

Eight Soldiers Beijing-Bound For Olympics

When Libby Callahan was 23 years old, she joined the Washington, D.C., police force and, like all recruits, was taught to fire a gun. She took those skills to the Army Reserve a decade later, at age 33. Now 56, Sergeant Callahan is among eight American soldiers who will head to Beijing to compete for gold medals in the Olympics.

The Army Olympians are in the city today for an "Army Strong vs. New York Strong" competition, during which they will host a "friendly fitness challenge" in front of the Times Square Recruiting Station. They will challenge passersby and tourists to compete with them in racewalking, push-up, and jump-rope challenges "to showcase the motivation and endurance embodied in every U.S. Army Soldier," according to a press release.

The U.S. Army has a history of cultivating the athletes in its ranks — many of whom specialize in shooting events and are hired to train soldiers for combat, but also spend much of their time training for national and international competitions.

Some are recruited specifically for these positions, and join the Army half as professional athletes and half as experienced advisers. Others are discovered among the organization's ranks and are pulled out of deployments to compete.

Sergeant Christopher Downs falls in the second category. He joined the Army in 1997 after high school to escape the drudgery of his post office job, looking to find adventure in the military.

In July 2004, a new battalion commander decided that one of the Army's frequent intercompany competitions — known as "smokers" — would include boxing. He nominated Mr. Downs for the sport.

"I was kind of pushed into boxing," Mr. Downs said in an interview yesterday. "I was the heckler, I talked a lot of crap, so he said why don't you get in there and sign yourself up."

After winning the bronze medal in boxing in the 2005 World Military Championship, he was deployed to Tikrit, Iraq, where he escorted convoys, cleared routes, and carried out routine patrols. In the 13 months he was there, his section saw 13 IEDs and most of his platoon members received Purple Heart medals.

While there, he received a call and was told that the Army wanted him to join its World Class Athlete Program and train for competitions. He has since left Iraq to spend all of his time training — between six and 10 hours a day, six days a week.

Because the American boxing team did not qualify in Mr. Downs's weight class, he will travel to Beijing as a supporter of the team. When he returns, it is possible he will be sent back to Iraq.

While Army Olympians range from wrestlers to runners to boxers, most are shooters, and with good reason.

"The Army kind of dominates the shooting sports," a three-time Olympian in the prone rifle event, Major Michael Anti, 42, said.

In the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Mr. Anti won a silver medal in his sport, which involves taking 60 shots with a .22-caliber rifle while lying facedown on the ground. To celebrate, he bought a silver Corvette, which he plans to upgrade to a copper-colored model if he wins the gold.

Like Mr. Anti, Sergeant Jason Parker, 33, has been shooting ever since he was a child — his parents would take him hunting when he was 3 years old. He was recruited by the Army after high school specifically for his rifle skills.

He competes in the air rifle and three-position rifle events and has been to the Olympics three times before. He said he joined the Army in hopes it would take him to the Olympics. "They had all the resources that anyone would need to succeed at Olympic shooting," he said.

Ms. Callahan said she joined the Army Reserve not to improve her shooting, but because she had always been fascinated by it. By the 1980s, she was competing in international shooting competitions.

"I was very good at it," she said. "There's just a competitive edge in me and it got me hooked and I said, 'This is what I want to do.'"

Ms. Callahan is a rarity not only because she's a woman in a profession and sport dominated by men, but also because at 56 she will be the oldest female American Olympian ever, and she could become the oldest female Olympic medalist.

Although they think of themselves as soldiers first, being Army athletes has allowed Ms. Callahan and others to travel widely. They routinely compete against shooters from international armies, including some America considers enemies.

In Beijing, they will compete with North Korean marksmen. Recently, they say they've seen the number of Middle Eastern competitors grow. Ms. Callahan has competed alongside women from Kuwait and Oman who wear a hijab while they shoot.

Politics don't interfere with the competition, Ms. Callahan said. "To me, the Olympics and the military have almost the same ideals," she said.

From NY Sun

Best of luck for our Olympians and let us hope the Old Glory will fly the highest, above all other flags present.

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