Army rugger humbled honoring fallen peers
August 28, 2013
GLENDALE, Colo. (Aug. 28, 2013) -- Maj. Nate Conkey was elated to help All-Army win the 2013 Armed Forces Rugby Sevens Championship and humbled the next morning by a remembrance ceremony honoring all military rugby players who made the ultimate sacrifice.
With the bagpipes of retired Army Chief Warrant Officer 5 Jay Leasure blaring "Amazing Grace," Conkey walked from the sideline, placed a rugby ball alongside a U.S. Army flag at midfield, and saluted his fallen military rugby mates.
Conkey, 34, of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., stood Army Strong throughout the roll call of Soldiers, Airmen, Marines, Sailors and Coast Guard rugby players who gave all.
"I knew a lot of them," said Conkey, a 2000 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. "Many players that I've coached, men that I've played with, men that I've been good friends with, are on that list. Probably 10 or 15."
The ceremony preceded Sunday play in the Serevi Rugbytown Sevens international tournament at Infinity Park. Conkey tried to control his emotions, but eventually set them free.
"We almost take it for granted," he said. "It's almost a little too easy to process the emotion sometimes. We almost become immune to it. We kind of have to [in order] to sustain ourselves and go back out, talking big stuff to perform our mission. It's amnesia, of sorts.
"Then when you're out there, and it's just you and the bagpipes, you're standing there and you start to hear some of the names, you remember that these are very, very real people that have impacted your life," he continued. "We almost have the mission of carrying their names forward and doing them justice.
"We never forget them," he said.
For a few calm minutes Sunday morning, Conkey was allowed to stop, regroup, and pay his respects as the bagpiper played "Amazing Grace" to the roll call of fallen U.S. Army rugby players.
As the Soldiers' names were announced, Conkey walked to midfield and placed an Army rugby ball on the ground next to a miniature Army flag.
"Sometimes you lose track of the bigger picture and you kind of get stuck in your moment, but then you're allowed to reflect when it's just you, that music, the ball, the players' names being read aloud," Conkey said. "You certainly feel it."
One night earlier, Conkey was on the same field celebrating his first gold medal after his seventh shot at an Armed Forces Rugby Championship, in only his second try at Sevens, no less. He also was named to the Armed Forces All-Tournament Team.
"It certainly was quite the high beating Air Force for the gold medal," Conkey said Sunday before returning to the field to play three more matches against teams from other divisions of the tourney. "It's also exciting that we have more action today."
Conkey, a native of Falls Church, Va., plays rugby with the gusto of a man who can't get enough action, always looking for someone to hit or a loose ball to scoop up and run.
"We're going to go out and we're going to compete," Conkey said. "I love feeding off of other people's quotes, and everybody wants to quote Vince Lombardi and say: 'Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.' He also said it's an all-time thing: 'Winning is a habit. Doing the right thing is a habit.'"
"When we take that field, we want to do nothing else than feed that habit," Conkey said. "Yes, we want to get guys some playing time. Yes, we want to enjoy ourselves. But what better way to go out and have fun than by winning games in an awesome atmosphere and in front of a great crowd?"
Conkey did not play rugby while attending the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He took up the sport at age 24, while stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky. He returned to West Point as an instructor and served as assistant rugby coach from 2007 through 2011. Second Lt. Will Holder, who graduated from West Point in May and joined Conkey on the Armed Forces Rugby All-Tournament Team in August, played for coach Conkey at the academy.
"He's been the emotional side of this team," said Holder, who scored two tries in All-Army's 19-14 victory over All-Air Force in the Armed Forces championship match. "He's been the one to pick us up and pump us up every single game -- make sure our heads are in it and keep us in line. It was awesome to be able to finally play with him. He coached me my first three years at West Point."
Conkey cherishes being an on-field leader and coach, of sorts, for younger teammates whom he coached before.
"I'm certainly the oldest," Conkey said. "I haven't been necessarily playing rugby as long as some of the other guys. Andy Locke and Will Holder were born with a rugby ball in their hands. I didn't pick it up until a little later in life.
"It helps being one of the senior guys because you can feel some of the emotions that they might feel and they can feed off of what you're feeling," added Conkey, who deployed to Iraq in 2005 and Afghanistan in 2011. "It's the same as in the Army: you have to be aware of your surroundings and know that everybody's going to see every little thing that you do and might be looking to you for a cue on how they should act or feel."
Holder, 22, is the Soldier who leaps high in the air and attempts to tip the ball away from stacked opponents during a lineout, a restart of play after the ball goes out of bounds. He recalled a scenario when Conkey told him to let the opposition make the catch.
"He looked me in the eyes and said: "Better not tip this ball back; I'm going to light this guy up.' And sure enough, that guy almost came out of the game," Holder said. "I'm amazed that he's playing. Not only is he playing, he's playing at the highest level you can, and scoring. I think he scored our first four tries. He's an amazing athlete."
Conkey played the more traditional 15-man rugby six times for All-Army before striking Armed Forces gold in seven-man rugby. He missed the past two tournaments because of deployment and the funeral of a classmate. This time, he left Infinity Park with a gold medal dangling around his neck to get a few stitches on his chin.
"It was incredible," Conkey said. "I'd been waiting for years for it to happen. That was a slugfest. It never felt so good to get hit hard as I did on that last play."
The fallen rugby players from the Army:
-- Maj. Guy Barattieri
-- Lt. James Brierly
-- Lt. Ben Britt
-- Lt. Randy Castro
-- Lt. Dimitri Del Castillo
-- Lt. Joey Emigh
-- Sgt. 1st Class Michael Fuga
-- Capt. Jim Gurbitz
-- Staff Sgt. Robert Goodwin
-- Lt. Col. James Harrison
-- Lt. Chuck Hemmingway
-- Capt. John David Hortman
-- Lt. Col. Dale Jensen
-- Sgt. Donald James Lamar
-- Staff Sgt. Jeff Loa
-- Lt. David Lodwick
-- Sgt. Terry Lynch
-- Lt. Tom Martin
-- Cpl. Stephen Michael McGowan
-- Lt. Zach Miller
-- Spc. Avealao Milo
-- Lt. Bill Pahissa
-- Lt. David Sacket
-- Sgt. 1st Class John Sanchez
-- Capt. Bob Serio
-- Capt. Christian P. Skoglund
-- Capt. Garret C. Slaughter
-- Maj. Robert Soltes
-- Capt. Scott Spanial
-- Lt. Clair Thurston
-- Sgt. 1st Class Frank Tia'I
-- Lt. Laura Walker
-- Capt. Ian Weikel
-- Cpl. Matthew James Wargo
The fallen rugby players from the U.S. Marine Corps:
-- Maj. Brett Beken
-- Lance Cpl. Richard Buerstetta
-- Maj. Jeremy Graczyk
-- Lt. Col. Dave Greene
-- Sgt. Donald Lamar
-- Maj. John Leer
-- Capt. John Maloney
-- Maj. Kevin Nave
-- Gunnery Sgt. Cap Pelletier
-- Capt. Michael Quin
-- Capt. Patrick Rapicault
-- Lt. Col. Kevin Shea
-- Corp. Jared Shoemaker
-- Maj. Keith Takabayashi
The fallen rugby players from the U.S. Navy:
-- Lt. Jared Allen
-- Lt. Cmdr. Tom Blake
-- Lt. Glenn Campbell
-- Lt. j.g. Nick Juron
-- Lt. James Surch
-- Ensign Van Wilson
The fallen rugby players from the U.S. Air Force:
-- Col. Richard Battock
-- Luis Arauz Chang
-- Capt. Scott Craven
-- Lt. Wes Kissel
-- Lt. Col. Hank Knellinger
-- Capt. Victoria Pinckney
-- Lt. Laura Piper
-- Lt. Col. Greg Giletti
-- Lt. Alan Hooks
The fallen rugby players from the U.S. Coast Guard:
-- Seaman Shawn Debenport
-- Marine Science Tech. 2nd Class Jon Lewis