Playing games, preparing for war
December 12, 2008
When the bomb went off under his vehicle during a re-supply mission in Afghanistan, Army Capt. Alton McCallum found himself with a shattered right leg amid an oddly familiar scene.
The brave and selfless medics who came to his aid were as efficient and skilled as the athletic trainers and physicians who rushed to help him and his teammates during his football career at West Point. The stakes were higher, the threat greater, but McCallum found much-needed calm in the ritual.
"The first thing you have to do is get your bearings," McCallum said this week. "When I played football at Army, I had a shoulder injury that required surgery. That taught me mental toughness. This was a different ballgame, but football helped me prepare for fighting through it."
McCallum is still in the Army. He is in charge of a recruiting station in Milwaukee, a job that keeps him busier than he expected. But he said he planned to steal a little time yesterday to watch the Army-Navy game on television.
McCallum, 29, played in four of the annual classics between the service academies - including Army's last win in 2001. He was not a star the way his cousin Napolean McCallum was for Navy in the 1980s. The shoulder, first injured during his sophomore year, had something to say about that. But Alton McCallum got what he wanted from his football career.
"We believe what Gen. [Douglas] MacArthur said, that 'on the fields of friendly strife' you use the same toughness and tenacity that you use in war," McCallum said.
His experiences give McCallum a special perspective on the Army-Navy game. As a cadet, McCallum remembers how important the game was to him, his teammates and the West Point community.
"That was the legacy you wanted to leave," McCallum said. "You wanted to beat Navy. We were 2-2 against them. I'm not saying it was the only game we focused on all season, but it was the game we were most charged up for. All week, there wasn't talk from our classmates about anything else."
McCallum remembers being addressed before games by President Bush, who was back at the Linc yesterday, and Gen. Colin Powell. He remembers the pageantry around the game and the special atmosphere.
"It was exciting getting on the field," he said. "You knew it was internationally televised, that men and women in harm's way were watching. You were so motivated, so hyped about it. The games are extremely intense. You compete until the last play."
McCallum graduated West Point in 2002, became one of those men in harm's way. He watched an Army-Navy game with his battalion in Iraq. His men knew he had played in the classic.
"My battalion was from West Point," McCallum said. "There was some bragging. We got time to take a break, but then we had to focus on the present."
Upon arriving in Afghanistan in January, 2007, he noticed Army and Navy banners still on display from the game played a month earlier.
In April, everything changed. The explosion broke his tibia and fibula, leaving both bones jutting through the skin.
It was at Walter Reed Hospital that summer, between surgeries to repair his leg, that McCallum met Lee Miller, the founder of the Wounded Warrior program. Miller (West Point, 1958) saw a need for mentoring, training and counseling to help shattered soldiers, many of them amputees, move on into productive lives.
McCallum's leg was saved thanks to the skills and the speed of the medics who treated him in the field. But he still benefited from the program, and Miller himself served as McCallum's mentor.
"Alton wasn't typical because he wasn't an amputee and he wasn't there as long," Miller said. "He was there just about eight months. He's done well."
Most of the soldiers in the Wounded Warrior program - at present, Miller said, 140 mentors work with about 240 soldiers - leave the service. Often the program helps them make a transition to a civilian job with the federal government.
McCallum chose to remain in the Army.
"I had set certain career goals when I graduated West Point," McCallum said. "One was to be a company commander."
Instead of a field artillery company, McCallum is in charge of recruiting in Milwaukee. His wife, Lindi, is in medical school there. The couple has a 2-year-old son, Alton III.
It seems like a long time since McCallum was among the Cadets and Midshipmen playing for pride and for glory. Soon, many of this year's players will find themselves in the same danger zones McCallum served in. They will risk a lot more than a football game.
For now, though, they are merely players. And one not-so-old soldier who has been through too much sat back and watched them and cheered them on - which is why no scoreboard can explain what this game means.
For information on the Wounded Warrior program, including how to help, go to www.wpwoundedwarriormentorprogram.com.