Soldiers watch Super Bowl in war zone

By Story by Sgt. Marc LoiFebruary 6, 2012

FOB SPIN BOLDAK, Afghanistan (Feb. 6, 2012) -- When Giants quarterback Eli Manning hit wide receiver Victor Cruz for a two-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter of Super Bowl XLVI, nearly 7,000 miles from Indianapolis, in a tent just north of the Afghan-Pakistan border, the crowd erupted, breaking the early-morning silence on the dark, muddy forward operating base.

Although they conducted combat operations as usual on Super Bowl Sunday, the Soldiers of the 504th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, deployed here in support of Operation Enduring Freedom from Fort Hood, Texas, also got a chance to watch the 46th annual NFL championship. In doing so, they experienced a duality that brought back memories of Super Bowls past, yet at the same time, subtly reminded them they were still in a war zone.

There were still paper plates heaping with food -- hot wings and pizza, meatballs and onion rings -- all the snack items that are parts of the Americana they'd swore to protect. Yet, when the Soldiers raised their glasses to celebrate a touchdown, it was with non-alcoholic beers and carbonated beverages instead of the potables that would have overflowed had they been home.

Sitting on a wooden table that normally served as dinner table, Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Ribas studied the contents of near-beer that had been shipped in just for the game. Reluctantly, he took a swig of the near-beer.

"Man, this beer is outstanding," Ribas said with a chuckle. "It's almost as intense as cranberry juice.

"This is my second [near-beer] on this deployment," he continued. "And it will be my last."

Despite the beer not tasting as good as he'd hoped, Ribas said he is appreciative of the event because it gave Soldiers a chance to relax and took them out of the daily grind of war -- even if only for a few hours.

"Obviously, we're surrounded by a different kind of family here, and the game is a lot earlier than it normally is, but this builds morale," he said. "We needed this to clear our heads."

Spc. Michael Chandonnet had hoped to clear his head by catching the game and a few chuckles from the commercials the Super Bowl is known for. Sitting close to Ribas, the Fort Worth, Texas, native got in-house commercials instead. While there were still the familiar voices of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth calling the game, during commercial breaks, Chandonnet and other Soldiers were treated to public service announcements made by the Armed Forces Network, as well as pre-recorded messages of thanks and appreciation from Giants and Patriots players.

"I was looking forward to seeing the commercials," he said. "It's one of my favorite parts. If I were home, I'd be barbequing and watching that."

Still, Chandonnet said he is also appreciative of the event, and particularly the grateful messages recorded by players from both Super Bowl teams.

"It sort of feels good that they recorded the messages to thank us," he said. "It does mean something."

Capt. Alan Vargo, too, is thankful for the event. Yet, he could not help but recall Super Bowls of the past, and particularly the last time the Patriots and his Giants met, when he was closer to home and had loved ones by his side.

"This is a replay of their last meeting in the Super Bowl," Vargo said. "Last time, I was in New York with my family, though I am now with them in spirits. But this is definitely a morale booster."

Groggy-eyed from the early-morning wake-up, Master Sgt. Marvin Morgan munched on snacks as he cheered on the Giants. With his Cowboys long eliminated from playoffs, Morgan said he came out to support the Giants because they are in the same NFC East division as his Cowboys, and because of the camaraderie the event provided.

"I saw how well they did Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I wanted to come out here to see how they were going to do in the Super Bowl," he said.

That the event was successful wouldn't have been possible without people like Barbara Wilson, the civilian contractor in charge of the dining facility here. Of Houston, Texas, Wilson was decked out in a Texans jersey and hat. Like many other Soldiers, Wilson is fan to a team that did not play in the Super Bowl. Despite this, Wilson said she put efforts into the event because it boosts morale and gives Soldiers the opportunity to see something they would have missed entirely.

"This is a really big deal back home," she said. "The Super Bowl is really big back in the States, and if the Soldiers weren't here, they'd be watching the Super Bowl at home. We just wanted to bring them home for a while."

And for a while, the Soldiers were brought home. With weapons by their sides, the Soldiers clapped and cheered as the Giants and Patriots went back and forth, almost as if forgetting that just outside the tent, the muddy and frosty fields await them, and that just a few more hundred meters down the road, outside of the proverbial wire that separates the confines of Forward Operating Base Spin Boldak from southern Afghanistan, enemy fighters could have very well been preparing for their next attacks.

By the latter part of the fourth quarter when Manning hit wide receiver Mario Manningham for the 38-yard connection that would eventually propel the Giants to scoring the go-ahead touchdown, the sun had already peaked over the mountain ranges just south of Spin Boldak.

As quarterback Tom Brady heaved the ball into the end zone in a last-ditch effort to save the Patriots' season, the Soldiers stood up and collectively held their breath as the ball fell to the ground. Some groaned while others celebrated. Just as quietly as they'd filed into the tent, the Soldiers picked up their weapons and quickly exited, stepping into the bright and crisp late-winter Afghanistan day.

Super Bowl Sunday had turned into Monday morning, and for these Soldiers, Monday would be just another day.

(Sgt. Marc Loi writes for the 504th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade.)