What We Talk About When We Talk About NFL Playoff Games Airing On AFN

Opinion
U.S. Army Soldiers, assigned to Task Force 3/101, watch the Veteran's Day NFL game on Forward Operating Base Salerno, Khowst province, Afghanistan, Nov. 12, 2012.
Army photo by Sgt. Kimberly Trumbull

On Jan. 20, six gunmen armed with AK-47s and grenades stormed the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan. Over the next 14 hours, the assailants waged a fierce battle with Afghan security forces that left 43 people dead, according to local news. It was just one of multiple attacks across the country over the weekend, as U.S.-led forces increase their efforts against an increasingly brazen insurgency. But the Pentagon was scrambling to avert another crisis: rescuing tens of thousands of troops overseas from the threat of missing an NFL conference title game on TV.


Maybe White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders was expressing genuine concern when she sounded the alarm on Saturday, posting a photo to Twitter of a television screen displaying a message that read “Due to the government shutdown, [American Forces Network] services are not available.” The disturbing image, Sanders said, came to her that morning from a “young infantryman serving in Afghanistan.” Almost certainly, tears were in Sanders’ eyes when she tweeted the image with the note: “Sad that the men and women who have sacrificed so much are deprived of even the most basic connection to home bc Democrats are playing political games.”

Of all the negative ways a government shutdown could affect the military — delayed paychecks, postponed medical treatments, daycare and school closures, suspended funds for the families of troops just killed in action — the prospect of soldiers losing some supposed right to live playoff football (and, of course, AFN’s other world-class programming) appears to have caused Sanders the most grief.

It’s important to remember why the word “sacrifice” has long been used to describe military service. First and foremost, it references risk of death; troops sacrifice their own personal safety to fight for a cause bigger than themselves. When a service member is killed in combat, we say he or she made “the ultimate sacrifice.” Nearly 7,000 American troops have made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan since the start of the War on Terror. But service members also sacrifice time with loved ones. They miss birthdays and graduations and funerals. They come home after being away for six or 12 or 15 months and have to reacquaint themselves with the most important people in their lives. That’s tough, especially during a time of war. As a country we accept that there are men and women making these sacrifices on our behalf every day. Is a Sunday without live football really where we draw the line? Or is it that we’re more concerned about what our troops represent than what they actually do?

In my darkest moments, when I’m gripped by all that that Afghanistan seared into my brain — recollections of broken bodies and little kids leaking blood from shrapnel wounds — I am never visited by the specter of all the NFL games I didn’t get to see. If I were, I probably would’ve jumped off a cliff a long time ago, because in the 12 months I was deployed I saw approximately zero football.

Why? I was busy being a soldier in a war zone: getting shot at, shooting at people, not sleeping, not showering, shitting in dirt holes, re-dipping Copenhagen, and guard duty. I counted the days until my platoon rotated back to the FOB, but not in anticipation of a 24-hour AFN-viewing marathon. Given the choice between watching TV and Skyping with my family, taking a shower, or getting more than three hours of sleep, TV lost. AFN is a great and important resource, but it’s also operated by the military and primarily used as a mouthpiece for the brass. On downtime, what I needed was a real connection to home — not a broadcast that was as home-cooked as the Rib Shaped BBQ Pork Patty MRE.

Everyone’s deployment experience is different. The majority of deployed troops spend most, maybe all, of their time on the FOB. I’m no stranger to that plight. During my first deployment, to Iraq, I left the wire maybe a total of three times. It wasn’t the best 15 months of my life, but the Second Battle of Fallujah it certainly was not. We had all the amenities: Green Beans, A/C, a 24-hour gym, beds, internet, surf n’ turf Fridays, salsa nights at the MWR — you name it. Yes, some of us took it for granted. We grumbled when the soft-serve machine in the chow hall ran out of vanilla. We huffed when someone forgot to wipe their sweat off the rowing machine. We threw our Xbox controllers against the wall when somebody beat us at Madden. But God forbid if some dog-faced grunt on a 24-hour refit ever overheard one of us complaining. Because even the most aloof among us understood that it could’ve been a lot worse.

We were fully conscious of the fact that while we were huddled around the TV on Sundays, there were soldiers getting paid the exact same amount of money as us to kick down doors and shoot terrorists. They were doing what most of us stuck on the FOB expected we would do when we raised our right hands and volunteered to serve during a time of war. We didn’t join the military to watch football. We joined to play ball.

Nevertheless, the Department of Defense jumped into action soon after Sanders tweeted her rallying cry. In a statement, chief DoD spokeswoman Dana White explained that the Pentagon had “determined the operational necessity of television and radio broadcasts constitutes essential activities.” Despite the government shutdown, two of AFN’s eight channels would remain on: news and sports. “Sports broadcasting is not an essential activity and stopped to comply with the shutdown,” White said. “With minimal manning, we can keep the sports channel up without incurring any additional cost or manpower — complying with shutdown guidance.” Sports TV: not exactly essential, but essentially baked in.

Just in the nick of time. Imagine the looks on the troops faces when they flipped on the television in Afghanistan on Sunday and saw the Patriots playing the Jaguars in high-definition, welcoming Jim Nantz’s play-by-play commentary like sweet sweet music. Hooray for the Department of Defense.

Also on Sunday, military officials told The Washington Post that the DoD may soon dole out deployment orders to Afghanistan to increase the total force in the country by as many as 1,000 troops this spring. Football season will be over by then. But, hey, fighting season will just be getting started.

A UH-60 Black Hawk departs from The Rock while conducting Medevac 101 training with members of the 386th Expeditionary Medical Group, Feb. 16, 2019. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Tech. Sgt. Robert Cloys)

A Minnesota Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter with three Guardsmen aboard crashed south of St. Cloud on Thursday, said National Guard spokeswoman Army Master Sgt. Blair Heusdens.

At this time, the National Guard is not releasing any information about the status of the three people aboard the helicopter, Heusdens told Task & Purpose on Thursday.

Read More Show Less

The Pentagon's latest attempt to twist itself in knots to deny that it is considering sending up to 14,000 troops to the Middle East has a big caveat.

Pentagon spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said there are no plans to send that many troops to the region "at this time."

Farah's statement does not rule out the possibility that the Defense Department could initially announce a smaller deployment to the region and subsequently announce that more troops are headed downrange.

Read More Show Less

The Navy could send a second aircraft carrier to the Middle East if President Donald Trump orders a surge of forces to the region, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said on Thursday.

Gordon Lubold and Nancy Youssef of the Wall Street Journal first reported the United States is considering sending up to 14,000 troops to the Middle East to deter Iran from attacking U.S. forces and regional allies. The surge forces could include several ships.

Read More Show Less

I didn't think a movie about World War I would, or even could, remind me of Afghanistan.

Somehow 1917 did, and that's probably the highest praise I can give Sam Mendes' newest war drama: It took a century-old conflict and made it relatable.

Read More Show Less

An internal investigation spurred by a nude photo scandal shows just how deep sexism runs in the Marine Corps

"I will still have to work harder to get the perception away from peers and seniors that women can't do the job."

news
(U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Some years ago, a 20-year-old female Marine, a military police officer, was working at a guard shack screening service members and civilians before they entered the base. As a lance corporal, she was new to the job and the duty station, her first in the Marine Corps.

At some point during her shift, a male sergeant on duty drove up. Get in the car, he said, the platoon sergeant needs to see you. She opened the door and got in, believing she was headed to see the enlisted supervisor of her platoon.

Instead, the sergeant drove her to a dark, wooded area on base. It was deserted, no other Marines were around. "Hey, I want a blowjob," the sergeant told her.

"What am I supposed, what do you do as a lance corporal?" she would later recall. "I'm 20 years old ... I'm new at this. You're the only leadership I've ever known, and this is what happens."

She looked at him, then got out of the car and walked away. The sergeant drove up next to her and tried to play it off as a prank. "I'm just fucking with you," he said. "It's not a big deal."

It was one story among hundreds of others shared by Marines for a study initiated in July 2017 by the Marine Corps Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning (CAOCL). Finalized in March 2018, the center's report was quietly published to its website in September 2019 with little fanfare.

The culture of the Marine Corps is ripe for analysis. A 2015 Rand Corporation study found that women felt far more isolated among men in the Corps, while the Pentagon's Office of People Analytics noted in 2018 that female Marines rated hostility toward them as "significantly higher" than their male counterparts.

But the center's report, Marines' Perspectives on Various Aspects of Marine Corps Organizational Culture, offers a proverbial wakeup call to leaders, particularly when paired alongside previous studies, since it was commissioned by the Marine Corps itself in the wake of a nude photo sharing scandal that rocked the service in 2017.

The scandal, researchers found, was merely a symptom of a much larger problem.

Read More Show Less