WASHINGTON -- It is now that time of year when I tune in to the exploits of the National Football League, not the criminal exploits or the soap opera exploits but the real sport of the game. The teams are fighting for berths in the playoffs and ultimately for the Super Bowl. Thus, the play becomes more intense and daring. These are superb athletes. We must bear that in mind, despite their many brushes with the law and the fact that many of them make as much money as a Goldman Sachs executive, though more conspicuously.
Yet my enthusiasm for NFL stars' athleticism has been overshadowed this year by reports of far more prodigious athleticism demonstrated last April by the members of something called Operational Detachment Alpha 3336 of the 3rd Special Forces Group. Their contest took place in Afghanistan's Nuristan province, far from the television cameras and the garrulous commentators. This 12-man Green Beret team fought a seven-hour battle uphill in a freezing mountainous valley after being pinned down by a few hundred insurgents. They and a few dozen Afghans, whom they had trained, got out after killing between 150 and 200 enemy combatants. Half the Green Berets were wounded -- four critically. This past week, 10 of these men received Silver Stars, the largest number of Silver Stars distributed to such a unit for a single battle since the Vietnam War.
"We were pretty much in the open," Staff Sgt. Luis Morales of Fredericksburg, Va., told The Washington Post. "There were no trees to hide behind." In the course of the battle, he was shot in the thigh while tending to a wounded team member. Then he was shot in the ankle. He kept on fighting. They all did, even Staff Sgt. John Wayne Walding, of Groesbeck, Texas, who saw a bullet nearly amputate his right leg below the knee. Walding is quoted: "I literally grabbed my boot and put it in my crotch, then got the boot laces and tied it to my thigh, so it would not flop around. There was about two inches of meat holding my leg on."
Readers might want to review Walding's statement a few more times. These men are not only very tough. They have a presence of mind that is incomparable. I submit that they are our greatest athletes. What is more, they perform not for money or celebrity but for love of country and -- surely in some cases -- to fulfill their historic role as soldiers, ideally as the greatest soldiers. The politically correct might wince, but the heroism of such soldiers adds to life's meaning for them and for those of us who believe there is more to life than the hum and the drum.
Think of their accomplishments. The men of Alpha 3336 undoubtedly can run and hit. They can throw (grenades), and they can catch. But they also can scuba dive and HALO, that is, leap from aircraft at a high altitude (20,000 feet). Then they "low open," i.e., do not open their parachutes until, say, they are at 1,000 feet. From 20,000 feet to 1,000 feet, carrying as much as 100 pounds of equipment, they scan the ground for landing locations. They need that equipment, for when they land, they are on their own. Once on the ground, they might kill, but they also might practice diplomacy. With their exhaustive training in foreign languages and in the customs of the countries in which they work, they are not only warriors but also diplomats intent on winning the locals over against the insurgents nearby. A Green Beret team also includes highly trained medical professionals capable of treating the wounded and attending to the health needs of locals, even their dental needs.
The ancient Greeks considered athletic achievement to be the result of training and talent but also the result of something more: character. With their Silver Stars on their chests, these Green Berets have demonstrated character of the highest order. When the warriors of the NFL shake their fannies in the end zone or their fists in the faces of fallen competitors, I shall be thinking of the men of Alpha 3336. Their example edifies our country and protects it from our enemies.