The Huskies have two new team members for the 2K Sports Classic benefitting the Wounded Warriors Project this week in New York. Two wounded warriors are providing valuable perspectives that will stay with the players long past their games here Thursday and Friday.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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NEW YORK – Andrew Andrews was up past 2 a.m. on his first night in New York City.
But, no, the Huskies guard wasn’t doing what most third-year college students might do in such a situation. He was having his life enriched inside his team’s hotel.
For more than 90 minutes while Tuesday night became Wednesday morning in “The City that Never Sleeps,” Andrews was inside the Astor Room conference area of the Affinia Manhattan. He sat enraptured, listening to and asking questions of Army National Guard First Sergeant Kim Fox, a veteran of 30 years of military service and two combat tours in Iraq.
Fox and one of his sergeants in Iraq, Richard Harrison, are the two newest Huskies. And they are providing value to the players that will last far beyond this week of basketball in New York.
“Man,” Andrews said at one point well past midnight while sitting at a round table with Fox, Harrison and Daniel Shapiro, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, “this is amazing.”
Fox told Andrews that he was in charge of a troop of 175 scouts based at Camp Liberty, a forward operating base on the northern edge of Baghdad. The base was partially occupied by the 41st Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the Oregon National Guard that had been called onto active duty for long stretches of the war in Iraq. Fox told Andrews of convoy patrols and building sweeps, of facing IED blasts and mortar rounds – and, yes, of death. There were a total of four casualties in his unit during Fox’s two combat tours in Iraq with the 1st Squadron, 82nd Calvary, in 2004 and in 2008-09.
Fox, 50, and his wife Natalie have two grown daughters, Ashley and Andrea. He lives in Albany, Ore. He is about 5 feet 10 and, judging by the many 3-point shots he made Wednesday shooting around with Harrison when the Huskies practiced at Baruch College on Manhattan’s lower east side, I guessed he played the game. He did, for his high-school team in Lebanon, Ore. – “a guard,” he joked, “can’t you tell from my height?”
He and Harrison, 43 from Spokane, Wash., are here with the Huskies as they prepare for Thursday’s game across the street at Madison Square Garden against Indiana.
It seems trivial, these semifinals of the 2K Sports Classic benefitting the Wounded Warrior Project, compared to the life Fox and Harrison have lived. But the Wounded Warrior Project is adding value to these games, meaning that will last far beyond this week in New York.
Fox and Harrison are themselves wounded warriors: Fox basically has one good arm and one wrecked low back; Harrison is blind in one eye and in half the other. Each team in the 2K Sports Classic has two injured veterans of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan with them for this tournament. Fox and Harrison have been with the Huskies since their game last Thursday against UC-Irvine at Alaska Airlines Arena. They were on the team’s flight here from Seattle late Tuesday night.
“Kim called me two or three months ago and asked if I wanted to join him with the Huskies,” Harrison said as the team practiced behind us here Wednesday. “I was like, ‘Heck, yeah!’”
The veterans have Huskies gear – Wednesday they were in purple, Wounded Warrior Project coaches shirts. The team has purple short-sleeve and long-sleeve T-shirts with “United We Stand” and a block W filled in with an Army-camouflage pattern. UW will wear those shirts during pregame warm-ups Thursday, and on Friday when they play either Connecticut or Boston College in The Garden.
C.J. Wilcox, Jahmel Taylor and Nigel Williams-Goss have been among the Huskies who have talked with Fox and Harrison some about their experiences.
“I asked them a lot about whether when they are sleeping if they have flashbacks about war,” Wilcox said. “Both of them said they had instances when they’ve been awakened at night by their wives and they immediately went into a reaction mode, like they were still in Iraq.
“They said, ‘I think we will always be like that.’”
But Andrews was the first Husky to sit down and speak and listen at length to their stories. And he was astounded.
Fox told Andrews about the time his unit captured three Iraqis that had laid an IED that had exploded and killed an American soldier. Andrews asked if he or his unit killed the perpetrators.
“No. ... rules of engagement,” Fox replied.
Andrews was wowed by the self-discipline and adherence to regulation it took for Fox and his soldiers not to kill the people who had killed Americans.
“Why,” the point guard asked Fox, “do there have to be rules in war?”
Fox talked about duty. About a leader always striving to do the right thing. Of setting an example as part of a larger obligation to the team. And, of course, about self-preservation -- of not wanting to be potentially court-martialed.
Andrews also asked if doing patrols and security sweeps of buildings in Iraq is like playing SOCOM, the PlayStation tactical-shooting and reaction video game. He was surprised to learn from Fox that his unit actually used that game to simulate and prepare for its missions in Iraq.
“Now,” Fox said to me later, laughing, “Andrews is asking me more about PlayStation 4.”
“I’M HAPPY TO BE STANDING”
Harrison and Fox clapped as the Huskies clapped during Wednesday’s practice. They came into the pre- and post-practice huddles around coach Lorenzo Romar. They rebounded for Desmond Simmons while the forward who is recovering from recent arthroscopic knee surgery took some stationary shots at the start of practice.
Yet it hurts Fox to do much clapping, or much moving of any kind. Solidly built from years of weight lifting, he has no rotator cuff left in his left shoulder, and 82 percent of his biceps muscle is missing from his left arm. A Humvee door slammed back on his arm during a patrol in Iraq.
He also has a herniated disk between his L4 and L5 vertebrae in his lower back. That’s from being in a Humvee that zoomed away from an IED – and over a hidden embankment that slammed the vehicle and everyone in it violently onto the Iraqi desert floor.
Fox and Harrison will be on the Huskies’ bench inside MSG on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. when Washington plays Indiana for the third time ever. Those, of course, are primo seats in a primo arena.
Yet Harrison can’t see much of anything that’s in front of him.
“I’m blind in my right eye, partially blind in my left,” he said after missing more than a couple of shots with his old first sergeant at practice. “That’s why I have those basketball skills.”
Harrison was on active duty in the Army for four years. He was in the 1-32 Infantry Battalion of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division at Fort Lewis – the same brigade in which I served during the mid-1990s.
Months into his only tour in Iraq, in 2008-09, Harrison began having trouble seeing. It got to where he started having trouble on patrols and in his many missions in a quick reaction force (QRF) to incidents in and around Baghdad.
“As a scout, you have to have both eyes,” Harrison said. “If you don’t have those, you are useless.”
Doctors in the Army originally focused on the possibility Harrison had central serous retinopathy, more of a detached retina, the result of trauma to the head. Eventually, a doctor at Fairchild Air Force Base outside Spokane diagnosed him with traumatic optic neuropathy, an acute injury to the optic nerves also caused by head trauma.
Harrison, a married father of seven from Spokane, can’t recall a blow to the head and his padded advanced combat helmet (ACH) that may have caused his blindness.
Make that, he can’t count just one blow. Think about how often he must have gotten jolted while on patrols dodging mortar rounds, direct fire and IEDs in Iraq. Countless times each day just starts to describe it.
“The training and the stuff we did, we always had head trauma,” he said, in a flat, matter-of-fact tone.
At Camp Liberty in Baghdad, Harrison and Fox were routinely defending themselves against mortar rounds and other indirect fire. Insurgents kept lobbing them over the operating base’s perimeter. Each time they departed the compound, they were at risk of blasts from IEDs on roads or roadsides.
And at least once, Harrison said, a driver rammed his vehicle through Liberty’s checkpoints and to the gate before he was finally intercepted and stopped.
“I got hit with a lot of shrapnel. Many times,” Harrison said, again as if it was a matter of course. “Some of it was RPGs (rocket propelled grenades), some 155 (millimeter howitzer) rounds, some old ones the Russians used. They would just shoot ‘em out of a big tube at us.”
Harrison was once thrown by the concussion of an RPG that exploded about 200 meters from him, at a colleague that was in a bunker with him. The buddy survived.
“The Navy’s got a weapon that’s like a Gatlin gun that tracks the sound of a round coming in, and it locks on it and intercepts it,” he said. “When it hit it, it rained metal down on us.
"Yeah, that stuff, it’s crazy.”
Fox and his company commander wanted to keep Harrison in theater, and Harrison wanted to stay. But some higher Army officers insisted Harrison be medically evacuated and sent home.
It was Fox who put Harrison on the medevac helicopter out of Baghdad forever.
After his discharge he went home to Spokane, where he lives with his wife Brandy. He met her in eighth grade in Montana. Harrison never went to high school – “my dad didn’t believe in school,” he said, acknowledging how unusual that is.
He and Brandy have seven children aged 21 to 7. That includes two 15-year olds, one of whom Harrison adopted. He is a select-team basketball player in Spokane who is gaga over dad hanging with the Huskies right now.
Harrison wants to go back into crane inspecting or some of the work he did before deploying to Iraq, “but I’m basically incapacitated right now,” he said. The Army gave him some disability pay, but not much.
“For an eyeball I only got 30 percent (of his sergeant’s pay),” he said, ruefully.
Fortunately the Veterans Administration gave him 90 percent of his base pay as a disability benefit.
Whatever. Harrison’s not complaining. He’s got a huge family that loves him. He’s traveling the country embedded with a college basketball team on his first-ever trip to New York. He has his own room on the 23rd floor of a $300 night hotel (the going rate this time of year in Manhattan) across from Madison Square Garden.
And then there’s this:
“It’s good,” he says, smiling. “I’m happy to be standing.”
THE VETERANS ARE IMPRESSED BY THE FRESHMAN
I asked Fox and Harrison what’s impressed them the most about these Huskies in the week they’ve spent with them so far.
“Nigel,” they both said, almost in unison.
Freshman Nigel Williams-Goss has impressed these non-commissioned officers – and everyone else getting to know him in this first month of games for UW – with his beyond-his-years leadership and poise. It’s part of who he is, as I detailed here.
The wounded warriors noticed him right away, for the same quality they seek in soldiers.
“He’s unbelievable. I just love his leadership,” Fox said. “I’ve even told him that. He’s like, ‘Wow, thank you very much. That means a lot coming from you. You would know.’
“It just blew my mind that he’s a freshman. The way he shoots, moves and communicates is incredible – and for a 19-year old!”
Harrison has also been impressed with how much Romar knows, and how poised and effective the coach is as a leader and communicator no matter what the circumstance.
“Romar, that guy’s amazing,” the sergeant said. “He’s quiet. He doesn’t yell. He keeps his wits about him. There’s no screaming, even when they are losing. But when he tells those guys something, they listen.
“He’s been there. He’s played in the NBA. He knows the game. It’s like going into combat; you don’t want some slickster with you who hasn’t done anything before. Romar’s done it.”
I asked them how often they think of combat.
“Every day,” Fox said.
“I’m glad I’m not the only one,” Harrison responded.
Each described how much they missed being in combat with their “brothers.” How they missed the camaraderie and teamwork and bonding that will last the rest of their lives.
You and I see these Huskies as basketball players. They see them as fortunate to be sharing the same common goals, the same total commitment to a single cause. So be it if theirs’ is to win basketball games and graduate from college -- not to stay alive and defend freedom half a world away.
“You know, after a week with these guys I’ve gotten out of them really what kind of leadership and teamwork they have to win,” Harrison said. “I get a lot of the team’s camaraderie out of it.
“They’ve brought us in as part of their team. And it’s been amazing.”
Sergeant, the feeling is mutual.
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director or Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
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