The “American” written across the front of Jeff Jones’s players’ jerseys never meant so much.
For five special days in August, AU’s head men’s basketball coach led a squad that played not in Bender Arena, but in an air conditioned yet still sweltering gym at Camp Victory, a U.S. military base near Baghdad International Airport. His athletes: men and women of the armed forces fighting in Iraq.
Jones and seven other collegiate basketball coaches directed teams of servicemen and women in a hoops tournament as part of Operation Hardwood, a USO-sponsored goodwill tour of the Middle East. Coaching, meeting, and greeting military personnel and handing out T-shirts and hats, the tour provided a much needed diversion to troops fighting on the front lines.
“It was a remarkable experience,” Jones said. “It really wasn’t about basketball, it was our attempt to say thank you and show our appreciation to the men and women there.”
Before Jones and the others even boarded a commercial plane at Dulles International Airport for the 13-hour flight to Kuwait City, they spent the day at Bethesda Naval Hospital and Walter Reed Army Medical Center, visiting men and women injured in the line of duty.
“That was an unbelievable way to start off the trip,” Jones said. “To meet the injured soldiers and to observe and to listen to their outlook, it was incredible. These were some very serious injuries, and yet they were very positive [people]. A number of them were talking about trying to get back with their units. They spoke with great pride of the missions and the things they had been doing and had accomplished. It made all of us that were there understand how trivial and insignificant so many of the things that all of us complain about or whine about are, and how lucky we are to have people like those wounded warriors to represent us.”
After a few days in Kuwait, where they visited three U.S. bases, the group boarded a C-130 military transport plane destined for Baghdad.
“As you’re getting on the plane, you understood; everybody was in body armor, and you were wearing the helmet,” Jones said. “There were about 10 in our party, and then the rest were the military. It was sobering understanding where we were going. There was no talking—I don’t think it was a rule—there was just no talking. To use a basketball term, they had their game faces on. They were going into theatre.”
In Iraq the coaches had the opportunity to tour military installations and some of Saddam Hussein’s former presidential palaces. But the centerpiece of their visit was an eight-team single-elimination basketball tournament. After going 1-1 in games played for seeding, Jones’s team won its first-round contest before losing to the eventual champions.
“The skill level of basketball was good, but the competition was great,” Jones said of the tournament. “They take it very seriously. The players even said, ‘We don’t want you just going through the motions.’ A number of us found ourselves really into it, urging the guys on and working the referees and all of that. Hopefully it was a positive experience even if it was only a short diversion.”
The stark reality of wartime life on a base in a foreign land greatly impacted Jones. The searing heat, which reached upwards of 125 degrees, was impossible to ignore.
“It’s not an easy life or existence for those folks,” Jones said of the soldiers. “But sporting events, or a USO tour like what we did, that gives them No. 1, hopefully an understanding that people back here do care, and No. 2, it can, even if it’s just for a brief period, take their minds off the really serious stuff they have to deal with all the time. It means a lot to them, and it highlights the really, really good work the USO does.”
Reflecting on his journey back in his Washington office, it’s clear the experience left an indelible imprint on Jones.
“It certainly changed my perception,” he said. “I think I was appreciative, but when you do observe, as we did, it can give you a greater appreciation for what folks go through. I want to do a better job of doing my part, whatever that might be. We’re certainly going to as a team be spending some time over at Walter Reed and visiting. Doing things that are small gestures, but certainly they’re the least we can do to show our appreciation.”