In war zones, troops use sports for mental escape

Published: April 27, 2009

Squeezing off a shot. Throwing a grenade. Digging in to defend the perimeter.

U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan frequently perform these acts — but off the battlefield.

Competitive sports offer a wel come escape and a valuable training tool for troops in a war zone. Athletics provide relief from the grim reality or, at times, crushing boredom of daily duties, and they even can break down cultural barriers.

Dr. Paul Davis, former chief of psychology at Fort Lee’s Kenner Army Health Clinic, said games played by troops enhance morale. They provide a shelter from the stress and apprehension that accompany life in a combat zone. And they reinforce a unit’s commitment to teamwork. When members of a unit play together, Davis said, the benefits can be significant: empathy, trust and mutual respect.

Several local servicemen and women with experience in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Persian Gulf agree that athletics provide a sense of normalcy, which can provide a diversion, albeit briefly, from the reality of being in harm’s way.

Organizing and participating in a road race in Kandahar, Afghanistan, stands out for Army Capt. Paul Belmont.

“The best part of it all was that for 6.55 miles, life didn’t feel that much different from back home,” said Belmont, a graduate of Benedictine High School and Virginia Military Institute. “Nobody had to worry about cutting down poppy fields, driving in a combat convoy, flying into a firefight or patrolling through the mountains and valleys.”

Davis, now in private practice in West Fargo, N.D., echoed that sentiment. He said the familiar rules and rhythms of games played since childhood bring a piece of Glen Allen or Midlothian to troops who are shooting baskets or scooping up grounders in Baghdad or Kabul.


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