- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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The first week of June each of the past two years found Alyson McWherter patrolling the outfield at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium for the University of Washington in the Women's College World Series. It's a time of year in Oklahoma City when the thick summer heat has just started to bake the state's red dirt and a place where the toll of every hit in college softball's signature event is etched on faces as if a matter of life or death.
It's entirely possible McWherter will spend this coming June once again part of a team hard at work in relentless triple-digit heat. But it won't be runs that one of the best defensive outfielders in recent memory will be trying to save. If that comes to pass for 2nd Lt. Alyson McWherter of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, 4th Brigade, it will be a matter of life and death. That's the everyday reality for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, literally and figuratively a world away from the games we in turn are able to obsess over back home.
Softball means something to McWherter, both in the memories she has and the lessons she learned as a college athlete. But there's a reason why when she and the rest of the 2009 national championship team met President Obama during his recent visit to Seattle, he didn't just congratulate her; he thanked her. The uniform she wore on the field helped shape her future; the uniform she wears now will help protect ours.
Then again, McWherter's existence at the moment feels a lot like the life she had before graduation. An ROTC student during her time at Washington, she is now going through Basic Officer Leaders Course at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio. Days begin at 5 a.m. with physical training, then there's time for a quick shower and breakfast before a full day of courses on the skills and knowledge she'll need as an officer in the field, along with training in matters like land navigation or weapons simulations. Substitute a novel or a math book for the tactics in the classroom and a softball bat for the weaponry and it's a familiar routine.
"Almost exactly like college students," McWherter explained with a wry chuckle.
She was supposed to report for the course in January, but the Army accelerated the timetable. She began the course Oct. 6 and will graduate Dec. 17. After that, she'll likely spend two weeks recruiting back at Washington -- she's from the Seattle area -- before reporting to Ft. Stewart in Georgia, where the 3rd Infantry Division is based. It's around that time when she'll find out whether she'll be sent to Iraq, where the 3rd Infantry has been deployed since the summer, or remain behind for the time being in rear detachment. Whatever her immediate future, the current state of affairs in the world, with the United States heavily committed to two conflicts even if combat troops have technically left Iraq, means she's going somewhere at some point. And it's going to be a considerably tougher road trip than Eugene, Ore., or Tucson, Ariz.
Moving back home, finding roommates to split the rent, perhaps even moving to a new city for work. Those are experiences familiar to many recent college graduates. Relocating to a war zone is not on the agenda for most. But for McWherter, exhibiting a quintessentially martial perspective, it is simply an immutable fact of life.
"I think anybody at this point who sits to my left and my right on a regular basis knows we will probably find ourselves downrange at some point," McWherter said. "It is definitely inevitable in the Army at this time. I don't think it's strange; I think it's just different."
It's definitely a far cry from the softball diamond, where she made more than 130 starts in her four seasons, mostly in center field. She was not a star on a team with plenty of them, but she had a role to fill as a defensive stopper and left many uniforms stained and many fences dented in single-minded pursuit of her objective. You might not win a national championship with nine of her in a lineup, but you win a national championship because you have the right one of her in center.
"As far as getting to the World Series, winning a national championship, that feeling is something that you can't duplicate," McWherter said. "We just watched the Giants win the World Series, and the whole time I'm sitting there like, 'Man, in a way I know what that feels like.' I came as close as you can possibly come as a female softball collegiate athlete, winning the highest honor you could at that level. That feeling, nobody can ever take away from you. That's what makes it hard about not playing anymore, is knowing that you won't ever have the opportunity to compete like that."
And in her mind, this is another offseason. She's using this time to do the extra work -- the extra running, the extra reading -- that she needs to be ready when she's out there on her own. That same fear of being unprepared helped make her a key contributor on a team that won a national championship. But there are limits to the comparison. As she put it, the rest of the team could go out and have a lousy day in softball, and if pitcher Danielle Lawrie was still on her game, the Huskies could win on the strength of their ace alone. A sports team can sometimes be as good as its strongest link; a military unit can only be as good as its weakest link.
"There is no bad day; you can't have a bad day," McWherter said. "You can't not be there for the solider whose back you're watching. I'm responsible for my battle buddy's six, and they're responsible for my six, that's the bottom line. I can't take a day off because my day off could mean I'm now responsible for writing a letter home to the parents of a 19-yard old who didn't come back. And that's on me. That's the difference out here. Out here, we are a team, and it is the ultimate definition of teamwork on a daily basis."
McWherter comes from a military family. The service goes back generations on both sides, but most directly, her father, Len, is a retired lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq when she was in high school -- she wore the flag patch from his uniform on her socks while playing at Washington. She may not yet know the specifics of what comes next, whether commanding a platoon of as many as 50 soldiers in medical services or serving as an executive officer on a company commander's staff, but she knows as well as anyone why she's doing what she's doing.
"I believe in everything this nation stands for and the soldiers who have fought to keep it strong, to keep it running, to keep the blessings we have on a regular basis," McWherter said. "I believe in what I'm doing. I think if [my father] didn't think I believed in it on my own, he would have tried to deter me from joining in the first place. But I think he knows it's in my blood, that I believe this country is worth fighting for to the end, to every possible degree."
As someone competing for a Division I championship just months ago, McWherter has a unique story. As she is the first to point out, her service is not. But on a day when we remember the veterans who stood and continue to stand in harm's way, she is a reminder of those willing to step up and be next.
Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.