Soldier takes gridiron bravery to another level
Quarterback Chad Jenkins hobbled onto the field with a torn knee ligament and took Army to victory over Navy two years ago. In football, that's what passes for courage and leadership.
These days, 2nd Lt. Jenkins commands a 37-man rifle platoon that conducts night patrols, searches for explosive devices, guards an ammunition dump and dodges bullets in one of Iraq's hottest danger zones. That's taking bravery to another level.
A rocket-propelled grenade landed 10 yards from his Humvee recently while he was sleeping in Fallujah, a stronghold of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, 30 miles west of Baghdad in the so-called Sunni Triangle.
"Whoa, we just got a pretty good size explosion over here," the 24-year-old Jenkins said Tuesday night as he spoke to The Associated Press by telephone while patrolling an area two miles east of Fallujah.
He paused only a moment to gauge the impact. Explosions and mortar rounds at night are common.
His platoon, attached to the 82nd Airborne Division, was the first on the grisly scene when insurgents shot down a Chinook transport helicopter on Nov. 2, killing 16 American soldiers and injuring 26.
"It was just a horrific day," he said. "We were eating breakfast when we got the call that the Chinook was down and that victims were receiving fire. We got over there in 15-20 minutes and set up a perimeter. There was no small fire, so we sent in guys to provide first aid and get IDs. It was something you train for but hope you never have to do.
"Then we had to stay an additional five days so that no looters came to take away pieces of the Chinook. Those five days, being around the crash site, were the worst."
In a more peaceful time, David and Lee Jenkins used to go to West Point every weekend or travel around the country to watch their son play. Now, like thousands of other families and friends of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, they and his 23-year-old girlfriend Emily Kiehborth wait anxiously at home in Dublin, Ohio, for his sporadic 10-minute phone calls and occasional letters.
There are so many missing places at tables this Thanksgiving Day, the first since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and so many prayers for the soldiers' safety. More than 400 American service members already have lost their lives in Iraq.
"It's heartbreaking," Jenkins' mother said. "A lot of American families are going through it. But as hard as it is for us, I know it's a lot harder for them to be over there."
Several of Jenkins' teammates, including right guard Josh Gonzalez, receiver Bryan Bowdish, defensive lineman Gene Palka, and linebacker B.J. Wiley, also are in Iraq.
They shared glorious, if not always winning, weekends at Michie Stadium, gray-uniformed cadets in the stands, the fall foliage resplendent in red, orange and yellow. Now they patrol the cities and desert on constant alert.
"If someone tells you they have no fear here, they're lying," Jenkins said.
Army's 3-8 record in Jenkins' senior year, the 26-17 win over Navy, the 0-12 struggle of this year's team -- all that is very distant and insignificant at the moment, though it surely would be a morale boost for them if Army beats Navy on Dec. 6.
Jenkins, a starter for two seasons and Army's seventh highest all-time passer, had more guts than size or talent when he played at West Point. Too small, some thought. Too slow. Weak arm. Jenkins didn't let any of that stop him.
"They don't come any better than Chad Jenkins," Army offensive coordinator John Bond said. "He squeezed every ounce of ability out of that 175-pound body every day, every week. He got more out of himself than anybody I've ever been around. He played hurt and he played healthy and all points in between, and you never would know the difference."
The traits Jenkins showed as a quarterback -- "a dynamic, charismatic personality, a natural leader," Bond said -- serve him and his troops well in Iraq.
"'If you'd just see these 18- and 19-year-olds that I'm leading, they need me,"' Lee Jenkins recalled her son saying before he left. "'That should really make you feel better about what I'm doing."'
As he spoke by phone with the AP, Chad Jenkins said there were many similarities between being a quarterback and a rifle platoon leader.
"When you step in a huddle on a Saturday, you've got guys looking right back at you for direction," he said. "That's kind of the same thing as a platoon leader. When you go out on a mission, everybody's looking at you for guidance."
Jenkins raced through Ranger school last summer and spent only a week at Fort Drum, N.Y., before he was assigned to the 10th Mountain Division, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry in Iraq.
One of his two sisters, Teri, had planned her wedding for Sept. 6, figuring he would be able to attend, but he had to cut short his leave to meet his young troops before they ventured into a war zone. The groom's best man, a Marine in Iraq, also missed the wedding.
In these uncertain times, all plans are subject to change.
Jenkins' resolve was tested recently when he was told that his six-month tour in Iraq had been extended to a year.
He left for Iraq on Sept. 3, when the sun was still blazing in the desert. Temperatures were a suffocating 130 degrees, the heat worse for soldiers in body armor, uniforms and helmets. Sandstorms and sand fleas made life miserable. Gunfire and explosions made it frightening.
Living on a hot breakfast and two ready-to-eat packaged meals a day the first couple of months, Jenkins appreciated the care packages his parents and Kiehborth sent -- homemade cookies, his favorite purple Skittles, Gatorade, CDs. Little things that offered a connection to the life he left behind.
In Fallujah, Jenkins found a deeply conservative and anti-American city of 200,000, all members of Islam's mainstream Sunni Muslim sect. Many were offended by the behavior of American troops as they raided homes and detained men in front of wives and children.
In early September, U.S. paratroopers mistakenly killed eight Iraqi police officers and a Jordanian security guard in Fallujah, exacerbating tensions and violence.
Jenkins saw the hatred for the Americans -- "infidels," as insurgents called them -- but he also saw something that helped him make sense of his mission.
"I understand why I am over here," Jenkins wrote to his parents in a letter they shared with the AP. "The children do not deserve to live the way they are now or, even worse, the way they did before. They are so innocent and the only ones to wave and smile and cheer as we go through Fallujah on patrols.
"You can see the cutoff and when they are pretty much brainwashed, because any child older than, I'd say, 9 or 10 will no longer wave or smile. But the children 8 and younger have no idea and they absolutely love us."
Jenkins sought to ease his parents' minds, to let them know why he believed Americans should be in Iraq.
It was typical of him to consider their fears rather than talk about his own. He called his buddy Bond at West Point not long ago to ask how he was doing during this tough, winless season. Jenkins didn't dwell on the very real danger he lived with.
"Chad is a compassionate person, very caring," said his father, a defense contractor. "I couldn't be any prouder of him. He's always given our whole family reason to be quite proud. He is one of America's finest."
Time passes faster, Jenkins told his parents, when his platoon is busy. He was thankful, though, for a lull in the violence in Fallujah since the helicopter attack.
Jenkins, who adopted a stray dog a few days ago, spends his rationed telephone minutes each week talking more with his girlfriend than he does with his parents. He and Kiehborth grew up together in Dublin before he went off to West Point's prep school and entered the military academy. She went to Penn State, where she was a cheerleader. Each followed the other's games and began dating a year and a half ago, after they graduated.
Both knew, in the wake of Sept. 11, that the transition from the win-or-lose world of football soon would be replaced by the life-and-death reality of war.
"That makes you grow up pretty darn quick," Kiehborth said. "He's a very mature man. He takes so much pride in what he does and how hard he works. He's disciplined and really focuses on keeping his spirits and attitude up because that reflects upon his platoon. That's the way he was on the football field."
Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press