Establishing the Iraqi Softball League

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Aug. 1, 2003

Flagstaff soldiers play ball in Iraq

By Ed Odeven

Baseball may be America’s pastime. But for a group of Flagstaff soldiers deployed in Iraq, playing softball is a way to pass time while feeling connected to their hometown.

Arizona Army National Guard soldiers from the 220th Transportation Co., including Staff Sgt. Armando Gonzalez, Spc. Lorenzo Apodaca, Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Casados and Staff Sgt. Rudy Almendarez, play in the Iraqi Softball League, which was formed in May by the Flagstaff residents.

The first game was held May 3 between Team Arizona and Puerto Rico. The Arizonans were victorious, 15-5. The league features six teams: two Arizona teams from the 220th Co. and national guard squads from Puerto Rico, Alabama, Nebraska and Kentucky. According to Gonzalez, who sent a letter to the Daily Sun sports department from the City of Ur, Tallil Airbase in Iraq, the Republic of Korea also planned to field a team.

So, you’re probably wondering how did this league get established?

“It started one afternoon in late April when a solider from the 220th Transportation Co. from Flagstaff went to the 456 Quartermaster Company from Puerto Rico to pick up supplies,” Gonzalez wrote. “While there he noticed that there was some softball equipment lying around. He asked the Puerto Rican solider if they play softball and the Puerto Rican responded: ‘Do you know anybody who thinks that they could play? Let us know.’

“At that point, it was on.”

After all, playing softball is in their blood. It’s what these guys do every year. Or as Gonzalez wrote, “For soldiers like SSG Gonzalez, SSG Almendarez and SFC Casados, it would have been the first season (in the Flagstaff Parks and Rec Softball League) they would have missed in 20 years.”

Here’s where a little ingenuity paid off.

After finding an empty field near their company quarters, Casados, who works for the city of Flagstaff Engineering Department, made contact with the 92nd Engineers Battalion. That battalion cleared the field under the watchful eye of Casados. Almendarez, a city of Flagstaff Environmental Services Department employee, Gonzalez went to an old Iraqi junkyard to locate items to clear and get the ballfield ready.

What followed was a task that required much caution.

“When constructing the field a lot of care had to be taken because it was previously a site that had been bombed by the U.S. bombers,” Gonzalez wrote. “Nearby there was a bunker that had been hit by a Bunker bust bomb. Luckily, there was no ordinance found on the field.

“They then filled sandbags to use for bases. Within days they had a field constructed. After the field was completed, it was named Iraqi One Ballpark.”

Casados is a well-known name in the Flagstaff Softball A-League. His father Danny Casados coaches an American Legion softball team. His brother Joe Casados plays on an American Legion squad.

“Being able to play ball has made time away from home faster,” Daniel Casados said in the letter. “It’s been great to play with friends that I have played with and against.”

Almendarez, meanwhile, regretted that he didn’t bring his glove, bat and other equipment overseas.

“I should have known that going anywhere with Daniel and Armando, that we were going to find a softball game,” Almendarez said. “I just didn’t think that being deployed in Iraq that we would have found a team to play.”

Gonzalez, an Arizona Department of Corrections parole officer who plans to devote more time to his grandchildren after returning to Flagstaff, said the 220th Co. delivers supplies throughout Southern Iraq for 6 1/2 days each week.

Thus, the soldiers truly treasure their leisure time.

“For one-half day a week, all the players make an attempt to make it back to the base camp so they could participate in the softball game,” Gonzalez wrote. “I would rather be playing in the city league where it’s cooler; here sometimes it gets to (be) 120 degrees. But we have to make do with what we got.”

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‘We did not have any casualties in our company and completed more than 1 million miles.’

This column on then-Northern Arizona University cheerleader Kristyna Robinson, who served in Iraq, appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Nov. 19, 2004.

From the front lines to the spirit line

By Ed Odeven

Today marks the end of a special time in Kristyna Robinson’s life, the last football game she’ll participate in as a Northern Arizona cheerleader.

If all had gone as originally planned, this day would’ve taken place last fall. But her life took a different path the day she joined the Army National Guard in 2002.

Robinson, a 1999 graduate of Paradise Valley High School, joined the Army as a college underclassman. She had planned to attend officer candidate school upon completion of her psychology degree, become a military intelligence officer and then join the FBI.

But those plans changed when Robinson and four of her NAU cheerleading mates — National Guard members Joe Wren, a Purple Heart recipient; Brett Jacobson; Glenn Whitting; and Matt Mahaffey — got “the call” in January 2003.

It was then, when the team was training for a national competition, that the five cheerleaders were informed they’d be going to Iraq.

“We were actually at cheer practice when we got called,” Robinson says. “Joe got a voice mail on his phone and (it) said we needed to leave.”

As members of the 1404th Transportation Company, based in Bellemont, the five NAU students were sent to Fort Bliss in Texas for three months before they were ordered to go overseas.

The 1404th served in northern Iraq and in Bilad, which is about one hour north of Baghdad, delivering equipment for helicopters and vehicles, food, supplies — whatever was needed.

Robinson, who went to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, served as an 88M, a truck driver/heavy motor vehicle transport operator, and also helped out with communications and administrative support.

During a recent interview, she spoke gratefully about how fortunate her unit was.

“We did not have any casualties in our company and completed more than 1 million miles,” Robinson says.

Like in any war, there were, of course, several life-or-death incidents for Robinson and members of the 1404th.

“We had just pulled out of our compound and we were fired at,” she says, recalling one of those incidents.

“It was probably the scariest because we were in a convoy with fuel trucks. They were aiming for the fuel trucks and it went right in between them. We were three trucks behind them. If it had hit the fuel truck, it would’ve been really bad.”

Mahaffey, who worked as a recoveries specialist, has similar memories.

“The scariest moments for me was when I knew either Kristyna or Joe or somebody that I was very close to was on a convoy there and something happened there,” Mahaffey recalls. “And I didn’t have any information except for ‘the convey got hit’ or … ‘something happened’ … ’til I got back and I was able to see that everybody was OK.”

It was during times like these that Robinson and Mahaffey weren’t nearly as chummy as they’d be on the sideline during a football game or as carefree as they might be during a laid-back afternoon practice at the Skydome.

“While we were over there … you do get in a military mindset,” says Mahaffey, a five-year member of the team who’s now an assistant coach.

What was Robinson’s personality like in Iraq? Mahaffey was asked.

“I hesitate to say less personal, but I think we were all focused on what were doing,” he says. “But it certainly was nice to hang out with each other, having somebody (around) that you’ve known for a while.”

It was, however, difficult to stay in tip-top physical shape in the military.

“It was a struggle,” Robinson says, reminding me she worked 16-18 hours a day. “Being in Iraq, we didn’t really have time to exercise too much. Everyone has the misconception that we went over there and ran five miles a day and were in really good shape. I was probably in the worst shape I’ve been in college while I was over there.”

And, to say the least, it was challenging for Robinson to keep up with what was happening at NAU and the world around her while she was stationed in Iraq. (She did manage to find time to practice her cheers and routines “two or three times while we were in Iraq.”)

“We didn’t really get (steady) Internet access until six months in,” she says. “It would be really sporadic and the Internet would be down a lot. Towards the end, they started to have, like, cafes just full of computers.”

The 1404th returned to the U.S. in April, first to Fort Bliss and then to Show Low.

Robinson is a full-time student again and will graduate in May. She then plans to go to graduate school to study forensics psychology, possibly to John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

In the meantime, she’s still serving one weekend a month in the National Guard and enjoying her time as a cheerleader, doing the drills with an almost completely new squad than the one she was a part of at NAU two years ago.

Robinson’s story wasn’t common knowledge to many of them.

“Some people didn’t know,” she says, referring to her time in Iraq. “When I would tell them, they would be like, ‘You were really over there?’ They were kind of surprised at first that a cheerleader would go to Iraq.”

Robinson did, serving her country courageously.

Now she’s back. And the former dancer/gymnast/prep track athlete is doing what she loves on Saturdays — for one more week. And she’ll never forget that.

“I appreciate the little stuff a lot more,” she says. “I don’t take as much for granted.”