Editor's note: U.S. Army Capt. Dan Sukman is serving a one-year deployment to Iraq. For previous entries and his bio, see the Soldier's Diary archives.

May 24, 2006
2300 hours

I sat down at dinner tonight with a couple of NCOs in the Air Force. They are both living on Camp Striker and just happened to sit at my table for the evening meal.

I don’t work with either of them, but as I have said before, any two service members meeting for the first time have at least two hours of conversation to start out with. This conversation started out like any other — where are you from, how long have you been here, etc. Since we had no shop talk, the conversation turned to sports — more specifically, football.

One of the airmen mentioned he was a Falcons fan. My response was that I choose to cheer for a pro team and have been a Giants fan my whole life. The conversation went back and forth throughout dinner and even extended to a cup of chow hall coffee.

Following the Sept. 11 attacks, one of the best sports writers in America, Bill Simmons, wrote a fantastic article on the importance of sports in America. What he had to say was that every time a national disaster occurs, people are quick to talk about professional sports and downplay their importance. I want to talk about how we follow professional sports over here, and how sports can influence soldiers in combat. It’s my one-sided view based on having spent four years overseas in Korea, Kuwait and Iraq.

I started this column with how I spent my dinner. The food was pretty good, albeit no different from any other meal, and the coffee needed two packets of sugar to make it drinkable. What made this a good meal was the conversation.

For about an hour ,I was able to take my mind off the war and talk as I would at a sports pub back in the States. Professional sports has the ability to take your mind away from IEDs and other work thoughts, whether it be for 10 minutes checking last night’s scores on ESPN.com or for three hours watching the Super Bowl at 2 in the morning.

It’s not just professional sports that plays a role in what we do. My high-school football coach used to tell the team that how we practiced over the week would reflect on how we played in the game on Saturday. Ten years later, I still hear the same words spoken in a different manner: How you train is how you fight.

The discipline that is instilled playing youth sports can also play a role in your adult career. Every team had its captains, and we followed the senior members of the team. Again, this transcends to the profession of arms — we listen to and follow those above us, and when it is our turn to lead we take on the job.

It's not just the sayings that we take away from youth sports. Halftime was spent readjusting strategy, as was the break between periods of a hockey game. Here, following every mission we discuss what we did and how to do it better through a process we call After Action Reviews, or AARs. The AAR process was taught to me in ROTC, but it was easy to pick up. I had been doing it for years.

What else do sports do for the military? Back at the garrison, it is difficult to drive by a ball field or basketball court and not see soldiers enjoying a competitive game. A sport brings out the leader in some soldiers and develops teamwork within units. My theory has always been that the best way to build a team is with competition.

When I was stationed in South Korea, each unit on our post had a team for a seasonal sport, be it basketball, flag football, volleyball or softball. The competition was intense but friendly, and at the end of each game, unit cohesiveness was up another level.

Here in Iraq, we don’t get the opportunity to participate in organized sports. Watching ESPN highlights for 10 minutes is about all we will watch on TV. Despite such little time to watch, most of us still find some time to follow our teams. It’s a source of conversation, team building and, most importantly, morale.

Coach K, if you're reading, we practiced hard, we trained hard, and it prepared me for the longest Saturday afternoon of my life.

E-mail Captain Dan at soldiersdiary@gmail.com. Click here to read his bio.