Iraq veterans look for help with their 10-year 'fantasy' reunion

A group of Iraq veterans from Oklahoma are planning a 10-year reunion and coming together over a game that first united them on the battlefield—fantasy football.

“It is definitely like old times,” Justin C. Cliburn, the commissioner of the OklahomIraqis League (OIL)-- league and a National Guard veteran, told “We all went through that together and we truly care about each other.”

The OIL league, which started with 10 original members from the Oklahoma National Guard, has since become a non-profit organization created to help the soldiers of the 1st Battalion 158th FA unit deployed in Iraq from 2005 to 2006.  Now in its 10th consecutive year, the league has expanded into two different conference and has dozens of members.

About 75 veterans plan to meet in Oklahoma City over Labor Day weekend and bus to the AT&T Stadium in Texas, home of the Dallas Cowboys, for their draft party.

But to get everyone together, they're trying to raise money for members who can't afford to travel.

So far they have raised $7,905 on a GoFundMe website. Their goal is $10,000, which Cliburn is confident they will get before Labor Day.

He says for these soldiers, fantasy football is more than just a game.  In Iraq it was an escape from their “tumultuous” daily life in combat.

“It felt like you were back home because you were talking about football,“ Cliburn said.

Zachary Jessen, one of the original 10 members, said today the league is a place of healing.  Some members suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the league gives the soldiers the chance to talk about their experiences online.

“Some of the stories are just funny, like we remember when we were training and we all went out and... drank too much.  But there’s also kind of the bonding over the shared experiences like hey, 'does it still bother you when you see a bag of trash on the side of the road?'” Cliburn said. “We kind of became accustomed to thinking that’s an IED and that could blow up, and so it is good to get around each other and kind of vent every so often.”

And the league has been a way for the soldiers to stay in touch as the years go by.  Already, two soldiers from that mission have passed away, and another soldiers almost died on a later deployment.

Cliburn says the fantasy football reunion is just an excuse for something more important.

“I really want to see guys that haven’t seen each other in years talking and laughing," Cliburn said.