My Turn: Shirts, sports, and Desert Storm

  • Capt. Mike Moffett amidst sandbags near the Saudi-Kuwaiti border in January 1991.

  • Capt. Mike Moffett and daughter Katie during homecoming on April 16, 1991. Courtesy

For the Monitor
Published: 1/23/2021 6:00:06 AM

This month marks the 30th anniversary of Operation Desert Storm and memories of that first Persian Gulf War remind us of sport ubiquity. Sports are everywhere. Ponder that Granite State astronaut Alan Shepard even played golf on the moon.

When British soldiers went over the top and attacked from their trenches during World War I they’d sometimes kick a soccer ball in front of their advance.

When Japanese soldiers attacked Marines in Pacific jungles during World War II they’d scream “F--- Babe Ruth!”

And when my Marine Corps reserve infantry battalion (1/25) deployed to the Persian Gulf late in 1990 we had lots of Boston ice hockey chatter. Whereas a regular unit features service people from all over the country, a reserve unit features folks from a limited geographic area. In our case, 1/25 was made up mostly of New Englanders. I was an officer in Weapons Company and our executive officer, Capt. “Handsome Joe” Sweeney, had a connection to the Bruins. The team sent letters and goodies to us in the desert, guaranteeing our perpetual loyalty to the Boston hockey club.

One of our patrons was defenseman Don Sweeney, who is now general manager of the Bruins. (No relation to Handsome Joe.)

But Joe Sweeney was a son of Gen. Charlie Sweeney, the Army Air Force pilot who dropped the bomb on Nagasaki to end World War II.

Anyway, it was in the early hours of the morning of Jan. 17, 1991, when Handsome Joe woke me up in our tent and said, “It’s begun.”

Operation Desert Storm.

We were soon dug in on the Kuwaiti border waiting for the ground campaign to commence while our air power pulverized the Iraqis. Sports talk was a constant in our mice-infested holes.

The NHL played its annual All-Star Game on Jan. 19 at Chicago Stadium. Boston’s Mike Milbury coached the Wales Conference stars, which included five of our Bruins. We couldn’t watch, of course, but we soon heard that the playing of our national anthem prompted an amazing patriotic display. YouTube it and try not to shed a tear.

We were in our holes during Super Bowl XXV which was played in Tampa and featured the Giants and Bills – the only Super Bowl out of 54 that I couldn’t watch. In honor of my dad I pulled for the Giants as scoring updates regularly were passed up and down the line. We learned that New York prevailed 20-19 when Buffalo’s Scott Norwood missed a last second field goal.

Armed Forces radio was soon regularly playing Whitney Houston’s marvelous Super Bowl rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” YouTube it and try not to shed a tear.

Eventually the ground war “kicked off” and we went with the First Marine Division through the Iraqi mine fields and into oil fields set ablaze by the enemy. It was surreal, as the toxic smoke turned day into night. But by March 1 the Iraqis were done fighting and agreed to Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s cease fire terms.

We were soon inundated by surrendered Iraqis and I was tasked with some of my men to search and process enemy prisoners.

One Iraqi spoke English and tried to ingratiate himself to us. He unbuttoned his green uniform top to show that he was wearing an L.A. Laker T-shirt.

“I love America,” stated the prisoner. “I was going to school in California and came home on school break and they threw me into the army. I hate Saddam. I love Bush. Look, I’m even a Lakers fan.”

At which time my Corporal Townsend raised his M-16 ever so slightly and said: “Lakers fan? Well we’re Marines and were all Celtics fans and you’re in big trouble.”

Aware that in Iraq people were often shot for almost anything, the Iraqi quickly replied: “But Larry Bird’s my favorite player!”

We all had to laugh. Sports are indeed ubiquitous.

We returned to America to a joyful reception in April in time to watch our Bruins lose to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the Conference Finals.

I sometimes wonder what happened to that Iraqi soldier with the Laker T-shirt. I wish I’d gotten his name.

I’d have sent him a Bruins T-shirt.

(State Rep. Mike Moffett of Loudon is a retired professor and former Marine Corps officer.)

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