Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Weekend to Remember

Randy, Andy, and I enjoying the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Indianapolis 500.

"America is great because she is good, and if America ever
ceases to be good, she will cease to be great."

Alexis de Tocqueville iconically coined the above quotation in his 1835 literary classic Democracy in America. This quote has long been one of my favorites; as you're forced to truly think outside the box to fully grasp its entire meaning.

As millions across the United States celebrated Memorial Day this past weekend, we here in Afghanistan checked off another holiday away from friends and family on our calendars. Patriotic holidays such as Memorial, Independence, and Veterans Days always cast an interesting feeling among service members. Rather than a picnic with family or a lake-outing with friends, Monday brought business as usual here on FOB Salerno.

Not all Americans were relaxing over this past weekend though. Through my NBC Nightly News podcasts, I've been able to keep up with the horrendous storms that have swept across so much of the United States.

Between last month's disastrous storms across the Southeast and last week's tragic tornado in Joplin, it seems that portions of the United States might now more closely resemble parts of Afghanistan. As I watched in sorrow for the many families who lost homes and business owners who watched their very livelihoods literally swept away, I noticed one distinct difference.

Within minutes of the storm's passing, countless volunteers immediately began lining up to assist in clean-up efforts. Just days after the storm, an orchestra of community groups had already formed in an effort to pull together and collectively overcome the crushing blow they had been dealt.

Unfortunately, this same "volunteer" mentality is all but non-existent when you take a look around the country I currently find myself in. In most tribal cultures, it is not uncommon to literally lay down your life for a family member or close neighbor. Notice I said "close neighbor"; if you think basketball rivalries are intense across county lines back in Indiana, take a look at the tribal feuds that have existed since the days of Alexander the Great in this region of the world.

I honestly can't say where Americans get their great sense of "giving back" to their communities or others in need. Perhaps our volunteer spirit stems from our strong national pride and faith-based communites as Tocqueville describes?

 "Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power."

Sounds like a valid explanation to me...

Greatest Spectacle in Racing
The Indianapolis 500, held each year over Memorial Day weekend, is without a doubt one of my favorite Hoosier traditions. Talk about legendary, this year happened to be the 100th anniversary of the first race ever held at the Brickyard.
While there was no way that the 60+ Hoosiers here on FOB Salerno were going to have a chance to attend this year's race, we at least got a chance to participate in one of the many action-packed events leading up to race day. The great folks at Panther Racing provided us an opportunity to connect live, via a satellite up-link, to students from the Hoosier ChalleNGe Youth Academy and race car driver JR Hildebrand during Armed Forces Day at the track.
Rather than going into detail about the event, I'll defer to Reggie Hayes, Sports Columnist for the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel. Reggie was kind enough to do a follow-up interview with a few of us, as he thought this would be a great story to tell his readers over the Memorial Day weekend.
The editors at the New-Sentinel must have felt the same excitement for the article as Reggie, as the following article was featured on the front page of Saturday's paper-

Live from FOB Salerno
Garrett soldier misses Indy 500 to serve country
Due to Afghanistan deployment, Andy Bowman will have to skip big race for first time in 25 years
A column by Reggie Hayes of The News-Sentinel

Garrett native Andy Bowman hasn't missed an Indianapolis 500 for 25 years.

This year, he has a slight conflict: He's in Afghanistan.

Bowman is a sergeant first class with the Indiana National Guard's 3-19th Agribusiness Development Team, stationed in Khowst province. Along with another area native, 1st Lt. Bart Lomont, from New Haven, Bowman was able to talk via satellite with JR Hildebrand, driver of the National Guard-sponsored Panther Racing car.

Asked what he missed most about home, Bowman said an ice-cold glass of milk.

“JR, I'd love to join you for that glass of milk,” Bowman told the driver, alluding to the traditional drink for the winner.

“There was a dare thrown out there for me to say that,” Bowman said in a phone interview with The News-Sentinel. “I had to do it. I look forward to meeting him in person one day. I think he's going to win it.”

Bowman pointed out that Panther Racing has finished second in the last three Indy 500s, with drivers Vitor Meira in 2008 and Dan Wheldon in 2009 and 2010.

The 100th anniversary running of the Indy 500 begins at 11 a.m. Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Bowman and Lomont hope to watch this year's Indy 500 via satellite, even if it's on tape delay. While both men live in Indianapolis now, they have long-standing connections to the Fort Wayne area. Lomont's parents still farm here.

Linking up with Panther Racing – and the National Guard connection – allows them to have a taste of home while on their one-year assignment. Bowman said he first attended the Indy 500 in the 1970s and says A.J. Foyt was his favorite driver.

“It's a family tradition,” Bowman said. “I have a lot of love for the Indy 500, that's my favorite race. I've been to a lot of other ones, but this is the one we look forward to the most. My brothers and I go, and the last several years, my wife (Jamie) has gone with me, too.”

Bowman caught a little heat from his wife for choosing milk as the thing he missed most from home, but he plans to make up for that when he goes on a short leave in about a week. His unit's assignment lasts until around mid-August.

Part of the reason Bowman loves the 500 is because of the honor for service that permeates the Memorial Day weekend event. Bowman, 51, has been in the guard for 29 years, but this is his first overseas deployment. He plans to retire soon.

“One of the things growing up and going to the racetrack that struck me was the patriotic spirit they have at the race,” Bowman said. “It's one of the most well-put-together displays of patriotism and respect for the holiday that there is. It's breathtaking.”

Lomont, 28, who graduated from Heritage High School, praised Panther Racing for scheduling the satellite link, which also included a question-and-answer period with cadets from the Hoosier Youth ChalleNGe Academy. The event took place on Armed Forces Day.

“Panther Racing has always been a huge supporter of the military, and they made it all possible,” Lomont said.

The 3-19th ADT is comprised of soldiers and airmen from the National Guard. The unit is helping Afghans to improve their agricultural production as the country deals with the aftermath of war.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at and see past columns at

I was delighted to hear, once again, of another small world experience that occured this past weekend. While my parents were attending a cousin's wedding on Saturday back in Ft. Wayne, they were introduced to Reggie Hayes- the author of the above column.

The actual race didn't begin until 8:30PM Sunday evening here in Afghanistan, but you can bet a few of us (the usual suspects) were tuned-in well in advance to witness the pre-race festivities. Between Florence Henderson, Jim Nabors, and the hair-raising B-2 bomber flyover; the centennial celebration was a very fitting tribute to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Ultimately, those of you who watched the race know that JR Hildebrand did not get to have that glass of milk after all. Coming into the final turn with the lead, JR had an unfortunate encounter with the wall and finished in second place. Still not a bad finish, especially for a rookie. Perhaps he just wanted to save that glass of milk until Andy Bowman can be there in person...

Remembering Heroes of Long Ago
At the recommendation of my good friend Innocent, I chose to spend the final hours of my Memorial Day by watching a movie. Anyone who knows me well might laugh at this thought, as it appears some of the Amish back home in Grabill keep better tabs on Hollywood's hits. That being said, I never could have guessed how appropriate today's movie of choice would turn out to be.

The Messenger, the story of Joan of Arc, challenged me to stop and think about the true meaning of "Memorial Day". Joan of Arc, like millions of others throughout history, died so that others might live- while fighting for a cause she believed in. I do have to say that chills ran down my spine as the movie ended, with the closing text summarizing the final scene- "Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake on May 30, 1431". Today just happened to be the 580th anniversary of that brave martyr's death.

It's funny how things work out, I can't help but think that it was more than coincidence that urged me to watch The Messenger today. As Memorial Day of 2011 came to a close here in Afghanistan, it was a great feeling to know that we've only got one more major holiday (July 4th) between now and our much anticipated re-deployment.

Fortunately, for members of the 3-19th ADT, we'll be celebrating Labor Day back among you all- in the land free and the home of the brave, the United States of America. It is people like you that Tocqueville references when he explains America's greatness is a result of it's good people. 

God bless you all and thanks again for your unwavering support!

Jim Nabors sounded better than ever, even in black and white. Back Home Again in Indiana had a whole new meaning this year...

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