Chris Aiken: Spent five years in the Army and served two tours of duty in Iraq before joining the Appalachian State football team. Aiken served as a military policeman before becoming a defensive tackle. Read more
P.J. Byers: Penn State fullback is also a second-class petty officer (E-5) in the U.S. Navy. As a dive specialist, Byers did underwater submarine repairs and demolition of explosives at the Pearl Harbor Naval Station, and trained dolphins to find mines in San Diego. Read more
Laurie Coffey: The 1999 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy played forward on the basketball team and rowed for the varsity eight. As a lieutenant commander in the Navy, Coffey is a fighter pilot based at Naval Air Station Oceania in Virginia Beach. Read more
Brooke Cultra: Played guard for the U.S. Air Force Academy before graduating in 2009. A First Lieutenant, Cultra is based in Kaiserslautern, Germany as a contract manager. Read more
Alex McGuire: Played guard for the U.S. Military Academy before graduating in 2009. She is now a First Lieutenant stationed in Schweinfurt, Germany and currently deployed to Forward Operating Base Sharana in Afghanistan. Read more
Very few collegiate sports were held in 1918, when America and the world was gripped by a flu pandemic and World War I. As Michigan and Pitt were on the way to sharing the NCAA football crown, the nation turned its attention to the armistice ending hostilities between Germany and the Allied forces on the Western Front. The armistice itself took effect on the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" of 1918. A year later on Nov. 11, 1919, the first Armistice Day was celebrated to commemorate the sacrifices of veterans in World War I. Veterans Day, which now honors all veterans, replaced Armistice Day in 1954.
As Veterans Day 2011 approaches nearly a century later, the intersection of collegiate sports and the military is more pronounced.
Student-athletes at military academies leave as commissioned officers, many serving in combat around the world. Meanwhile, veterans, many in peak physical condition, return to traditional campuses as student-athletes in peak physical condition, and as seasoned leaders with a balanced perspective on life.
By Michelle Hiskey
Talk about an assist: When Laurie Coffey hopped on a C-40 transport flight back to Virginia Beach this summer, behind the control panel sat her fellow forward from the U.S. Naval Academy basketball team, Erica Hayes.
Laurie Coffey, a 1999 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, played forward on the basketball team and rowed for the varsity eight. As a lieutenant commander in the Navy, Coffey is a fighter pilot based at Naval Air Station Oceania in Virginia Beach. Photo couresty of Phil Hoffmann
The two are now lieutenant commanders in the Navy.
“It’s crazy but I do cross paths with teammates who are flying helicopters or other airplanes, or driving ships,” Coffey said. “Erica’s in the reserves now, and I got to sit in the cockpit with her. What a random and neat thing.”
Coffey was always the type of athlete who, in the last seconds of a tight game, wanted the ball in her hands. “I always believed I would make the shot in a high pressure situation,” she said.
From college to her 1999 commissioning and beyond, the U.S. Navy has offered Coffey unrelenting channels for that competitiveness, first on ground and then in the air.
As an undergraduate, she had to rise to the challenge of completing required science labs and making hoops practices. “Even as a political science major, I had to take electrical engineering, advanced calculus and differential equations,” she said. “The core curriculum is very intense.” She challenged herself further with a minor in Russian.
As an officer, she became a fighter pilot and flew more than 100 combat hours on 25 missions in Iraq. It’s a job popularized in the classic film, “Top Gun.”
“There’s a lot of Hollywood overwriting and stuff in that movie, but what we actually do in the air is very much in that genre,” said Coffey, whose nickname “Mocha” is painted on the side of her jet.
“Talking back and forth, shooting at each other – that is the neat part of the competitiveness from Division I basketball that I carry with me. I still compete on a daily basis with my peers…. A lot of the guys I work with were athletes in their past lives, too. Whether you are landing on or off an aircraft or shooting a free throw, you have to mentally visualize going through those actions. If you can’t, it’s not going to get any easier in the air going 800 mph.”
Fighter pilots have their own post game analysis of performance.
“We break down the tapes from our jets, and we’re brutally honest with each other,” Coffey said. “We tell each other, ‘this is where I shot you. This is where you would have died.’ We learn that we need to do this or that. It’s very much like an athletic endeavor, only the stakes are slightly higher.”
Few military jobs are more hazardous.
Navy Lt. Commander Laurie Coffey and her jet, painted with her call sign, “Mocha,” a spin on her last name. Photo courtesy of Laurie Coffey.
“Taking off and landing on an aircraft carrier is one of the most hazardous environments there is,” she said. “Safety wise, there is a possibility that something could go wrong in any airplane. Everyone has close calls, and several friends of mine have been killed the last few years. Our training is very thorough and repetitive so that the hazards become something that don’t faze you.”
Coffey remains involved in basketball. She plays in 3 on 3 tournaments on her base, and coaches a local middle school AAU girls’ team. Sports remain a break from military rigors – or “life in the hall,” as it is known at the Naval Academy.
“Ranks disappear on a team,” she said. “That’s really different when you live in a place where everything else is regimented. Always there is someone senior to you, no matter where you are. Basketball practice is the few hours a day when that disappears.”
One perk that comes with her job is an occasional invite to a Navy football game, as the pre-game star. Coffey provided a ceremonial flyover earlier this fall, parked her jet near D.C. and made it back to the game by halftime. When she was announced during the third quarter, her section of the stadium gave her a standing ovation. She’ll carry that support back with her on her next deployment to the Middle East in 2013.
Michelle Hiskey is a freelance writer and a former golf student-athlete at Duke.