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Army-Navy rivalry often a family affair

It happens, inevitably, at every sporting event. Katie Odierno Funk hears the national anthem and her eyes well up with tears.

It's true whether she's watching baseball or basketball, but it hits her the hardest, without fail, at the Army-Navy football game each year.

She thinks about her father, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the commanding general of Multinational Corps-Iraq. She knows he will be watching, before he heads to bed, as much of the game as he can from Iraq. She thinks about her brother, Tony Odierno, also a West Point graduate, who lost his left arm when a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into his Humvee while he was on a routine patrol in Iraq.

She thinks about the sacrifices so many in the military have made, and about the military families like her own who pray, each day, that their loved ones can come home safely.

For many, the Army-Navy game represents one of the best rivalries in sports. It's a chance to pay respect to the service academies and hopefully watch some compelling football in the process. But to families such as the Odiernos, it will always be much more than a game. It's tradition. It's an extended family reunion of sorts. It's an opportunity to share a laugh, a memory and maybe a drink with people who understand what it means to commit your life to serving your country.

It's a chance for sports - if only for a weekend - to be the magnet that draws together a brotherhood, one that encompasses all races, classes and ages and both genders.

"It's something that has always been and will always be important to our family," says Odierno Funk, who lives in Baltimore with her husband, Nick. "It's not about beating Navy for me. It's about the special bond between soldiers you see, the camaraderie between classmates and families. It really does feel like it's one big family."

And the connection to sports and the affection many in the military feel for the game isn't accidental.

"In sports and in the military, you learn to depend on one another," says Tony Odierno, who wears a prosthetic arm and attends graduate school at New York University. "Guys on the team are working together, out there giving it all they have, and it's the same as a military unit. You learn to watch each other's back."

For the Odiernos, one could easily argue that the pull of the Army-Navy game helped determine the path that their lives have taken during the past 35 years. Raymond Odierno, who grew up in Rockaway, N.J., enrolled at West Point in 1972 almost solely because he wanted to play football for the Black Knights against the Midshipmen. At 6 feet 5, and built like a bear, he was an imposing presence at tight end.

"He really just wanted to play football, serve his five years, and get out of the Army," his wife, Linda, says. "But he hurt his knee and never got the chance."

Instead, Odierno became a hard-throwing pitcher on the Army baseball team and graduated in 1976. He rose quickly through the ranks and eventually decided the military was a pretty good life. But the Army-Navy game always called to him and his family.

His parents, Helen and Ray Odierno, attended nearly every Army-Navy game from 1972 to 2003. Linda Odierno's parents, Karl and Hilda Burkarth, were just as devoted.

"They put together one of those wagons like you see in the Old West with the canvas tops," Linda Odierno says. "It had a table and chairs inside it, and they would bring it to games and tailgate. My dad would play music from it and yell out cheers. He loved it."

Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno became somewhat famous in 2003 when it was his division of troops that captured Saddam Hussein outside of Tikrit. For a few weeks, Odierno's bald head and his thick neck were a regular fixture on the nightly news.

"It was amazing," Katie Odierno Funk says. "Surreal is definitely the word I'd use."

Military life also has been difficult at times for their family. Tony Odierno, who graduated from West Point in 2001, was in Iraq for only six months before he was injured Aug. 21, 2004. The rocket-propelled grenade that resulted in the amputation of his left arm felt as if it came out of nowhere. Kevin Cummings, the driver who was sitting next to Tony Odierno when the grenade came through the window, was killed in the attack.

After the explosion, Tony's door wouldn't open. Because his right arm was also injured, he had to crawl out of the gunner's hatch in the back of the burning vehicle using only his legs. He spent the next several minutes making sure his men were OK before a medic finally put a tourniquet on his left arm.

"Basically, Tony is awesome," Katie says, teasing and hugging her brother as he rolls his eyes.

He spent close to nine months rehabilitating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, but by Christmas, he was able to get out for a shopping trip with his sister.

"I can't tell you how often people come up to me and say, 'Thank you for your service,' " Tony says. "Everyone is always really supportive."

In remembranceFor John Sheldon, the meaning of the Army-Navy game has evolved over the years. In 1963, he enrolled at the Naval Academy, and he and his fellow freshmen were excited for their first taste of the rivalry, thrilled about traveling to the game to support the team. Eight days before the game was supposed to be played, President Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas.

"It was a very emotional time," says Sheldon, who lives in Columbia. "The Army-Navy game was postponed two weeks, and then Jackie Kennedy encouraged the Navy and Army to go forward with the game. Those weeks leading up to the game are still ablaze in my mind."

Sheldon retired from the military in the mid-1980s, but he continued to travel to the game each year with his wife, Alice, and her brother, Paul Jurgens, a former Marine. When Jurgens, a Port Authority police officer, was killed when the World Trade Center was attacked by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001, the game took on a even deeper meaning for the Sheldons.

"The games were so important to him," Sheldon says. "It's not a direct Army-Navy tie, but we still go to the games in his memory. And his son, Paul Jurgens Jr., is here with us."

"It was hard to come today," Alice Sheldon says. "The last Army-Navy game Paul came to was here in Baltimore. But it's good, too."

Football over graduationSometimes, the game is a chance to make someone in your family proud. Lt. Col. Timothy Chmura, whose son, Brian, is a senior middle linebacker for Army, told his son he would have only one week this year that he could come home from his tour in Iraq. He asked: Would you rather I come home for graduation or Army-Navy?

"I told him Army-Navy, no question," Brian Chmura says.

And so Timothy Chmura, a military police officer working border control in Iraq, spent three days flying home to see his son play the final college game of his career. Before the game, Brian scribbled the words "Make Him Proud" on his wristband for his dad. The Black Knights didn't win, but Chmura played well, finishing with nine tackles.

"It hurts that I wasn't able to win this game for him," Brian Chmura says. "But it meant a lot to me that he was here. He would call me every Saturday this season, but knowing he was here to see my last game means a lot."

Both Chmuras understood, though, just as the Odiernos and the Sheldons did, that it was about more than just the game.

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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