Beyond Box Scores: Veteran Day’s hits home for Spartans
By Rob Daniels
The hardest moments, Kelsey Sidney says, come when Skype freezes over. Which, unfortunately, are more frequent than when Hades metaphorically glazes.
In those instances, UNCG's freshman volleyball player can't entirely block out fear the way she spikes or blocks the ball in the Spartans' quest for a Southern Conference tournament bid. Why did the connection fail? Is it a holiday? Is Camp Arifjan under attack? Is dad OK?
In order, the answers are: unknown; sometimes; thankfully, not yet; and yes.
"We have bad days," Sidney said of her mother and three siblings, "but as long as we don't have them at the same time, we're OK."
It won't be just another game when the Spartans host College of Charleston on Saturday night. It's Senior Night and, thanks to the approximate convergence with Veterans Day, Military Appreciation Night at Fleming Gym. Paul J. Sidney is not a military officer per se, but his service in Afghanistan as a civilian affiliated with the Army Corps of Engineers reminds the Spartans that danger doesn't choose its targets exclusively by the words on a uniform.
That is war, and for a good portion of every day, Paul Sidney is as close to calamity as any soldier. Meanwhile, his oldest child attempts a three-part juggling exhibition: sports, school and silent prayer. In another week, he's scheduled to come home, and if the Spartans qualify for the league championship – one win in their final two regular-season games will do it – he intends to be in Birmingham, Ala., to see his daughter play in college for the first time.
"I know I'll see him if we don't make it," Kelsey Sidney said. "I have tried not to put too much pressure on myself about it. Just play my hardest and help the team win."
Paul Sidney played basketball at Benedictine College in Lisle, Ill., with the help of the Marines, whom he served for several years after graduation. He then entered private business, and when war broke out a world away, his skills as a logistics specialist were in demand.
He did 16 months with the Corps in Iraq and Kuwait and has been in Afghanistan for much of the past year, getting occasional breaks for brief homecomings. There was the time a year ago when he surprised his daughter by showing up unannounced for her final high school match in suburban St. Louis, for example. But work simply hasn't permitted in-person interaction.
When Kelsey moved into her dorm room on campus in August, Paul flew in to check out this thing called UNCG for the first time.
"He liked the campus," she said, "but he was still tired and very jet-lagged."
Back he went, and in idle times – such as those nights rendered sleepless by incessant aircraft -- he learned a new skill. Piecing together cord of 12 different colors, he fashions Survival Bracelets, so named because of their capabilities when disassembled. Stretch the cord end to end and you've got a 10-foot support system that can hold up to 550 pounds.
He has made enough for everybody on the Spartan team with dozens left over. The rules of the game, geared toward practicality of competition, forbid the wearing of any jewelry. But Kelsey Sidney and her teammates wear them whenever there's nothing to stop them, and they'll be on heavy display on Saturday.
They serve as pleasant reminders of a father's dedication, but they can't replace real time together. Technology can't do that, either, but it tries.
The Skype calls are timed to conform to the bizarre time zone that is the military outpost of Arafjan: nine and a half hours ahead. Father and daughter prefer to speak uninterrupted, but that isn't always possible.
There's no telling when connections will come and go, but the threat of strikes near U.S. forces is especially high on significant days on the calendar: July 4, September 11, Memorial Day, Veterans Day.
"It's amazing that you can talk to someone that far away. In a war zone," Kelsey Sidney said.
One day soon, the family will be together: Lisa, the stay-at-home mom; Max, 16; Andrew, 15; and Hallie, 12.
Dad will come home with the third-highest honor the Army can bestow on a civilian, a citation for his work in improving the quality of life for the Afghan people. Much of what he does is classified, which means not even the family can fully describe it.
"One thing he did tell us is that there are tons of tires for tanks just sitting in the middle of the desert," Kelsey said. "He made it more efficient to get them to the bases."
On the court, Kelsey Sidney moved immediately into the rotation and has seen action in 28 of UNCG's 30 matches. A middle blocker, she stands third on the team in blocks per set and is a big part of the program's future.
On Saturday, the university will recognize all veterans, whose symbolic emissary will be Anthony Perkins, a sophomore nursing major from Greenville, N.C. Perkins, whose three years of service included one year in Afghanistan, is the team's honorary coach for the night.
Kelsey Sidney's first year of college is one she won't forget, and she'll take part in a celebration of volleyball and veterans with her teammates this weekend.
"They're supportive about it," she said. "They understand what I'm going through. They know it's tough."
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