By Nicholas J. Walz, USTA.com
My platoon is in a remote area in southern Afghanistan in an out post. We don't have the normal living conditions that other units might have. No running water or latrines. Just a well and a barrel. But we make do and its home for now.
During your next tennis match, take a look at your surroundings. Observe the blueprint created by white lines, the space around you, whether it is a park or indoor facility. The net may be a bit frayed with age and the asphalt has been riddled with small cracks for a few years, yet you play all the same. Odds are that you'd be thankful that some organizers or volunteer group gathered the funds and pledged the time to build your court.
For 30 million Americans each year there are moments when each one wants to be there more than any place else, whether there's conscious recognition of the fact or otherwise speaks of the carefree, natural high the game of tennis can bring to so many. Within the lines, a player can embrace a safe haven from the outside world.
So it's going to be interesting on how we set up the tennis courts. I'm thinking about buying some cement and making a court, but with our busy patrol schedule and the fighting season picking up, we really don't have much time.
What you may not realize is that some courts are built within the epicenter of chaos, where bomb-blasted land once inhabited by a radical Taliban resistance plotting terrorism and murder has been reset for the better and those who are building these courts, both a home and abroad, are the most selfless, dedicated Americans of all.
Meet U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Andy Marckesano, Infantry Squad Leader of the 2nd Platoon Charlie Company 2-508th PIR in the Arghandab River Valley of Kandahar, located in southwest Afghanistan. In the midst of leading his outfit into battle, Marckesano found time to bring the game of tennis to them as well as thanks to a few timely care packages courtesy of the USTA's "Adopt-A-Unit" effort.
Adopt-A-Unit is designed to guide tennis organizations and players to "adopt" a military unit of approximately 75-100 soldiers serving in Iraq or Afghanistan by sending care packages of necessities while the USTA sends portable tennis equipment to the adopted unit with instructions and educational information on tennis. The effort allows the tennis community to show support and to introduce soldiers to a recreational means for reintegrating with family, friends and community upon their return from conflict.
Before fighting halfway around the world, Marckesano would learn to appreciate the game growing up in Shell Beach, California, where tennis ruled:
"My father played all the time and he liked (Andre) Agassi, so I liked him too," said Marckesano, who himself played regularly through middle school. "Tennis is very popular on the west coast. Where my family lived, there was a court right down the street which was always packed with a lot of active people and a variety of age groups.
"I mean, if you live in one of the prettiest places on Earth why shouldn't you go out side and play tennis?"
As part of their tennis portion of the package, Marckesano's platoon received two 18-foot portable nets, eight racquets, 36 balls (a mixture of the foam and low-compression variety) and throw down lines to build their court. In the near future, sponsored units can also expect to receive a comprehensive brochure to accompany the materials with information about playing an eight-person compass draw, health & nutrition tips, an abbreviated guide to the rules of tennis and much more.
I wanted to email you and thank you for the care packages. It means a lot to the guys that folks are supporting us while we are over here.
Kandahar has seen some of the highest levels of violence and casualties - both civilian and military - linked to the decade-long War in Afghanistan, since the United States occupied the former Taliban stronghold in 2001. Considered the "birthplace of the Taliban," insurgents have ratcheted up attempts to retake the region within the last year while International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) patrols continue to combat their efforts. Marckesano and his men do their part in an austere environment; many times units are without adequate housing, electricity or running water.
Socks, candy, baby powder, soap, shampoo, beef jerky, hand sanitizer, bacterial wipes, popcorn and other assorted items were donated to Marckesano and company through the Adopt-A-Unit effort in the hopes of making life a bit more bearable.
"Care packages, or mail, are the biggest moral boost a soldier can receive in theatre," said Marckesano. "Depending on what you do in the Army, your job will probably dictate where you are and what kind of conditions you live in.
"In my opinion, the mail always took too long to get to us - but when it did it was like Christmas."
But I promise we will find a way to play some tennis.
Marckesano set to work, knowing that the idea of playing tennis in a warzone is predicated upon the ability to improvise.
"Honestly, when we received the tennis care packages we weren't sure how we would set up the court since we didn't have a ground made of concrete," said Marckesano.
Thus, a flattened surface comprised of mud and gravel served as the playing ground for a different kind of battle. With racquets in hand instead of rifles, the men were allowed to let loose in a few pick-up matches and become closer through tennis. For many, it would be a first. For many, it would be the last game they would ever play, the stark soul which defines war.
"We enjoyed the equipment and made use of all that was provided and we're thankful for it," said Marckesano.
Thank you for your support and to everyone else that was involved in making this happen.
Now home from active duty, Marckesano is grateful for the network of people who care about him most. He will need them as he recovers from a tour which saw the lives of many under his command - brothers - lost in 2010.
To show his appreciation, he writes to the USTA and thanks the people involved particularly Robin Jones, who is intricately involved with the organization's National Military Outreach efforts and Adopt-A-Unit. Jones has befriended both Andrew and his wife, Quinn, and they keep in touch on a regular basis.
Of Quinn, who works as a CrossFit trainer for top athletes and military personnel, the loving husband offers highest praise:
"I draw strength from her," said Marckesano. "She's an amazing woman - my coach and my best friend. I was injured for about five months and it took her two weeks to get me back into shape… so yeah, my wife is my hero."
Take care and thanks again.
SSG Marckesano, Andrew C.
2nd Squad Leader
COP Tynes, Arghandab River Valley
"Bound Forward! Seize Victory!"