Abbott Blog: On Veterans Day, let’s celebrate the bond between wrestling and the U.S. military

By Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling | Nov. 12, 2018, 12:53 p.m. (ET)
Photos from the internet of the late Steve Leslie, Dean Rockwell and Doug Zembiec.

I have to admit. I am working on Veterans Day. There is a lot to do, including the final proofing of our December USA Wrestler, which has extensive World Championships coverage. It might seem that by working today I am missing the reason for this holiday, honoring those who served. However, that is very far from the truth.

This Veterans Day weekend, I went up to the U.S. Air Force Academy to cover two Div. I duals, as the Falcons wrestled Minnesota on Friday and Fresno State on Sunday. When top teams come to town, we jump on the chance to cover the event for our website. When you are at the Air Force Academy, you can’t miss the importance of the place to our country and its impact on our nation. Those wrestlers who attend military academies are training for more than NCAA glory. They are the future leaders of our nation, willing to put themselves in harms way to defend the United States. When Air Force beat Fresno State, I referred to Veterans Day in the lead of the story, because it seemed very appropriate.

While driving on the snow on the way to work today, to put in some time in our empty office, I thought about Veterans Day, wrestling and the military, and decided to write this column. The other work can wait a little bit while I put these thoughts down for you.

I was a kid who wanted nothing to do with military service when in high school. I was going to go the college route, wrestle in Div. I and go have a journalism career. I was not open to the idea at all, even though my father proudly served a number of stints in the U.S. Navy.

That changed quickly when I went into the real world and interacted with both Veterans and those who were at the time serving in the U.S. military. The military truly did have a huge impact on my life.

My late wife Pat was an Air Force brat, who moved a bunch growing up because her father fixed airplanes for the Air Force. She did some time in the service herself. I met her as a fellow employee at USA Wrestling. Both of her kids, my step children, ultimately served our nation, Eva in the U.S. Army and Justin in the U.S. Air Force. I quickly “got it” and learned more about what service means. Living in Colorado Springs also was a great lesson for me, not only because of the Air Force Academy, but because of the Army’s Fort Carson and the Air Force base Peterson Field. This town is a military town, and I am honored to live here. Just this week, they opened a new military cemetery right here in the Springs, something our community is so very proud of.

When my wife Pat passed away at 40, it was a rough time for me and our family. But I will never forget the gift of love I received at Pat’s funeral. Rich Estrella, who was the coach of the U.S. Air Force wrestling team (not the academy, but those airmen who are serving at every level of that branch) organized something for me I didn’t expect. One of the Air Force wrestlers, Steven Woods, came in uniform with some fellow airmen and handed me a folded flag in honor of my wife’s service. I can’t describe how that felt, but it still brings tears to my eyes, even right at this moment.

I will also never forget the help that USA Wrestling board member Van Stokes, who represented the Armed Forces, provided me, when I tried to get our daughter Eva back from Iraq to attend Pat’s funeral. Eva’s unit was moving and was very hard to reach. Word got to Eva and then her military command allowed her to get home in time for the funeral.

Eva did not wrestle but played other sports and would have been a ferocious wrestler. Her photo in her Army uniform is on our living room wall. She was finishing up her first tour in Iraq and was in Kuwait about to head home when President Bush decided to extend the length of deployments. Eva was sent in for another six months in Iraq. We were so overjoyed when we knew she was coming home. I also can’t describe the feeling of fear I felt when she was placed back in harm’s way for another half of a year in service to our country. She got through it, is out of the service now and doing great, and has brought a few grandkids into my life as well.

Also of note is that my wife Patricia Fox’s late father Jack Clute was in the Army serving during the Korean War (and had great photos from his deployment in Japan, telling extensive stories about his service), her nephew Christopher served in the U.S. Marine Corps and her nephew Conor is currently serving in the U.S. Navy. My cousin Tommy served in Vietnam. I now recall many of the stories my father told me about his time in the Navy, something I cherish many years after his passing. The military is part of my family and is dear to me, for so many reasons. The military is part of most people’s family, I have no doubt.

As an employee at USA Wrestling for over 30 years, I deal with the bond between wrestling and the military seemingly every single day. A quick example is the fact that the U.S. Marine Corps has decided to sponsor USA Wrestling and to invest in that connection. Because of the World Class Athlete Program at Fort Carson, the Div. I team at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and the other military wrestlers and coaches who come through the OTC and our national headquarters often, military wrestling is a core foundation of what we do in our sport.

If you think about it, the bond is everywhere. Take college wrestling, We have five military institutions in Div. I alone, the U.S. Naval Academy, the U.S. Air Force Academy and the U.S. Military Academy, plus VMI and the Citadel. When I wrestled in college, every year I wrestled in the Coast Guard Tournament, held at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut with a Div. III program. There is also the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy on Long Island, which has a Div. III team, where a few of my friends wrestled. My cousin Dick wrestled for Massachusetts Maritime, which then had a Div. III wrestling team and we actually wrestled in a dual meet. Then there is Norwich University in Vermont, another Div. III wrestling program, which is where two-time World Team member Erin Clodgo serves as a volunteer assistant coach. These teams get together to compete in the All-Academy Championships, an event I covered when held at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Four branches of the military hold an annual tournament as well, the Armed Forces Championships, with teams from the U.S. Army, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Air Force. This is one of the fiercest dual meet tournaments on earth. They battle with extreme gusto, trying to beat their fellow active duty athletes. However there is an amazing pride that these wrestlers display in this competition, and heart-felt respect for each other, who are their brothers in arms. Out of these programs have been numerous Olympians, World Team members, National Team members and others who have excelled, and continue to excel, in our great sport. I have been privileged to work a few Armed Forces Championships, and also the CISM Military World Wrestling Championships.

I think of some of those great wrestlers who served in the military, Hall of Famers like my dear friend Wayne Baughman (Air Force), Greg Gibson (Marine Corps), Lou Banach and J Robinson (Army) and many others. I know for sure I am missing many of those. We can look them up in a wonderful book that the National Wrestling Hall of Fame published a book called “Glory Beyond the Sport: Wrestling and the Military.” This is a compelling read, but they will need to do some new editions, because this connection continues today and so many more wrestlers will need to be added to that book.

Numerous deceased Hall of Famers took time off from their wrestling career to serve in the military. If you take some time and read all of the bios of our sport legends, you will find examples of this (and maybe learn a thing or two new about why they are inducted). I remember meeting Bill Koll, the father of one of our top freestyle stars Rob Koll, who now runs the successful Div. I powerhouse at Cornell University. Bill actually left college to serve in World War II and earned the Bronze Star. Then he came home and went undefeated in college for Northern Iowa (then Iowa Teachers) and made an Olympic team, just missing a medal. He coached an NCAA champion team at Penn State. An impressive man who served, and I am glad I had some time with him.

Not every great wrestler in the military is in the Hall of Fame. Most wrestled and served, making an impact in both of these vocations. Again, I could do some research and make a huge list of these people. I just want to point out a few who came to mind in my drive to the office today.

My brother Jim wrestled at Colgate, and was a darn good Div. I wrestler, placing fourth at the EIWA Championships. One of his teammates, Steve Leslie, had an amazing year where he ended up winning the EIWAs, something historic for Colgate, which no longer sponsors wrestling. I knew of Steve as one of my brother’s friends, a good guy for sure. After college, he entered the U.S. Marine Corps to fly helicopters and was killed in action in the Persian Gulf. His life had impact and meaning.

I never met Doug Zembiec, who was a two-time All-American for the U.S. Naval Academy. He went on to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps and served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Doug was killed in action protecting his nation. He was called the “Lion of Fallujah” for his amazing leadership. I was reading some random book about the Iraq conflict and there was a chapter including Zembiec’s service to America. I wish I had met him through wrestling.

Recently, Senator John McCain, an amazing war hero, passed away. I don’t need to explain the importance of his service to our nation, first as a POW in Vietnam, then in public life. John McCain was a wrestler.

One last story, because I really do need to get back to other projects.

When my career first started in USA Wrestling, I became friends with the legendary Dean Rockwell of the Michigan Wrestling Club. He was close to the McPherson wrestling family and I wrestled in college with Steve McPherson. Dean was supportive of me and a great mentor, a kind man who really impacted our sport. Although he didn’t talk to me much about it, Dean was a hero on the D-Day invasion, a group commander who led a dozen landing craft, placing troops and tanks on the beach in Normandy. He received the Navy Cross for his valor and the French Criox de Guerre award as well. He explained it a bit when I wrote a feature story on him. Dean, who lived to be 93, gave me a nice little gift one day. It is a unique piece of artwork showing an early Ford car, made out of pieces of watches and other items. It is on the wall in my home and one of the things there which I cherish the most, not just because it is cool, but also because it came from him.

Sorry to anyone and everyone from the military who I left out of this story. Your service is greatly appreciated, trust me. The rest of my work can wait a little today. This is how I am honoring you this Veterans Day. If you like this column, please share it with somebody who might also join me in our heartfelt respect for those who served, are serving or will serve our great nation.