From Army-Navy to Iraq and Afghanistan

By Ralph D. Russo

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Sept. 3 2011 9:06 a.m. MDT

"Pretty much put a hole where my knee is," he said. "I can walk around, what I call normally today. I can trot around. I can gallop. It's funny, my doctor told me to stop."

McDonald said he felt lost after he was injured. Being a Marine defined him and he couldn't do that anymore.

But he got a call from Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo, who offered him a place on his staff. McDonald is now Navy's director of football operations.

"I had no idea what I was going to do when I was getting out of the Marine Corps in California. I had no idea," he said. "But coach Niumat brought me back into the brotherhood, to the family."

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Not everybody makes it back. The anniversary of 9-11, the event that led to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is another reason for McDonald, Gordon and the rest to remember the friends, teammates and classmates who have been lost over the last 10 years.

Men such as Marine 1st Lt. Ronnie Winchester, who started on the offensive line for Navy in 1999 and 2000 before graduating from the academy in 2001. He was 25 when he was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2004.

Or Marine 2nd Lt. J.P. Blecksmith, who was recruited by Pac-10 schools as a quarterback out of his Pasadena, Calif., high school, but chose to attend the Naval Academy, even though its option offense did not fit his skills. As a junior in 2001, he caught a pass for 13 yards against Army.

In November 2004, while leading a platoon of Marines clearing insurgents from buildings in Fallujah, Iraq, Blecksmith was shot and killed by a sniper. He was 24.

"September 11th brings memories of my fallen brother," McDonald said in an email. "When he was killed in the Battle of Fallujah we all lost a brother and friend."

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Gordon is back at West Point these days, working on the staff of the academy's superintendent. He has a wife and three children and is in a different place in his life than he was a student. But being at the academy reinforces important lessons he learned there, especially the ones he learned after Sept. 11, 2001.

"When I start using the word 'I' in the sentence, then I have lost the point of everything," he said. "They teach you here at West Point that it's not about you anymore. If you're going to go over there and take a bullet, you're taking it for freedom. You're not taking it for yourself. You're taking it for everybody else.

"I think that's what helps the military academies set themselves apart. You're still going to school for yourself, but in the end it's about a bigger picture."

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Follow Ralph D. Russo on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP

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