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Doing his duty: Events of 9/11 moved Tech coach to serve country

Posted: March 18, 2017 - 6:51pm
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Rusty Whitt’s worked as a strength and conditioning coach at more than a half dozen universities, but mention his name over the past decade and he’s as likely to be identified for his service as a U.S. Army Special Forces staff sergeant in Iraq.

And with good reason.

The Texas Tech strength and conditioning coach was 32 years old when he left college athletics to enlist in the U.S. Army after the events of 9/11. It wasn’t the first time Whitt had felt the urge, but the first time he felt both obligated and moved to take action.

In part three of A-J Media’s series with Whitt, he describes what military service means to him — from its lifelong influence to having his boots on the ground in harm’s way.

A-J: As you mentioned, you had a career going before you enlisted. In a way, you’re a little bit like Pat Tillman in that you already had a career. What motivated you to take that step?

Whitt: “I grew up with black-and-white photos of my grandfather who was in the Army, and he was stationed at Pearl Harbor right prior to the bombing. He was transferred to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, as a prison guard right before the bombing. Pictures of him wearing his Cavalry – he was in the Cavalry unit – wearing his Cavalry (uniform) …

“My father was in the 101st Airborne out of Fort Campbell, and there’s pictures of him in parachute harnesses. I grew up around all that. My dad was a boxer in the Army, taught me how to box at a young age, so I had this underlying foundation in military kind of heritage.

“You can trace lineage back on my grandmother’s side, of guys who fought in the Revolutionary War. And I heard all these stories growing up. Never had a button that really pushed me to do it. I walked on at Abilene Christian, and then all of a sudden the first Gulf War kicks off and I didn’t do anything. My dad said, ‘By the time you drop out of school, enlist and go to basic, this will all be over with.’ He was right.

“But the 9/11 bombings and 9/11 events really stirred me, bothered me. I couldn’t go to work and I couldn’t concentrate. I wouldn’t say I made an emotional decision, because I put a lot of thought into it and then I realized I wanted to do it, so walked across the street. At Sam Houston State, there was a strip mall with recruiters. Walked across the street, walked in the door, enlisted, came back and told my athletic director that I had joined the U.S. Army. He was kind of shocked.”

A-J: At that time, what position were you working in?

Whitt: “I was the head strength coach at Sam Houston State. I was working with all sports. I was teaching in the kinesiology department. We had the best season in school history, 2001 at Sam Houston. That was the season everything went down.

“And so I had a really burgeoning career in the profession, but I thought that this can’t hurt my career. ‘If I do this and leave, this absent period shouldn’t hurt my career,’ not knowing what it actually would do to my career when I came back, so it took a while to dig out of that.” (Laughs).

A-J: Any stories you can tell about what the experience was like? You said it was like going to another planet.

Whitt: “Yeah, well (exhales) I guess my very first 24 hours in Iraq, I went from flying in a C-5 Galaxy plane, landing in Balad Air Force Base. Within 24 hours, I’d already been shot at, earned a Combat Infantry Badge and seen carnage in my first 24 hours.

“I’d never felt fear in my entire life. I’ve been nervous. You know, before you take the SAT. I’d been nervous the 4-by-4 relay, about to get the baton. Before a game kicks off. Getting in the blocks on a 400-meter dash.

“I’d been nervous, but I never knew what fear was until I’m landing at Balad and they tell us to start loading your magazines up with live ammunition and then get a double basic load and put your day pack on and load up your day pack with ammunition for your M4 carbine and then put hand grenades in your body armor, smoke in your body armor.

“And then you walk over to a helicopter pilot and he gives you a briefing on where you’re going to go, how fast you’re going to be, how high you’re going to be and what happens if we get shot down. ‘Here’s your escape evacuation plan.’ At the same time, there’s mortar rounds hitting inside Balad Air Force Base and there’s counter-mortar systems firing back. Womp-womp, womp, womp-womp-womp. We’re receiving incoming fire. There’s sirens going off.

“I was scared. I felt fear for the first time in my life. And looking and seeing how my teammates who had already been there twice prior, how they acted, I was like, ‘I’m just going to try to act like these guys, just be cool.’ Even though my heart was beating probably 140 beats a minute (pats chest) and I felt cold sweat in my helmet and my knees were starting to kind of feel ache and trembly, I was like, ‘Just act like these guys and you’ll be OK.’

“My teammates were my role models. That helped me out a lot, understanding how I wanted to act. They knew what I was feeling. They talked to me a little bit: (Grinning) ‘Hey, how you feeling right now?’ ‘I’m good. I’m good.’ ‘No, you’re not, but let’s go.’ (Laughs) So that helped me mature a lot.”

A-J: Remind us the time period that you were in service or that you were over there.

Whitt: “When 9/11 occurred, I had just had my ACL reconstructed. I had a reconstruction three weeks before 9/11 so it took me a good year before I was able to enlist. I enlisted. I had the delayed enlistment program or words to that effect, where you enlist but you don’t show up for like five months later, because what happened with 9/11, there was a huge influx of people enlisting but really not enough room to train them.

“So when I enlisted, they had to push through some classes and then I showed up in August of 2003. You go August 2003, I was Fort Benning, Georgia, at (U.S. Army) Infantry boot camp. Then you do advanced infantry training. Then you go to (U.S. Army) Airborne School. And I graduated Airborne School and I went into Special Forces Selection process. They call it the Q Course or the pipeline. I got there in January.

“Two years and two months later, I was assigned to a team. I showed up to my team in February 2006 and I was on a team for three years. We went to Iraq and did a bunch of things, did a bunch of training. (In) 2009, I got out and my first job out was an assistant at Rice.”

A-J: What experience was the biggest mental challenge you faced?

Whitt: “Whooo (lengthy pause). I’d say the very first night of Special Forces Selection. And that’s the neat thing about Special Forces was the training, when you look back on it, was more difficult than any of the combat experiences. And they do it on purpose. The stress application they put on you really gets you ready for the real deal.

“The very first night in Special Forces Selection, there was 278 of us standing in this large formation, and they asked me to call out roll. I was the oldest guy in the formation. I called out roll. It took a long time to call out roll. They said, ‘Remove all of your watches, your phones, your dogtags, eyeglasses, anything you might wear,’ and we put it in our patrol hat.

“That was at 6 p.m. on the 4th of January, 2004. Sixteen hours later, a hundred guys had quit. Twenty-four hours later, half the class had quit. About 58 guys remained three weeks later out of 278.

“That first night, I really learned who I was. Without getting into great detail, the physical stress they put us under was tremendous. I had to tap into everything, every bit of my soul, to get through that, and I was proud of that. I was proud of the guys who got through with me, so we formed a strong brotherhood and friendship that still goes on right now.”

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