Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Sgt. Tony Dix enters his final football season

Salem (Ore.) Statesman Journal

SALEM, Ore. - When Tony Dix gets discouraged with football, he has a locker room visual that brightens his day. The picture taped to his stall at McCulloch Stadium shows Dix and Sgt. Justin Klum standing in full gear on a gun range in Kuwait.

"I look at that picture and realize this isn't so bad after all," Dix said. "I could be in worse places."

Dix, 23, a senior defensive and special-teams player for the Willamette Bearcats, is playing his final season after missing the 2003 season.

When the Bearcats were beating their Northwest Conference opponents in Division III a year ago, Dix was fighting with the 1st Battalion, 162nd Infantry Regiment of the Oregon National Guard, which spent eight months in Kuwait and four months in Iraq.

Participating in the Iraq war was far from what Dix envisioned when he joined the Guard in 2001. He had heard that joining the Guard would help pay some of his tuition.

"I had no idea that this would happen," he said. "The Oregon National Guard hadn't deployed anyone to war for 60 years. Then during spring semester of 2003, I was told to come in, that we had two to three days to get ready. I got pulled out of school during my junior year."

Dix's deployment even surprised Mark Speckman, the Willamette football coach.

"He got deployed so fast we hardly had time to say goodbye," Speckman said. "We figured it would only be three months, then he missed the entire season."

Dix returned home in April after surviving a few close calls in Iraq. One night, a mortar hit Dix's base and blew up a Humvee, and another bomb landed about one-half mile away. His platoon's main responsibility was providing security to the local people.

"Our mission was providing a presence of force," he said. "We would go out on Humvees every day and usually sit on top of a bridge. We let people know we're there. We would talk to the locals and search their vehicles and land."

Dix's platoon, comprising eight to 10 troopers, was one of three working from the same base. One squad would be in the field working, a second would provide security for the base, and a third would be a quick reaction force.

"One night we were the quick force when the other platoon got in a gun battle with the Iraqis just south of Baghdad," Dix said. "We went out to clean up the mess and had to clear the area. Another time, our sister units (military police) were in our base and an IED (improvised explosive device) wounded four people in their Humvee.

"I was one of the first over there to secure the area. It was nerve-racking. There were 300 to 400 civilians watching us. A chopper had to medevac the wounded out of there."

Dix is supportive of U.S. policy in the region, but he sympathizes with the Iraqi people.

"At night, the terrorist groups attack and steal the sheep and kill the families," he said. "The Iraqi people would tell us thanks for helping them out."

Because of his age, some of his teammates consider Dix the old man. Others see him as a leader.

"Football is secondary compared to the battle he's been through," said senior defensive back Roderick Edwards. "He's a leader."

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