Ralph Henry heard the news when he woke up Monday morning. The man who changed the direction of his life was dead.
Henry played at Navy when Osama bin Laden orchestrated the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. Every player on that team, everybody at the Naval Academy, at West Point and at the Air Force Academy would be plunged into a war none of them envisioned when they set foot on their respective campuses.
So when Henry got the news bin Laden had been killed, he was surprised and very happy. Teammate Shalimar Brazier was excited and relieved. Teammate Chris Wade felt a weight lifted off his shoulders. Teammate Josh Brindel was still waiting for the news to sink in, hours after he heard it on the car radio.
“I was excited, not only because of what happened on 9/11 and post-9/11 but as an American, it was just a feeling of relief because we’ve been looking for him for so long and all my deployments have been contingent from that 9/11,” said Brazier, who supported missions in Iraq and Afghanistan before leaving the service.
“So it gave us this feeling of: ‘This is what we’re fighting for. This is really rewarding to the sailors and troops overseas. We’re fighting for a purpose and our purpose is being fulfilled.’”
Henry echoed those same thoughts after finding out this morning as he got ready for work.
“What we were doing there was with a bigger goal in mind and that was to capture the guys that did harm to our country on Sept. 11,” said Henry, who is now a consultant for IBM based in northern Virginia. “Every day when we were circling the waters dealing with all the different things we were dealing with, that was the bigger goal in mind, to capture the bad guys to say the least.”
He then thought of former teammate Brendan Looney, a Navy SEAL who died when his helicopter crashed in Afghanistan last year. Navy SEALs reportedly carried out the mission that killed bin Laden in Pakistan.
“It made me think about him and what he did and how he sacrificed his life for our country,” Henry said. “It made me feel as though he did it for a cause, because we got this guy.”
Needless to say, the phone calls, text messages and Facebook messages were plentiful for the former Navy football players Monday. Several of them watched the video that made its way onto YouTube of the celebration at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., complete with a rendition of the national anthem and chants of, "USA! USA!"
To be sure, nobody will forget where they were the day they learned bin Laden had been killed, much in the same way nobody will forget where they were on Sept. 11. Henry was in Spanish class. Brindel was in oceanography class. Wade caught glimpses of what happened on television on the way out of his class.
Though they were a part of a struggling football team at the time, they felt their games took on added significance, as if they were playing for their country.
“There definitely was more motivation,” said Wade, a linebacker/special teams player who is now a supply officer and company commander for the 3rd Combat Engineer Battalion in Twentynine Palms, Calif. “We knew in the wake of that happening, there were going to be a lot of Americans watching Naval Academy football, Air Force football, West Point football. It added pressure to go out on Saturday and put forth the best effort.”
Indeed, the fanfare surrounding the Army-Navy game that year was particularly intense. President George W. Bush attended the game, and team captain Ed Malinowski shook his hand and gave him a game ball. It was the only game Malinowski started that year at quarterback.
“That was an experience I’ll never be able to replace,” said Malinowski, who works as a contractor for the Department of Defense. “That is probably when it got a little more elevated for me as far as the realization of what was happening. It was really something to walk out there for the first play of the game.”
There is a reality with the news of bin Laden’s death, too. The fight against terror goes on.
“I would say it’s a slight relief that public enemy No. 1 is off our list,” Malinowski said. “The fact is, we’ve still got tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and there are other guys over there just as willing to start an uprising as bin Laden was, so I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet as far as the threat over there goes.”