Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Who fights?

In July, Tim James was deployed to Iraq.

Who are the soldiers who fight this nation's fights?

Every day, the 5-year-old son and namesake of the basketball player Tim James, a former first-round draft pick in the N.B.A., asks when his daddy is coming home. Betty James, who is looking after her grandson while James is gone, has a stock answer: “Soon, baby. Soon.”

Last week, Tim Jr. returned home from kindergarten and broadsided Betty with a new question. “Is my daddy in a tank that shoots up people?” he said.

Betty described the moment as “very heartbreaking.” Until then, she had consoled herself with the thought that Tim Jr. did not understand how this trip was different from all the basketball tours of duty that took his father far from home.

After three seasons in the N.B.A. and a few more overseas, in Turkey, Japan and Israel, James enlisted in the Army last September. He was three months away from his 32nd birthday. In July, he was deployed to Iraq, following the example if not the exact path of the Arizona Cardinals’ Pat Tillman, who gave up his N.F.L. career after the 2001 season to become an Army Ranger. Tillman was killed in 2004 by friendly fire in Afghanistan.

“I feel good when I wake up every morning,” James said. “I feel like I’m doing something important.”

James’s N.B.A. career ended after a fruitless tryout with the Knicks in the fall of 2002. He later played in Turkey, Japan and Israel.

The transition has not been as smooth as a fast break. James initially had a hard time sleeping on the base. “I’d hear loud machine-gun fire going off in the middle of the night,” he said, “and I was just tempted to reach for my weapon.” He added, “At first it was quite nerve-racking, until I realized it’s like a normal situation.”

In Liberty City, the section of Miami where James grew up, he fell asleep many nights to the sound of gunfire, he said. It was there, at 13, that he saw his first dead body close up. Until he entered the Army, James said, he had never carried a gun.

Tim James’s unit, in T-shirts sent by the Miami Heat. James stood in the back, right of center, towering over his comrades.

His is the quintessential American success story: the kid from Miami going to college, graduating and embarking on a career that made him a millionaire. The opportunities James received filled him with gratitude and infused him with a desire to give back.

Playing overseas, James experienced a renewed appreciation for the freedoms of life in the United States. In Israel, he said, he lived near enough to the Gaza Strip to gaze at it daily and wonder, as he put it, “what’s going on across the line.”

With his basketball career winding down, James considered teaching and coaching before deciding the Army was where he could do the most good.

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