I was overseas in Korea for the Super Bowl in 1990, and a guy gave me a hundred bucks to take his duty so he could go downtown. I was new in-country, and I never was much into football, so I took the hundred bucks. I didn’t know I would be overseas for the Super Bowl in 1991 as well.
Late January, 1991. Camp Eagle II; Saudi Arabia.
Sitting on a wooden bench at the battalion headquarters, I heard the sound of footsteps crunching in the sand.
“Hey man, are you an 11Hotel; Spec/4 Burns?” a lanky PFC asked.
“Yeah, that’s me,” I said. He nodded and pocketed a crumpled piece of paper.
“I’m Anderson; Fifth Platoon, Echo Company,” he said. We shook hands. “Top said we had a guy over here, so the section sergeant sent me over to get you.” He looked at my rucksack and duffle bag. “This all you got?”
“It’s all I wanted to carry,” I said, and his suntanned face broke into a smile.
“Heard that,” PFC Anderson said. “Spoken like a true grunt. You ready?”
“Yes, I am,” I said. “I figured someone would show up sooner or later.” He nodded, then reached down and picked up my duffle bag.
“Right on,” he said. “Well, let’s get you over to the unit,” he said, and I slung my rucksack across my shoulders and followed him to the Humvee. We drove across the busy camp, and then the PFC stopped the Humvee near a group of similar vehicles. We got out of the Humvee, and an E-6 walked up to us.
“Sergeant Cardon,” he said, extending his hand. “This is Sgt. Larson, my squad leader. Welcome to Fifth Platoon.”
“Thanks, Sergeant,” I said, shaking his hand. “Spec/4 Burns. Good to be with a unit again.”
“You might want to take it easy a couple of days, ’til you get used to the climate,” the staff sergeant said. “We’ve been here since August; we’re used to it.” I nodded.
“No problem, Sergeant,” I said. “I’ve been Lima India Delta a couple times before-I’m from Arizona.” The E-6 chuckled and looked me over real quick.
“Lost In Desert,” he said. “Been there; done that. Where you coming from, man?”
“Korea,” I replied. He and the squad leader exchanged glances, and then both of them looked at me a little closer.
“You make it up north while you were over there?” the squad leader asked.
“Yes, Sergeant,” I replied. “I did some time up on that ‘ol DMZ. But I really am used to the desert.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” the E-6 said. He looked at the PFC that had picked me up at battalion headquarters. “Hey, Andy, why don’t you take him to the platoon area,” the E-6 said. “Show him the chow tent and the platoon area, and we’ll catch up with you guys when we get done here.” Anderson nodded.
“Sure thing, Sergeant,” he said, and then he turned to me. “Ready?” Anderson asked, and I followed him as he started walking toward a group of large white tents.
“That’s about it-all the Camp Eagle hotspots,” he said a few minutes later. “Hey, man, it might be a little while before the platoon gets here. Headquarters Company has a T.V. set up down by the battalion area; you want to go watch the Super Bowl?” he asked, and I nodded. “Right on,” he said, and led the way out of Fifth Platoon’s tent.
“Let’s go,” Anderson said. “The first sergeant’s wife sent us a videotape copy of it in the company secure mail, and they play that tape first thing every night. They fast forward the game through the commercials and stuff, and then they show other movies until about midnight.” He looked at his watch, then at the darkening sky. “We better hurry up, or we’re going to miss the best part,” Anderson said, and we began to walk a little faster. Down through the rows of tents, I could see a fairly good-sized television sitting about four feet off the ground on some stacked-up ammo crates. There was a group of men standing around the television, and as though it had heard Anderson telling me that we were going to miss the best part, the television flickered into life, and I saw the light from the television reflected on the men’s faces; I could barely hear a sports announcer’s voice as a band struck up some music.
As we continued to approach the television, every man present stood up and assumed the position of attention. Anderson stopped walking, and I imitated him as he also stood at attention. First one, then another, then every man present raised his right arm and executed a perfect salute, and the two of us followed suit. For a moment, there was absolute silence; then out of the television speaker, I heard a woman’s voice begin to sing.
“Oh-h say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light…” the woman sang, and all the men held their positions until she had finished the “Star Spangled Banner.” All the men watching remained absolutely silent until the woman finished singing. After the soft echoes of the woman’s voice faded away, all of the men dropped their salutes and relaxed from the position of attention; then Anderson and I did the same.
“Who was that singing?” I asked in a quiet voice.
“Whitney Houston,” Anderson said. Then in small groups or in ones or twos, many of the men walked away. I turned to Anderson.
“Where they going; aren’t they going to watch the game?” He shook his head.
“No, we’ve all seen it. Only the die-hard football nuts will watch it again.” Anderson looked down, obviously trying to think of what to say. After a moment, he looked back up at me and blinked a couple of times. “Most of us show up just to listen to her sing.”
In the years since the Gulf War, I have often thought of that night. Whitney Houston was a bright, talented and beautiful woman with a powerful singing ability, and I never forgot the way I felt when I heard her sing the National Anthem that night when I was a long way from home. I say heard, because I didn’t see her sing when they played the tape that night, and the next morning, my unit moved out toward the Iraqi border.
I felt an immense sadness when I heard about the death of Whitney Houston in 2012. I am still sad about her death even now as I write this. In many ways, she was a part of history, and in the early days of her fame, I’m sure that each morning was brighter than the day before.
My thoughts are with the Houston & Brown families as they prepare for the upcoming anniversaries of the deaths of both Whitney, and her daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown. I can only hope that the fact that Whitney and Bobbi meant a lot to so many people give their families some small measure of comfort.
Travis is a veteran advocate working to expand the lived experience perspective on moral injury and in the fight against veteran suicide. He is the author of “Uncomfortably Numb: A Grunt’s Perspective on Suicide.”