McCallum pained, stirred as he hears reports of war War in the Gulf

January 20, 1991|By Chris Dufresne | Chris Dufresne,Los Angeles Times

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Navy Lt. Napoleon McCallum, who has spent most of his adult life preparing mind and body for the prospect of war, was one of the last to learn Wednesday that the United States had attacked Iraq.

McCallum, also a professional running back, was on the practice field with the Los Angeles Raiders when war broke out. McCallum learned of the U.S. strike after practice ended. Like everyone else, he rushed home and turned on his television.

"I watched CNN," McCallum said Thursday. "I watched just about every news channel, trying to get every point of view."

McCallum, 27, completed his five-year obligation to the Navy in September and is now on inactive reserve, but he couldn't help but have mixed feelings about being so far from the action. He has friends in the Persian Gulf. While stationed on the cruiser California in 1987 and 1988, he helped escort oil tankers safely through the Strait of Hormuz.

Much of a promising football career has been derailed because of military obligations. The Raiders drafted McCallum, a star tailback at the Naval Academy, in the fourth round of 1986 but things never really worked out as planned.

He played 16 games as a rookie, commuting to practice after daily chores aboard the Peleliu, a helicopter carrier, in Long Beach. But then McCallum was transferred and shipped overseas, costing him two NFL seasons. He attempted a comeback with San Diego in 1989, but was ultimately put on the team's military-reserve list with a pulled hamstring.

The fortunes of fate and foreign affairs dictated that McCallum's naval commitment would end four months before war erupted. Now, McCallum has all the time in the world for football. This week, the reserve running back and special teams player is preparing for his team's American Football Conference championship game against Buffalo.

"Yeah, you wonder how it works out," he said of the timing. "For me, I guess it worked out OK."

Still, part of McCallum, a naval supply officer, wishes he were contributing to the war effort. The government spent considerable time and money on his training and now it can't use him. McCallum said the chances of his being activated for duty are remote because the Navy is not as heavily involved in Gulf operations as other branches of the military.

"It would have to be something real big, or we'd have to suffer major damage to ships," he said.

Nonetheless, it both pains and stirs McCallum to sit and watch the reports of war.

"It's just wild, because I studied all that stuff at the academy, and when I was on the ship," he said. "We studied different weapon systems and we'd go through all the theoretical stuff. But no one's really putting together how it's going to be used. It's just nice to see that some of that stuff works. Some of that stuff on the ships has a high breakdown ratio because of the environment, the salt water, the rocking and rolling."

McCallum said he was pleasantly surprised with the apparent effectiveness of the first U.S. air attacks on Iraq.

"I'm really surprised," he said. "The military experts are going to be studying this for years. It's great that everything is going like this. They're pinpointing military targets, and there's not a lot of civilians getting killed, from what I hear on the radio."

McCallum can't imagine what war is really like. His career was spent simulating the maneuvers of war, although there were some tense moments during his tour of Hormuz.

"I was on pins and needles," he said. "There were planes flying overhead that might take shots at us. But no one had declared war on us. Everything you do is practice until the real thing."

Some have suggested that the NFL postpone its weekend championship games because of the war. But McCallum, speaking as a sailor, said he thinks those fighting would want the games to proceed.

"I think things should go on as normal as possible," he said. "I'm not saying forget about those guys, I'm saying give those guys all the support we can. In fact, after it's done, give those guys our appreciation. Give them some tickets to the Super Bowl game, or the playoff games, or set aside 100 tickets every game to everyone in the military.

"Those guys want to know you're on their side and supporting them all the way. They don't want to hear, 'We shouldn't be over there,' or that 'It's all your fault.' That's the bad thing about war. Sometimes they blame the soldiers that are just acting out what your country wants."

McCallum wasn't the only Raider watching events in the Persian Gulf with a different perspective.

Cornerback Lionel Washington has a nephew, Derick, stationed overseas in the Army.

"We're real close," he said. "He's my older brother's son. My mother basically raised him. We grew up in the same household."

Guard Steve Wisniewski's brother, Vince, is a major and squadron leader in the Air Force. He pilots an F-16 bomber and was almost certainly involved in the initial air raids over Iraq.

Wisniewski last spoke with his brother a week ago.

"Talking to him, he said they looked like they were headed for action," he said. "I knew he'd be one of the first ones to go. We're saying a lot of prayers for him. He's trained for this for a long time and he does well what he does. We have to keep our faith and prayers with him and all the guys over there."

Wisniewski said he has no way of knowing his brother's whereabouts or condition.

Wisniewski planned to follow his brother into the Air Force after high school but received so many scholarships offers in football that he decided to pursue a different career.

"I didn't grow up envisioning I'd be in the NFL right now," he said. "I grew up planning on being in the military myself."

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