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Navy midshipman switches battlefields

September 13, 2009|Camille Powell

ANNAPOLIS, MD. — The choice was obvious. Who should lead the Navy football team onto the field inside a packed Ohio Stadium last Saturday afternoon, proudly holding the U.S. flag aloft? Senior Cameron Marshall, of course. The special teams player and third-string defensive end. The 26-year-old former Marine sergeant.

"It's an immense honor," Marshall said. "Holding that flag -- it feels like you're holding the country in your hands."

Marshall does not say that lightly. He spent four years in the Marine Corps and served two tours in Iraq before attending the Naval Academy. About 7 percent of the brigade is "prior enlisted," or has already served in the Navy, Marine Corps, Army Reserve or Air National Guard. Marshall is the only one on the football team.

That experience has made him one of the leaders of the Midshipmen (0-1), who hosted Louisiana Tech on Saturday. For Marshall, football and the military are inextricably tied together. Football prepared him for the Marines. He helps his teammates understand what lies ahead for them after the academy.

"Some people hesitate and cringe whenever you draw parallels from football to combat," Marshall said. "While I see their point, I think that it's irresponsible not to acknowledge the similarities between them. I think America fights its wars like its football games. We love the tactics; we love big force-on-force battles. ...

"There's certainly a reason why General [George C.] Marshall said: 'I'm looking for a man for a secret and dangerous mission. I'm looking for a West Point football player.' Football is how we train young men for battle, whether we like to admit it or not."

On Sept. 11, 2001, Marshall watched on television with the rest of the world as the events in New York, Arlington, Va., and Pennsylvania unfolded. The following day, he went to a Marine Corps recruiting office and signed up. He was an 18-year-old senior at Broomfield High School, just outside Denver. Three days after graduating, he left for a Marine Corps recruiting station in San Diego.

Marshall had always been fascinated by the military. When he was a child, he was particularly interested in snipers and even fashioned his own heavy-camouflage ghillie suit that he wore on family camping trips. After 9/11, there was no question about what he was going to do.

"I think everybody reacted in their own different way to that kind of horror. For me, it always felt very personal," Marshall said. "I had always felt like I was going to be a warrior somehow, someway. As soon as [the attacks] happened, I remember thinking to myself: 'The military is gearing up right now and I should be there. That's where I belong.' "

"He's definitely a patriot in the old-fashioned sense of the word," said his father, Rich.

After his initial training, Marshall went into a special-ops unit -- FAST Company, an anti-terrorism unit -- and served in Baghdad, Saudi Arabia and the Horn of Africa. He was a corporal within 13 months, he said. Marshall spent Christmas 2004 at home with his family, then switched to a regular-line infantry company -- 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines -- and returned to Iraq.

During his first tour, Marshall's platoon leader asked him if he had ever considered an officer program. Several options were presented to him, but the one that intrigued him the most was the Naval Academy, in part because it would give him the chance to play football again.

Marshall had always loved football and dreamed of playing it in college, but he didn't have the grades to do so after high school.

"I think I have a docile and gentle personality, but I've always very much thrived on the violence of the game of football and the chaos of it, and trying to make sense of it," he said. "I like the feeling of calm in the midst of chaos. I think that's what's so attractive about the Marine Corps."

Marshall interviewed for his congressional appointment to the academy while sitting in a tent in Africa, using a phone "with a two-second delay," he said. He was accepted, and while serving in northwestern Iraq in July 2005, he found out that he was being sent to the Naval Academy Preparatory School (NAPS) in Newport, R.I.

He was 21 years old, had recently been combat-promoted to sergeant and was in charge of 33 Marines and a piece of land. At NAPS, he was surrounded by 18- and 19-year-olds who were getting their very first taste of military life.

"It was a good thing," Marshall said. "When in doubt, you can never go wrong with humility; that's one of the things it taught me. You lend more legitimacy to the things that you've done by remaining humble about them and trying to learn as much as you can, rather than trying to tell everybody everything you know."

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