Lucas: Middle East Conflict

By Adam Lucas | 0 Comment(s) | Posted

As a Green Beret, Rusty Cotterman is accustomed to following orders. He’s served three tours for the United States in Afghanistan, where he’s the intelligence officer for his 12-man unit.

But there is one request even a Green Beret can’t fulfill: the order to wear a Duke shirt.

The captain of Cotterman’s unit, Capt. Will Wright, is (regrettably) a Duke fan. Wright recently received a shipment of Duke shirts, and thought it would be a nice gesture to take a photo with the entire unit wearing the shirts as part of a thank-you note to the senders. He passed the shirts out, one by one. Only one man refused: Rusty Cotterman. By now you've probably seen the more-than-a-thousand-words photo

He’s not a native Tar Heel, but Rusty had adopted the basketball program soon after meeting his future wife, Shana, who grew up in Emerald Isle and is a lifelong Carolina fan. The conversion was quick and easy.

“The first time I took him to the Dean Dome, he said it was a magical place,” Shana says.

Watching Rusty convert to Carolina blue helped assure Shana it was a relationship she wanted to pursue. She'd been hesitant to get involved with someone in the military, aware that it meant months apart at a time and nights of worry at home alone. "I didn't want to be alone, and I didn't want to worry about someone who was constantly in danger," she says. "After getting to know him and seeing how much he loves what he does, I'm in awe of him, and I couldn't imagine being with someone who isn't completely dedicated to what he does. He amazes me, and I've found that it's not as hard as I might have thought it was going to be, because I'm so proud of him, I believe in what he does, and I know he believes in what he does."

Rusty, meanwhile, found ways to close the physical gap between them while he was stationed abroad. In 2009, when he was on his second tour in Afghanistan, he watched the Final Four victory over Villanova in the middle of the night. Then he called Shana: “You’re going to the championship game,” he told her.

And she was: while on active duty in the Middle East, he’d bought her a plane ticket and a game ticket so she could experience the national championship in person. It was the only appropriate way he could think of to pay tribute to her diehard fandom.

Earlier that season, Shana had made the couple sprint from the parking lot to the Smith Center to make sure they weren’t late to see Tyler Hansbrough break the program’s all-time scoring record. At any game, she refuses to leave early. “She says it’s disrespectful to Coach Williams and all the hard work he and the kids have done,” Rusty writes in an email from Afghanistan.

So by the 2012-13 season, Rusty Cotterman was a fully immersed Tar Heel. As you might imagine, the daily grind in Afghanistan is a challenge. “We currently train Afghan local police as well as target IED cells and other high ranking individuals,” Rusty writes. “We may one day be working with the Provincial Government officials to help them garner support from local villages then at night sneak into someone’s backyard to take down Haqqani or Taliban leadership or their sub commanders before they put in an IED or ambush a coalition unit.”

In other words, Cotterman is a professional hero. But when Capt. Wright issued a new set of orders, he had to balk.

“He wanted to take a picture that his friend was going to put on Coach K’s desk,” Cotterman writes. “I told him that for all that is right in the world, the sanctity of my marriage and before God I would never put a piece of that on my body. That got a few smirks but I was obviously serious.”

Now faced with a leftover shirt, the unit had to decide what to do with the extra. It was placed on the group’s bomb dog, Britt, who has helped find 15 IEDs in this rotation alone. “I tried to tell them the look in his brown eyes when the shirt went on was a look of abuse,” Rusty writes.

“He was really upset about the dog having to wear the Duke shirt,” Shana says of the dog, who Rusty says has saved his life more than once.

The Carolina-Duke battles will end in the Middle East very soon. Shana is due with the couple’s first child, a baby girl, in April, and Rusty will be sent home sometime in March. They haven’t picked out the name yet, but there is one certainty: she will be a Tar Heel.

Follow Adam Lucas on Twitter.

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