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Youth Sports Distract Families From War

April 13, 2003

FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) _ Mundy Garcia had never coached or even played soccer before, but since the war started in Iraq the 28-year-old mother of four has become coach of two youth teams.

She did it because there was a shortage of coaches due to the Army deployments from Fort Bragg _ and because, with her husband in Iraq, she needed the distraction.

Garcia made her coaching debut with a team of 4-year-olds Saturday, the opening day of Fort Bragg’s spring sports season. She was one of many spouses of deployed soldiers filling the coaching void and keeping children focused on something other than war.

``If it wasn’t for the soccer and the focus I’m putting into my children, I would probably be quite depressed right now,″ she said. ``Before this, it was really hard to get out of bed some days.″

About 3,000 children ages 4 to 17 participate in the post’s youth sports and fitness programs each year. Sixty-five teams are participating in baseball, softball and soccer this spring, with nine teams coming from nearby Pope Air Force Base.

The programs take on added significance during times of war.

``We just want to try to keep their lifestyles the normal way it was before deployment,″ said Terry Jo Camel, youth sports director. ``Then the soldiers can go on their mission to serve their country and not worry whether their family is taken care of.″

With about 20,000 Fort Bragg soldiers deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and other places, the number of coaches dwindled and created a waiting list of children wanting to play sports.

Volunteers soon came forward. Some were soldiers with free time. Others were wives of deployed servicemembers, desperate for something to keep them away from nonstop war coverage on television.

Garcia, who received a crash course in soccer from youth sports officials, said she took over the first team to keep herself busy. She took on the second team _ of 5- and 6-year olds _ because she was worried some children wouldn’t get to play.

``I knew there were a lot of people out there in my position who had kids that needed to occupy their time,″ she said.

There are still a few veteran coaches around, like Staff Sgt. Mark Deblois, 35. He is starting his fourth season on the sidelines, coaching his 8-year-old daughter’s soccer team.

``I do it every year regardless,″ he said. ``But they were really hurting for coaches this year.″

The incentives could be seen on the faces of the players during Saturday’s opening ceremony at Hedrick Stadium. As their teams were introduced, the players broke out into wide, sometimes-toothless grins and waved to the crowd.

Chris Beard, 10, finished the basketball season at Bragg last month. It provided a diversion after his father was deployed in February.

``I just didn’t think about it as much,″ Chris said while watching his 5-year-old brother Isaiah play soccer.

Still, it’s hardly out of mind. Yellow ribbons decorated the stadium railings. One baseball team waved small American flags as they walked around the track. Another, named the Patriots, wore white caps bearing American flags.

``You build as much routine as possible,″ said Maj. Philander Cochran, who watched his 5-year-old son Julian play soccer. ``That way, as long as you can sustain their routine, they won’t feel the effects of the departures and everything else.″

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