GLENDALE, Colo. (Aug. 28, 2013) -- Maj. Nate Conkey was
elated to help All-Army win the 2013 Armed Forces Rugby
Sevens Championship and humbled the next morning by a
remembrance ceremony honoring all military rugby players who
made the ultimate sacrifice.
With the bagpipes of
retired Army Chief Warrant Officer 5 Jay Leasure blaring
"Amazing Grace," Conkey walked from the sideline, placed a
rugby ball alongside a U.S. Army flag at midfield, and
saluted his fallen military rugby mates.
Maj. Nate Conkey, a 2000 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., now stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., salutes Army rugby players who made the ultimate sacrifice during a military remembrance ceremony at the Serevi Rugbytown Sevens tournament, Aug. 18, 2013, at Infinity Park in Glendale, Colo.
(U.S. Army photo by Tim Hipps, IMCOM Public Affairs)
of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., stood Army Strong
throughout the roll call of Soldiers, Airmen, Marines,
Sailors and Coast Guard rugby players who gave all.
"I knew a lot of them," said Conkey, a 2000 graduate of the
U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. "Many players that
I've coached, men that I've played with, men that I've been
good friends with, are on that list. Probably 10 or 15."
The ceremony preceded Sunday play in the Serevi
Rugbytown Sevens international tournament at Infinity Park.
Conkey tried to control his emotions, but eventually set
"We almost take it for granted," he said.
"It's almost a little too easy to process the emotion
sometimes. We almost become immune to it. We kind of have to
[in order] to sustain ourselves and go back out, talking big
stuff to perform our mission. It's amnesia, of sorts.
"Then when you're out there, and it's just you and the
bagpipes, you're standing there and you start to hear some
of the names, you remember that these are very, very real
people that have impacted your life," he continued. "We
almost have the mission of carrying their names forward and
doing them justice.
"We never forget them," he said.
For a few calm minutes Sunday morning, Conkey was
allowed to stop, regroup, and pay his respects as the
bagpiper played "Amazing Grace" to the roll call of fallen
U.S. Army rugby players.
As the Soldiers' names were
announced, Conkey walked to midfield and placed an Army
rugby ball on the ground next to a miniature Army flag.
"Sometimes you lose track of the bigger picture and you
kind of get stuck in your moment, but then you're allowed to
reflect when it's just you, that music, the ball, the
players' names being read aloud," Conkey said. "You
certainly feel it."
One night earlier, Conkey was on
the same field celebrating his first gold medal after his
seventh shot at an Armed Forces Rugby Championship, in only
his second try at Sevens, no less. He also was named to the
Armed Forces All-Tournament Team.
"It certainly was
quite the high beating Air Force for the gold medal," Conkey
said Sunday before returning to the field to play three more
matches against teams from other divisions of the tourney.
"It's also exciting that we have more action today."
Conkey, a native of Falls Church, Va., plays rugby with the
gusto of a man who can't get enough action, always looking
for someone to hit or a loose ball to scoop up and run.
"We're going to go out and we're going to compete,"
Conkey said. "I love feeding off of other people's quotes,
and everybody wants to quote Vince Lombardi and say:
'Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.' He also
said it's an all-time thing: 'Winning is a habit. Doing the
right thing is a habit.'"
"When we take that field,
we want to do nothing else than feed that habit," Conkey
said. "Yes, we want to get guys some playing time. Yes, we
want to enjoy ourselves. But what better way to go out and
have fun than by winning games in an awesome atmosphere and
in front of a great crowd?"
Conkey did not play rugby
while attending the United States Military Academy at West
Point, N.Y. He took up the sport at age 24, while stationed
at Fort Campbell, Ky. He returned to West Point as an
instructor and served as assistant rugby coach from 2007
through 2011. Second Lt. Will Holder, who graduated from
West Point in May and joined Conkey on the Armed Forces
Rugby All-Tournament Team in August, played for coach Conkey
at the academy.
"He's been the emotional side of this
team," said Holder, who scored two tries in All-Army's 19-14
victory over All-Air Force in the Armed Forces championship
match. "He's been the one to pick us up and pump us up every
single game make sure our heads are in it and keep us in
line. It was awesome to be able to finally play with him. He
coached me my first three years at West Point."
Conkey cherishes being an on-field leader and coach, of
sorts, for younger teammates whom he coached before.
"I'm certainly the oldest," Conkey said. "I haven't been
necessarily playing rugby as long as some of the other guys.
Andy Locke and Will Holder were born with a rugby ball in
their hands. I didn't pick it up until a little later in
"It helps being one of the senior guys because
you can feel some of the emotions that they might feel and
they can feed off of what you're feeling," added Conkey, who
deployed to Iraq in 2005 and Afghanistan in 2011. "It's the
same as in the Army: you have to be aware of your
surroundings and know that everybody's going to see every
little thing that you do and might be looking to you for a
cue on how they should act or feel."
Holder, 22, is
the Soldier who leaps high in the air and attempts to tip
the ball away from stacked opponents during a lineout, a
restart of play after the ball goes out of bounds. He
recalled a scenario when Conkey told him to let the
opposition make the catch.
"He looked me in the eyes
and said: "Better not tip this ball back; I'm going to light
this guy up.' And sure enough, that guy almost came out of
the game," Holder said. "I'm amazed that he's playing. Not
only is he playing, he's playing at the highest level you
can, and scoring. I think he scored our first four tries.
He's an amazing athlete."
Conkey played the more
traditional 15-man rugby six times for All-Army before
striking Armed Forces gold in seven-man rugby. He missed the
past two tournaments because of deployment and the funeral
of a classmate. This time, he left Infinity Park with a gold
medal dangling around his neck to get a few stitches on his
"It was incredible," Conkey said. "I'd been
waiting for years for it to happen. That was a slugfest. It
never felt so good to get hit hard as I did on that last
The fallen rugby players from the Army:
Maj. Guy Barattieri
Lt. James Brierly
Lt. Randy Castro
Lt. Dimitri Del Castillo
Lt. Joey Emigh
Sgt. 1st Class Michael Fuga
Staff Sgt. Robert Goodwin
Lt. Col. James
Lt. Chuck Hemmingway
Capt. John David Hortman
Lt. Col. Dale Jensen
Sgt. Donald James Lamar
Sgt. Jeff Loa
Lt. David Lodwick
Sgt. Terry Lynch
Lt. Tom Martin
Cpl. Stephen Michael McGowan
Spc. Avealao Milo
Lt. Bill Pahissa
Sgt. 1st Class John Sanchez
Capt. Bob Serio
Capt. Christian P. Skoglund
Capt. Garret C. Slaughter
Maj. Robert Soltes
Capt. Scott Spanial
Sgt. 1st Class Frank Tia'I
Lt. Laura Walker
Capt. Ian Weikel
Cpl. Matthew James Wargo
The fallen rugby players from the U.S. Marine Corps:
Maj. Brett Beken
Lance Cpl. Richard Buerstetta
Maj. Jeremy Graczyk
Lt. Col. Dave Greene
Maj. John Leer
Capt. John Maloney
Gunnery Sgt. Cap Pelletier
Capt. Michael Quin
Capt. Patrick Rapicault
Lt. Col. Kevin Shea
Maj. Keith Takabayashi
The fallen rugby players from the U.S. Navy:
Lt. Jared Allen
Lt. Cmdr. Tom Blake
Lt. j.g. Nick Juron
Lt. James Surch
Ensign Van Wilson
The fallen rugby players from the U.S. Air Force:
Col. Richard Battock
Luis Arauz Chang
Lt. Wes Kissel
Lt. Col. Hank Knellinger
Capt. Victoria Pinckney
Lt. Laura Piper
Lt. Col. Greg
Lt. Alan Hooks
The fallen rugby players from the U.S. Coast Guard:
Seaman Shawn Debenport
Marine Science Tech. 2nd Class
By U.S. Army Tim Hipps
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