Warrior-athletes dedicated to Army, sport, each other
Of all the memories and impressions that Maj. Punnarin Koy took away from a tour in Iraq, what stands out the most “was the quietness.” Of course, it was not always quiet during Koy’s time there, a period that bridged 2005-06 and marked major battles in Abu Graib, Haditha and Tal Afar. “But when it’s quiet,” the reservist said, “it’s quiet.”
Such is the centered calm exuded by the senior military member of the 2016 All-Army Taekwondo Team. Koy serves as assistant coach and is a fifth-degree black belt.
The former sergeant first class enlisted in the Army in 1985 and 20 years later found himself in Balad, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, commanding a maintenance company as a second lieutenant.
“That desert silence is something I will never forget,” said the native of Cambodia who now calls New Brighton, Minnesota, home. “It was almost magical. You feel so small, as if you can see 10 miles away. You think of your family and you feel for your Soldiers and their families.
“You are confident. You know you are prepared to execute your mission,” he continued. “But you do want everybody to get home to their loved ones. It’s no longer about the ‘hooah’ or how tough you look.”
So it is with Army sports, in Koy’s eyes. It’s not about medaling at a tournament, or second careers, or even childhood dreams. “Athletics are great. I trust they shall always be an important part of life,” said Koy. “But for us in the military, this is about honing skills that, ultimately, will make you a better Soldier and a better leader.”
The current All-Army Team, just back from the 2016 Taekwondo Nationals in Richmond, Virginia, fits that bill. The team represents a wide variety of military occupational specialties, ranks and hometown geography. They’ve all got important work to do and Taekwondo comes second. Medics and a combat engineer are on the roster, as well as ground and aviation mechanics along with a personnel officer. Military intelligence is also part of the talent pool as is a cryptologist and a fueler.
Tours in Iraq or Afghanistan (or both) appear on some résumés and other competitors, 15 years junior to the team captain, have been in the Army only a year or so. One is a Soldier of the Quarter – a good credential if you are asking your command for a month off to train and participate in a martial art tournament. But they are Soldiers, first. Their coaches insist upon it.
Led by head coach, Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Jonathan Fennell of Savannah, Georgia, the nine-athlete squad includes Army brats born in Korea and Germany as well as a native of China who grew up in Denver.
It’s Fennell’s job to work them hard, beginning with the discipline that comes from 30 days of sequestration at an Army sports center at Pennsylvania’s Fort Indiantown Gap. Three workouts a day are interspersed with mandatory rest, a high carbohydrate diet and a special emphasis on staying hydrated.
The discipline continued when the team arrived in Richmond two days in advance of the tournament, “especially for those who had to cut weight,” said the Fort Jackson, South Carolina-based Army drill sergeant.
Koy acknowledged the physical sacrifices the athletes make at training camp but he encourages them to “take full advantage of this one chance their country is giving them to totally focus on their sport.”
Typical of less visible sports (or even niche military occupational specialties), the onus is on the group’s leaders and members to promote their endeavor – and hunt for new talent. Nobody does that better than 1st Lt. Joshua Fletcher, a military intelligence officer serving with the 8th Military Police Brigade at Hawaii’s Schofield Barracks. The lieutenant recruited three compatriots for the All-Army Team, rounding out nearly half the posse with 25th Infantry Division assets.
Team members, most having competed since youth, have moved well beyond just being good role models — it’s a matter of institutional survival. “First, you have to get it out there that (Taekwondo) even exists,” said Fennell. If you want to know about the rules, the history or even how to get involved in this ancient martial art, just ask a coach or a fighter. He or she is likely to be well-versed, articulate, patient and enthusiastic in sharing with others the requirements and attributes of Taekwondo. It seems to be part of the job.
Several fighters and both coaches remain committed to the cause off-duty as trainers or even owner-operators of martial arts studios or fitness gyms. Sgt. Thomas Huskey, a South Carolina National Guardsman, has a Taekwondo training academy in Charlotte, North Carolina, and also serves as head instructor for Winthrop University, his alma mater.
The Afghanistan veteran was even named the 2012 South Carolina State Taekwondo Champion.
“I got into Taekwondo when I was in junior high,” he said. “I was living in Beaufort, South Carolina, and I was tired of being bullied. A teacher told me that if I would show up on Saturday morning at the Parris Island gym, some of the Marines there would show me the ropes. That is exactly what I did and that is exactly how I got started.”
When he developed into a solid competitor not long after, did he go looking for those who harassed him? “Absolutely not,” he said. “When taught correctly, martial arts emphasizes values and morals. You don’t execute a spinning hook kick on someone just because you can.”
“Besides,” he said, “even youngsters with good training exude a poise that makes them less of a target for those who would do them harm.”
The aforementioned team captain, Sgt. 1st Class Edward Forquet, is an Army medic, fourth-degree black belt and Bronze Star recipient who has notched three tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan.
“I love the (Army Taekwondo) program,” he said, “and I love what it does for the Soldiers. We’ve assembled a great group and everybody brought something different to the table.
“But what I appreciate most,” said the master sergeant select and Audie Murphy Award recipient, “is that we are all driven to see each other do very well.”
At first glance, there’s only a lone Soldier and an opponent out on the mat during a fight. But the warrior’s eyes and ears are attentive to the coach, seated in a folding chair positioned at the very edge of the foam rubber square. Many of the fighter’s colleagues are lined up in the front row of spectators, cheering him on. Another peer may be scouting a teammate’s upcoming foe, tending to a logistical or admin chore or capturing video of the match. The teamwork and camaraderie are clear.
As for the event in Richmond, the Army had to take the tack that “it was a good learning experience,” said Fennell. Only three competitors made it past the first round and only one – Spc. Monique Anderson – medaled, garnering a bronze in the women’s quarterfinals.
Anderson, who first took up the sport as a child in Germany, highly recommends Taekwondo to her fellow Soldiers. “It has made me a better athlete,” she said, “and has helped me to persevere more, in the Army and in any other endeavor.”
“I like the spirit of Taekwondo,” Anderson said. “As a combat medic, it’s about being calm and the experience has particularly helped me to approach things where you don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen.”
“Just do it,” she tells her peers. “You don’t have to think you’re the greatest. You just have to know you are doing your best.”
The head coach had “mixed emotions” about the team’s overall performance at nationals. “It’s hard to watch from the coach’s chair as some of our more talented athletes suffered tough losses,” he said. “But I’m proud of the Army team. They all fought like warriors.”
That pride is evident at the end of each Soldier’s match, no matter the outcome. In addition to the respectful bow that is part of martial arts culture the world over, the All-Army Taekwondo Team observes its own tradition after each fight: Coach and athlete exchange a crisp hand-salute.
The 2016 All-Army Taekwondo Team
- Spc. Monique Anderson, a combat medic with the 36th Engineer Brigade at Fort Hood, Texas, and a resident of Laurel, Maryland.
- Spc. Daniel Colon, a cryptologic network warrior with the 500th Military Intelligence Brigade at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, and a native of Boynton Beach, Florida.
- lst Lt. Joshua Fletcher, a military intelligence officer serving with the 8th Military Police Brigade at Schofield Barracks. He is a native of Wayne, Michigan.
- Sgt. 1st Class Edward Forquet (team captain), a combat medic serving with U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and a resident of Carthage, New York.
- South Carolina National Guard Sgt. Thomas Huskey, a fuels NCO from Beaufort, South Carolina.
- 2nd Lt. Ryan Kim of Chino Hills, California, a personnel officer assigned to the 25th Sustainment Brigade at Schofield Barracks.
- Spc. Han Lang, an Apache helicopter mechanic with the 6th Cavalry Regiment at Wheeler Army Air Field, Hawaii, originally from Denver.
- Sgt. Benjamin Maringa is a utilities equipment repairer. Born in Kenya and now a Boston resident, the Afghanistan vet was unable to participate in nationals due to injury.
- Spc. Philip Moses of Pickens, South Carolina, a combat engineer serving with the South Carolina National Guard.
- Pfc. Kevin Prieto, vehicle mechanic assigned to the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colorado. He is a native of San Francisco.
- Head coach, Staff Sgt. Jonathan Fennell of Savannah, Georgia, an infantryman as well as a seasoned drill sergeant, serving with the Georgia National Guard.
- Assistant coach, Maj. Punnarin Koy, a resident of New Brighton, Minnesota, and a member of the Army Reserve, assigned as executive officer of the 457th Transportation Battalion at Fort Snelling, Minnesota.