For soldier-athletes in Athens, US flag more than point of pride

Like all the American athletes who have come here for the Olympic Games, Michael Anti has made enormous sacrifices for his country. Unlike all but a handful, though, there is a chance that one day he could be called on to make the ultimate sacrifice.

As one of the 17 athletes who is also an active member of the US armed forces, Mr. Anti came to these Games with a unique perspective - and a peculiar fire.

When he peers down the barrel of his rifle Sunday morning in the opening round of the 50-meter three-position competition, the surrounding world will melt away in the utter absorption of Olympic concentration. The rest of the time, however, the servicemen and women in Iraq will be with him.

For him and his fellow soldier-athletes, the flag is more than just a point of pride; it is a way of life. And in this time of international engagement, when so many soldiers have been called to serve in the sands of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Olympics are more than a chance at personal glory. They are a chance to pay tribute to those friends and colleagues who have put themselves in harm's way.

"A lot of the motive to win is dedicated to the soldiers in Iraq," says Anti. "It's because of them that I am able to do this."

The 17 active Olympic service members are spread out among six sports, ranging from fencing to wrestling. But not surprisingly, the largest contingent comes from the shooting team. In all, seven of the 21 members of the team come from the Army Marksmanship Unit (AMU) based in Fort Benning, Ga.

Formed by President Eisenhower to improve marksmanship in the Army, and also to improve America's world standing in international shooting events, the marksmanship unit draws on the tradition of the soldier-athlete so prevalent abroad. From Italy to Russia, governments have supported many of the top athletes in non-professional sports through a commission in the military. The greatest ice hockey team in Olympic history was the Russian Red Army.

For the most part, members of the marksmanship unit are recruited from among the nation's best young shooters - not culled from enlisted men and women. Still, the unit keeps current in its military training, and members are active servicemen and women - meaning they could be called to duty.

"We're soldier-athletes, and we always put the 'soldier' first," says trap-shooter Sgt. 1st Class Bret Erickson, the elder statesman of the team.

Members of the marksmanship unit have historically taken tours in times of conflict, working with American snipers as far back as the Korean War. Last winter, five members of the unit were sent to Iraq to give soldiers special combat training.

Daryl Szarenski originally came to the unit as one of the top young pistol shooters in the country. But as the son of a Marine and the brother of a West Point graduate, he takes pride in his military role. When he was younger, the Army Marksmanship Unit symbolized the most elite corps of shooters in the nation. Now, especially with the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he sees it more through the lens of duty.

"To me, it's like the new logo: An Army of One," he says. "I have my mission, and I would be letting them down if I didn't do all I could do."

Within certain quarters of the Army, membership in the Marksmanship status can carry a sort of cult status - with soldiers overseas tuning in or logging on to see results. In the tightly knit international shooting community, it is generally a nonissue - though it does lead to interesting conversations sometimes.

"I've got this friend in Germany, and we always joke about politics," Mr. Szarenski says. "He doesn't like Bush and I do, but it's all good clean fun."

Yet there is also an obvious and more sober side of competing as a soldier. Major Anti has several friends in the Middle East, and thinking about them "enables me to be more focused," he says. Just before he left, some of them were also leaving for their tours in Asia. "They told me I'm the hero," he says. "I think they've got that backward."

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