Student-athlete, Citizen-soldier

May 24, 2018 GMT

The Dr. John Langan Phoenix Award is given annually to a student-athlete at the University of Nebraska at Omaha for outstanding achievement in the face of adversity.

Being deployed into a combat zone while wearing the uniform of one’s country certainly falls in that category.

Especially when Uncle Sam’s call pulls a person away from a life filled with academics and athletics and replaces it with a world of death and destruction.

Such was the case for Karo Leon-Garcia, a 2012 Columbus High School alumna who recently graduated from UNO and was honored with the Phoenix Award at the season-ending banquet.

However, along the way during her time as not only a student, but as a member of the Mavericks’ cross country and track squads, she was deployed to Iraq as a military policeman with the 540th Military Police Detachment based in Elkhorn.

No more teachers, no more books.

Instead, improvised explosive devices and roadside bombs were suddenly the order of the day for Leon-Garcia, who found herself a world away from everything she held dear, only to be replaced by another world fraught with uncertainty and danger.

Was it more than she bargained or signed up for?

Certainly not, as most people who raise their right hand and promise to defend the Constitution of the United States will say.

However, upon making the decision to join the Army, Leon-Garcia still needed to choose a Military Occupational Specialty.

“I chose being a military policeman because I always wanted to be in charge and sharpen up my leaderships skills,” Leon-Garcia said. “Not to mention, it has always been my childhood dream to be a police officer.”

But, there’s always something in it for the individual who selflessly decides to serve one’s country, as well as any intrinsic reward.

“Honestly, I joined the military because I needed help paying for school,” she said. “I worked my butt off in the summer to make enough to sustain myself for two semesters, but it wasn’t enough, so I joined the Army Reserves, which was the greatest decision of my life. Now I’m happy I joined because I made amazing friends and experienced something new.”

Very new, indeed.

Like training runs on dirt roads in the Middle East wearing a flak jacket, as opposed to the thin-clad uniform of a track runner.

It wasn’t only running which caught her athletic fancy during her days as a Discoverer.

“In high school, I ran cross country, did swimming and diving and track,” Leon-Garcia said. “I signed up for swim team my junior year and I didn’t know how to competitively swim, but the coaches were patient with me and taught me how to swim all the strokes and I became a decent swimmer by the end of my senior year. I competed in the 500 free and 200 free.”

However, it was on the tracks and trails where she achieved her true athletic calling.

“In track, I ran the, 800, 1600 and 3200 meters,” she said. “Also, I competed in the 4x400 and 4x800 (meter) relays.”

Leon-Garcia quickly realized the difference in competition level moving up from high school to college, as well as the cohesion such circumstances creates for young athletes who are working together toward the same goal.

“A position on a college athletics team is an honor that very, very few get the opportunity to experience,” she said. “It provides the competitiveness and desire to become better. Not to mention, your team is like your family. We spend every single day together, especially during the season -- you will sleep, eat, travel, work out and study together. The athlete community is a big family. Also, running becomes your life because we did it every day and we were in season all year long (fall, winter, and spring).”

Going overseas

Once Leon-Garcia’s unit got the call to mobilize, their orders were to be based out of Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, the hub of coalition forces in the region, to perform traditional military police duties and missions.

However, before very long, the relative safety of Kuwait was left in the rear-view mirrors of their armored vehicles and they found themselves in the crucible of Iraq, where danger potentially lies along every road and around every corner.

Despite the environment, Leon-Garcia and her fellow soldiers made it work and as one would expect, sports played a heavy role, she said.

“The most memorable part for me was being with my military family and working out together,” she said. “They made it more fun and endurable being in Iraq. There isn’t a day I remember that I wasn’t on the floor laughing.”

Of course, an athlete doesn’t leave his or her competitive nature behind regardless of where they may find themselves and Leon-Garcia was certainly no exception.

“Another memorable moment during deployment was when I won the deadlift competition,” she said. “I lifted 315 pounds at 134 pounds bodyweight. I competed against Hungarians and Air Force special operations pararescue specialists. Also, I was the only female competing.”

Becoming a soldier

People quickly learn after joining the military how big a role physical fitness plays in the daily life of a soldier.

With her extensive athletic background, it was a walk in the park when it came time for physical training, as well as the vaunted Army Physical Fitness Test, which is a twice-yearly measure of a soldier’s muscular strength and cardiovascular endurance.

A person must score a certain amount of points in each of three events – push-ups, sit-ups and a 2-mile run – with a minimum 60 points out of 100 in each event to pass, with 300 being a perfect score.

No worries, said Leon-Garcia.

“Yes, because of my athletic background, it was easier,” she said. “During basic training, I was one of the top runners and had the highest PT scores. I still hit 300s on my PT and have never gotten lower than a 290.”

After basic training, it was off to advanced individual training, where Leon-Garcia began learning her job specialty as a military policeman.

“I went to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri for basic and AIT,” Leon-Garcia said. “I enjoyed basic training because I had never fired a weapon before and learning how to was so much fun -- mostly night fires.”

As for her drill sergeants?

“Most people hated being yelled at in their faces, but for me it motivated me to push through the mental blocks and learn from my mistakes,” she said. “One time, our platoon messed up and our drill sergeant had enough with our mistakes so we were correctively trained us until sweat was dripping off our faces and we were shaking to stay up doing push-ups. I wanted to quit and walk out. It was an endless battle, but I looked around and saw everyone going through the same thing and they didn’t give up and that motivated me to continue and push through any kind of mental or physical pain.”

Well-deserved honor

Receiving the Phoenix Award has been the icing on the cake after all she’s been through, Leon-Garcia said.

“It’s a huge honor. Just being selected among other athletes who also endure hardship was a huge honor,” she said. “Honestly, I was in total surprise when I received the award. I had no words. It made me even more motivated to push myself physically and mentally. I thank everyone who supported me and pushed me where I am today.”

Currently, Leon-Garcia is at the rank of specialist, one notch on the chain-of-command below becoming a noncommissioned officer.

However, she has hirer aspirations while continuing her military career, she said.

“I plan on finishing my reserve contract and later down the road, I want to go to Officer Candidate School,” Leon-Garcia said. “I also want to go active duty for couple of years and continue studying strength and conditioning.”

Running and the military have gone splendidly together for Leon-Garcia.

“Being in the Army has sharpened up my punctuality, working as a team and listening, respecting my higher ups (coaches), working hard and being mentally tough,” Leon-Garcia said. “Also, dealing with the unexpected situations, staying calm when situations become stressful, moving forward when situations don’t go your way and most importantly staying humble -- which translates not only in my athletic, but also in my personal life.”

As far as the sport which has brought her so far, Leon-Garcia has been privileged to be surrounded by quality people all the way, which has made her accomplishments that much more gratifying, she said.

“Honestly, just having the opportunity to run is the best part, but mostly with my people who I care about and love,” Leon-Garcia said. “My high school and college teammates made me who I am today. I’m a good runner because of them. They also pushed me when we had dreadful workouts, supported me, motivated me and made running enjoyable.”

Scott Akanewich is the sports editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at scott.akanewich@lee.net.