POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 27, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 1:48 a.m. HST, Jan 27, 2011
A U. S. Army uniform hangs in the closet at home, bags are smartly packed and a ticket back to Afghanistan today awaits him.
But yesterday, the uniform of the day for Maj. Shawn Fernandez of the 101st Airborne was the powder blue replica No. 17 San Diego Chargers' jersey of quarterback Philip Rivers.
Back in Kandahar Province, near the Pakistan border, there is a combat outpost and the constant threat of the Taliban to return to.
So, yesterday's mission was precisely planned and failure not an option for the 39-year-old 'Iolani School and University of Hawaii ROTC graduate: Arrive at the AFC Pro Bowl practice at Kapolei High School early, get a glimpse of his beloved Chargers and, pen in hand, somehow get Rivers to sign the prized jersey.
It was a task that shaped the planning for this cherished R & R leave, two years in the preparation, and shared, step by step, with buddies back in the mess tent at Hutal.
Sunday's Pro Bowl wasn't workable, so a practice was the target. "I had it all laid out," Fernandez said proudly. "I'm telling my wife, 'I'm not gonna leave Afghanistan any earlier than a (certain) date because, if I do, I'm gonna miss Pro Bowl week.' I was supposed to have come home Jan. 7, but if you add 15 days (the term of the leave) I would have had to be back by the 22nd and missed everything."
The Pro Bowl was returning to his home after a year's dalliance in Miami, and Fernandez, a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, would be coming back, too, with an understanding wife and an eight-month-old son along in support.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, Fernandez said, football season provides a welcome reminder of home, a diversion from the war, a bond and a lot more.
"It makes the days go by because a season is measurable in terms of time," Fernandez said. "Just having something to banter about with the guys takes your mind off things."
For Fernandez that means looking forward to the games and celebrating the Warriors and Chargers victories, the former shared with fellow Hawaii soldiers by snapping pictures next to a mortar tube adorned with a UH sticker, sent courtesy of head coach Greg McMackin.
After seasons spent catching glimpses of Rivers and the Chargers via the Armed Forces Network in mess tents, Fernandez aimed to see them up front and personal.
Rivers heard Fernandez's story and readily agreed to talk a moment and sign the jersey. Then, they shook hands and, before Fernandez could offer thanks, Rivers beat him to it, offering appreciation "for what you do for us."
After exchanging barbs with buddies -- "I'm the only Chargers fan there and with only 300 of us everybody knows who everybody's favorite team is" -- he could relish in the moment.
"Finally getting to meet the fiery Philip Rivers was a dream come true, one that I will cherish for the rest of my life -- right next to my wedding day and birth of my son," Fernandez said.
"I am privileged to work on the front line next to soldiers who go out on patrol every day. I am eager to share my experiences from (yesterday) with them when I return. I know they will get almost as much excitement out of it as I did."
Reach Ferd Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org.