One week before Veterans Day, the only member of the Maryland football team who knows the sound of bombs opened a laptop and tried to reconcile his past with his present. An English teacher had given him a simple assignment: to present on the effects of war to his classmates, college kids. He inserted a small orange flash drive and clicked the folder that read “Military.” Up onto the screen came pictures from his year-long deployment to Afghanistan. He began scrolling through the images.
“This is the stuff you don’t want to see,” Tehuti Miles said, and he wondered which of his classmates would even understand.
Of the U.S. veterans who were deployed, survived and returned home to start anew, Miles is one of a relative handful who became a Division I football player. He is No. 85 on the Terrapins’ roster, 5 feet 10 and 200 pounds, a 22-year-old freshman from Hammonton, N.J.
But here on the computer screen, he looked at an image of somebody else. The landscape was dusty and bleak, except for a red splotch in the center. A makeshift bomb had ripped this soldier’s stomach open, Miles explained. The internal organs were spilling onto the ground.
As a war veteran and a college athlete, Miles encounters these two worlds daily. He is spending a redshirt year on a scout team that helps Maryland prepare for games, at the same time as he sorts through his past. He only recently stopped staring at the ground when he walked into buildings and doesn’t worry anymore about tripping bombs on the street, but is still hyper-aware of his surroundings. It’s another effect of the post-traumatic stress disorder, along with short-term memory loss and insomnia. Over time, however, the symptoms have lessened. Now the nightmares come only twice a week, instead of four to six times a night.
He scrolls through the pictures faster. Fields of marijuana plants, climbing higher than their helmets. Soldiers resting between shifts, hats shielding their faces from the brutal Afghan summer, when temperatures reached 125 degrees. Miles on his daily watch from a guard tower, squeezing an M4 carbine in both hands, gazing out into the abyss.
Finally, he comes to a close-up of five men, taken at their strongpoint in Walakan, Afghanistan. Miles squats in the foreground. Behind him, a platoon-mate puffs on a cigarette. To their right, another soldier holds a notebook and points at several blocks of wood, arrows drawn on with permanent marker. The wood was arranged to resemble an enemy compound. They were organizing a raid.
It happened so long ago that Miles doesn’t remember this specific mission. He generally remembers his service well, good and bad, but on his best days the memories are drowned out by class, homework, meetings, workouts and practice.
“I’m a freshman just like everyone else,” Miles said. He looked at himself in the picture, freshly shaved and a digital watch wrapped around his right wrist. He nodded. “Yeah. This is new.”
There was a time when he, too, knew nothing of war. Miles enlisted on Oct. 6, 2008, after attending a cousin’s graduation at an Air Force base in San Antonio. He liked what he saw there, so soon after he walked into an Army recruiter’s office, filled out the paperwork, was medically screened, chose his job and, at 17 years old, left for boot camp. In February 2010, Miles arrived at Fort Drum in Upstate New York. One month later, he flew to Afghanistan, his first trip overseas.
Miles served with Third Platoon, Bravo Troop, 1-71 Cavalry, 10th Mountain Division. They called themselves “Renegades” and they had three tents, four guard towers and a deep pit for burning trash near the motor pool, where the vehicles were kept. The hours blended together, he said, because seven days a week he kept watch in guard towers, alone looking for enemies, until another soldier arrived in relief.
July 10, 2010, was the worst day. The mission started at midnight. A “big-dig” trip to capture and interrogate enemies. Miles strapped on his M4 with 240 rounds of ammunition and assault packs filled with water bottles. Two other platoons joined Renegades, including a group of snipers. Once everyone caught up, Miles and his friend Anthony Rodrigues, a cavalry scout from Washington state, took the lead.
“So of course my heart’s racing,” Miles said. “I don’t want to get blown up.”
They reached an old compound with two entrances. Miles’s platoon sergeant ordered Miles, Rodrigues and two others to sweep the ground for makeshift bombs, then clear out and head to another compound. As they left the side entrance, two snipers went out the back. They were to converge on a bridge just up the road, but before Miles rounded the corner to meet the snipers, one of them triggered an explosive.
“I literally flew back a good five to 10 feet and I couldn’t hear anything,” Miles said. “It was the first time I saw anybody die, too.”
To prepare for the Army, Miles had watched videos on YouTube uploaded by soldiers, but that couldn’t prepare him for the deafening boom. Five minutes later, his hearing returned. There was still a loud ringing, and he saw the platoon sergeant yelling, “Medic! Medic!” He remembers feeling nothing. Army training taught him to ignore emotions, but years later he would acknowledge that, had the wall been thinner or had he walked faster, that bomb would have taken him, too.
The mission continued. After 10 hours, Renegades ran out of water, so another platoon arrived to deliver supplies. As that platoon left, Miles was pulling security duty atop the hill. He watched the vehicle swing to the right and cross into the field. This time, he saw the explosion. They had tripped another makeshift bomb.
When Miles was in Afghanistan, he always thought he would keep working in the Army once his four years of service were up. Returning to Fort Drum in 2011, he changed his mind. He had played football for two years in high school and with Rodrigues in tackle games on the run-down, bumpy soccer fields at Fort Drum. With the G.I. Bill, he could get a degree, too. So when Miles left the Army last Jan. 27, he decided to try college football, believing “if I can do the military, I can do anything.”
After ruling out Florida schools as too far from home, he settled on Maryland. The university rejected his initial application that winter, asking that he first get some college grades on his transcript. Miles took 12 credits at Prince George’s Community College, reapplied and was accepted.
Over the summer, he began badgering Ryan Steinberg, the football team’s assistant director of operations, and asked to try out. So on a sweltering September afternoon, Miles ran the 40-yard dash, did the vertical jump and bench-pressed 225 pounds 17 times. Soon, word reached Coach Randy Edsall of a strong, hardworking former high school football player who could compete during practice, though the report said nothing of Afghanistan or the Army. That night, Steinberg called Miles at his aunt’s house near College Park.
“How would you like to play for Maryland football?” Steinberg asked.
“I’d love to,” he said.
His teammates know he served, but Miles hates answering whether he has killed a man, and the questions rarely go deeper than that. He loves the intensity of college football, but some days the war cries might seem manufactured.
“You always hear the saying ‘blood, sweat and tears,’ everything like that,” said Rodrigues, 22, who is serving as a calvary instructor at Fort Benning, Ga. “It’s obviously related to sports. But the blood, sweat and tears left in sports is the blood where somebody steps on your cleat, or you get a broken arm, and the tears because of the pain or loss. In Afghanistan, we’re talking about blood because someone is physically trying to kill you, or the sweat because you’re out in the middle of nowhere with body armor on.
“And the crying? The crying is not because you lost a football game, but because you lost a human being, who was blood, sweating and tearing with you.”
He walked into the office overlooking Byrd Stadium and sat down in the cushy leather chairs. Each week, Edsall coaches his players to go into battle. Now, he wanted to learn about the real thing.
So they talked about Miles’s skills in the Army, where he received badges for his expertise with the M4, 240 Bravo and 50-caliber machine gun. About his passion for working out, like the time he and Rodrigues stuffed a duffel bag with sand and strung it from two poles to practice punching. About the nightmares, and how every now and then they still come back.
“He’s been involved in a lot tougher things than playing the game of football,” Edsall said later. “This football stuff I think is easy for him, compared to that.”
After Maryland finally admitted Miles into school, one matter was still left unsettled: The NCAA ruled him ineligible after he started practicing, saying Miles didn’t take the necessary core classes in high school. Why would he? At the time, he never even thought about playing college football.
So Maryland filed a waiver to the NCAA on his behalf. The school faxed copies of his community college transcripts and military certificates, like his Army achievement medal for “exceptionally meritorious service.” During that time, Miles was barred from team activities. He missed one practice. Then five. It was a no-brainer decision, so why was it taking so long?
Finally, word reached College Park. The NCAA had processed the waiver, and Miles could play right away. His first practice back, Edsall called the team together. The players took a knee. They listened as the coach broke the good news.
“It’s great to have Tehuti back,” Edsall said, and everyone began to cheer.