Done With the Minors, Back to the Army for Duty in Iraq

Josh Holden

Josh Holden

July 5, 2011

The following article appeared in the New York Times on July 4, 2011.

CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE ADDER, Iraq - It is a familiar outcome for the legions of young minor league players chasing their major league dreams.

A team executive sits a player down and tells him he is not good enough. The player's bags are packed, and he heads home to start a sustainable livelihood.

Josh Holden, a broad-shouldered, speedy outfielder, chased that dream from the field in Oklahoma where he tried out for the Cincinnati Reds to the baseball backwaters of Montana to the last day of spring training in 2008.

But when Holden's bags were packed, he did not head back to pumping gas or selling insurance. The end of his baseball career meant something far starker: back-to-back tours in Iraq.

"I made a promise to them, and of course I was going to honor it," Holden, now 30, said in an interview here at a United States military base in southern Iraq.

Holden also played football for Army, rushing for eight touchdowns in 2002, his senior season. He graduated from West Point in 2003 and had a five-year commitment to active duty. But in 2004, that career was put aside and one in professional baseball began.

After the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, there was a need to increase recruiting. So the Defense Department created a program, called the alternative service option, that allowed soldiers who had the skills to become public figures, like athletes, to pursue more high-profile careers. The military hoped these soldiers would generate positive attention and increase recruiting.

For Holden, his path to minor league baseball started with the tryout with the Reds. The team liked what it saw, and the military gave him permission to leave his base in Fort Sill, Okla., for minor league baseball in Florida. He agreed to return to fulfill his service after his baseball days ended.

So at 23, an advanced age for a minor league player, he began at the bottom rungs of baseball playing against players five years younger.

He started strong in his first year, hitting .348 for the Reds' Gulf Coast League team.

"He was always the military soldier type," said Mets infielder Justin Turner, who played with Holden in 2007 in Sarasota, Fla. "He was strong as an ox, a really big dude, but he could run really well for his size. He was a good player. He could play the outfield, run really well."

Holden's military background apparently made him more aware of things like keeping himself hydrated.

"I remember he always wore this special backpack," Turner said. "It looked like a regular backpack, but it actually carried water and had a tube that he could run into his mouth and drink water. It was basically a water jug on his back. He was always hydrating."

Holden played four years in the minors while spending his off-seasons working as a military recruiter and visiting injured soldiers.

As Holden entered spring training in 2008, his skills were not progressing fast enough, and it became clear that he was just an old minor league player.

"I wasn't getting regular at-bats," he said.

On the final day of spring training, Holden showed up to the Reds' complex and noticed that one of the clubhouse attendants was wearing a black shirt, a baseball ritual that signals players are going to be cut.

Just nine months after his baseball career ended, he was on his way to the tortured northern Iraqi city of Mosul to fulfill the remaining four years he owed the military.

While in Mosul, he spent his days directing troops and tanks. Ten troops from his brigade died on that tour.

After a year in Iraq, he returned home to Texas, married, bought a house, got a dog, and was then redeployed here in southern Iraq.

Holden now spends his days eating meals on the floors of tents with local sheiks in a last-ditch effort by American military officials to try to win over locals as the military's withdrawal is scheduled to hit its peak in coming months.

"I basically keep track of all the key players in the area, the sheiks, the Iraqi security forces and government officials," he said. "We are in an advise-and-assist mission, and we are getting ready for the operation of getting all of the military's equipment out of Iraq and into Kuwait. We cannot do that safely without the help of the Iraqis."

Back in the United States, some of the players he came up with in the Reds' farm system are established major leaguers. Jay Bruce has 18 home runs, tied for ninth in the majors. Johnny Cueto has a 1.84 earned run average, the best among Reds starters. And Turner has been a revelation for the Mets this season.

"Personally, it couldn't have worked out better for me," Holden said. "I got to chase a dream, and now that I'm a soldier, I hope that I am giving the Army as much as it has given me."

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