U.S. Marine James Gregory Nanney Jr. is a patriotic flag waver, literally, as he marked his homecoming from Afghanistan by charging onto local Dietz Field on Friday waving the American flag to hundreds of cheering fans.
Nanney, 21, gave a pre-game pep talk to his alma mater, the Hendersonville High Bearcats. Then he led them onto the field where he played football, lastly as a junior varsity defensive back five years ago. This was the ceremonial bursting through the banner. Nanney outpaced the Bearcats, waving a flag five by eight feet in size.
The Cats then led 34-0 by halftime, in dismantling prior-unbeaten Madison Patriots 44-21, to take early control of the Western Highlands Conference race.
“It felt great,” Nanney said of the flag carrying which was his idea and embraced by head coach B.J. Laughter. “It’s an honor to carry the flag, and to celebrate with my alma mater. So many great men and women throughout the years have died for this country.”
In his pep talk, Nanney emphasized everyone doing his part for each other and the cause. “Teamwork is what got me through Afghanistan.”
Nanney just finished serving seven weeks in Afghanistan, as a large-vehicle driver. He was among 33,000 troops (a third of the U.S. force) pulled out of the country plagued by Taliban terrorists. This rolls back the “surge” in troops initiated more than two years ago, which officials say has weakened the Taliban.
This week ends his two-week visit home, before returning to active duty. He said he may next be in the Mideast or South Korea, to “keep an eye on” ever-threatening North Korea. Nanney is halfway through four years of active duty and will serve four years in reserves.
Nanney had merely two prior trips home, after basic training and after being stationed for nine months in Okinawa, Japan. In Japan, at McDonald’s, he had to pay $27 equivalent for a Big Mac combo meal. KFC and Pizza Hut food on base in Afghanistan is part of the meal ticket deducted from his pay.
Home cooking and visiting family was a treasured treat. He enjoyed steak, mashed potatoes and “good-gosh gravy” so named as “it’s so good,” his mother said. James is the eldest of two children of Greg and Susan Nanney, and a 2009 HHS grad. His sister Kaitlyn is a junior at East Henderson, in whose school district the family lives. Susan played soccer for T.C. Roberson High.
Greg Nanney, a 1983 HHS grad, is the lanky 10th-year member of the three-man “chain gang” that moves first-down chains and down markers along the visitor’s sideline.
James Nanney said that as a motor transporter, he drove a seven-ton supply truck or a wrecker to front lines. He did so typically two days in a row, every three days. He got 18 hours off before each convoy trip, catching up on rest and laundry and calling family.
Extra rest prompts extra awareness crucial to survival. “We always conduct ‘situation awareness,’ such as about bombs and indirect mortar fire,” Nanney said. Hidden IEDs (improvised explosive devices) are a prime concern, in countering terrorists. His closest call came when, 200 meters away, he saw such a roadside bomb explode “five to 10 stories high into a mushroom cloud.” The device was detected and set off, by an Army advance unit “cleaning the road” of bombs. Thus “everyone was fine. It took two tires and some of armor off an Army vehicle.”
On non-convoying days, he worked 14 hours a day then “ate, showered and went to bed.” He said weather in mountainous Afghanistan, like here, is near freezing in winter nights. Six men shared quarters, compared to two per barrack in Japan where he had his own television. He viewed Armed Forces Network on TV, such as pro football games.
Nanney loves sports. He and his father were in Carolina Panthers’ stands in Charlotte last Thursday night. He wants to be a sports reporter, ideally writing for ESPN the Magazine and broadcasting. He plans to go to UNC-Charlotte or Clemson. While an A-B student at HHS he interned for local WHKP 1450 AM. If WHKP broadcast live a home game other than HHS’, it played Nanney’s “quarter synopsis” from HHS contests including road playoffs. His mentor was Chuck Hill. Last Friday, Nanney texted to Hill HHS score updates.
Nanney is 5-10 1/2 and 175, losing 20 pounds from rigorous Marine training. His military ancestors are great-grandfather John L. Nanney Sr. in the Navy and John’s son John L. Nanney Jr. (HHS Class of 1952) as a Naval reservist, paternal grandfather Robert Edward Drake Sr. who served 26 years mostly in the Army and his son (James’ uncle) Edward Jr. who spent 30 years in the Coast Guard.
Greg and Susan Nanney are beaming. “I’m very proud,” Greg said, “and so glad he made it through safely. It’s kinda scary, more so when you have someone over there.”
Susan said though James is sharp and very capable, “I was a big ball of nerves. Especially when he went out on convoy. He called, and let us know he was okay. They often don’t come home, except in a casket.”
James said though confident, he also realized “it could go wrong and you might not come back. That adds to the stress.”
Scaling back in Afghanistan boosts chances he gets redeployed elsewhere. He said options include Syria and Egypt, where regime-toppling was spurred by the Muslim Brotherhood. A book by the group, translated by Palestinian Media Watch, reportedly outlines a thirst for global Islamic conquest that could result in widespread anti-U.S. policies and terrorist action.
“You always have to worry about the Middle East. It’s historically known to be violent,” Nanney said. “We don’t know what to expect from the (new) Muslim Brotherhood. They seem such an extreme group.”