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N. Thurston coach answers call to duty on faraway field: Iraq

LACEY — Ben Quiles is no stranger to battle. As the coach of North Thurston High School’s fastpitch team, Quiles has grown accustomed to battles on the field. He refers to the girls on his team as his “little soldiers.”

But in 12 days, Quiles’ biggest battle is about to begin — as a surgical technician in Iraq.

The 27-year-old U.S. Army Reserve sergeant will be deployed May 11 to begin his year-and-a-half-long stint with the 325th Combat Support Hospital.

“I really enjoy the military,” Quiles said. “It has done nothing but good things for me. It made me from where I was to who I am now.

“I really care about what I do.”

Military background

Quiles, a North Thurston graduate, began serving in the military in 1998. His career has taken him to Korea, Panama, Georgia, Arizona and now Fort Lewis, where he has been since 2003.

Quiles has been on reserve duty since 2003 and is in his second season as the Rams’ fastpitch coach.

“I love coaching,” Quiles said. “That’s my relaxing time, being out in the ball field ... the smell of the grass and dirt. I love it all.”

Had it not been for coaching, Quiles might have deployed sooner.

He was scheduled to go to Iraq in February with the 325th Support Combat Hospital out of St. Louis. With the fastpitch season approaching, Quiles requested and received an extension from the military to coach this season.

“Best part was I got to stay and coach and be with my family,” Quiles said. “It’s been really nice having a unit who will support you so well. It lets me have time with my team.”

North Thurston athletic director Dan Clark said he was aware of the possibility that Quiles would be deployed before the season’s end.

“He’s a member of the military, and the military comes first,” Clark said. “The girls understand that. It was a good learning experience for them.”

Other South Sound coaches heard the news recently of the North Thurston coach’s departure.

Timberline fastpitch coach Ken Carey learned of Quiles’ deployment at the league’s coaches meeting earlier this season as the two sat next to each other.

“It really caught me off guard,” said Carey, whose son returned from Iraq in November after serving eight months with the Marine Corps. “I knew he was still in the service, but didn’t know how active he was.”

“My hat goes off to him for what he’s doing.”

Leaving the team

Early in the season, Quiles gathered his team after a practice and told them of his deployment.

“They took it well,” Quiles said. “They have adapted well. It’s nice having them understand Coach has to go.

“It makes it a little easier they know I’m coming back.”

But as the deployment nears, Quiles can’t help but think of the team he is leaving behind for 545 days.

“It’s not fair to the girls,” the sergeant said. “I’ve coached many of them since they were freshmen. I put so much responsibility on myself and I feel like I’m just abandoning them. It makes it tough because you get attached to the girls when you coach them.”

Quiles’ fastpitch team won’t be the only people he’s leaving behind. He will say goodbye to his wife and 2-year-old daughter along with other family members in the area.

“Leaving my family is the hardest thing in the world,” Quiles said. “I have to leave my wife (and) I have to leave my daughter. I’m tired of staying up late at night and tears in my eyes because I know I have to leave.

“It feels like my life is going 400 miles per hour and I’m standing still. (The deployment) is really happening it becomes surreal now.”

In the red zone

Quiles’ nine-year experience in the military has led him to hold three military occupational specialties — Infantry, Intelligence and medical.

That variety of experience increases the chance of Quiles being pulled from the medical field to be used as a gunner or driver in Iraq.

Quiles said there’s a 90 percent chance of his being attached to a forward surgical team (FST), which will take him from the green zone (protected area) to the red zone.

He has no problem with that.

“If I have to go over there, I want to save lives,” said Quiles, who will be stationed either in Tikrit or Mosul. “I want to be the one to help this solder back so he can get back to his family.

“(Being) out in the field is something I want to do and something I feel I need to do.”

Attached to an FST group can also require 17-hour workdays, sleeping outside on the sand or in Humvees.

“All I can do is prepare myself for the worst and hope for the best,” he said. “And I’m all for it. I really am.”

Playoffs

North Thurston clinched the No. 3 seed in the Western Cascade Conference and a district playoff spot April 25 with a 4-2 win over Yelm. Rams assistant coach Sarah LeMier has taken over as head coach for the remainder of the season and will continue as head coach until Quiles returns for the 2009 season.

Still, some of the Rams’ players find it difficult knowing Quiles won’t be there to lead them into the playoffs.

“It’s sad that he can’t come to districts with us,” Rams centerfielder Carmen Luce said. “He worked so hard to get us there, and he won’t even be there.”

“You hear about all the other soldiers being deployed,” Rams pitcher Jessica Stretch said. “And he’s one of them. He’s our coach.”

The final game

Quiles’ last game in the dugout will be Wednesday, which is North Thurston’s final regular-season game against Clover Park. While he knows the last game will be tough for everyone, Quiles hopes his team won’t lose focus as they prepare for districts May 18-19.

“I don’t want them to change their routine,” Quiles said. “As a coach, I put my team first. My goal is to get them ready to play in the playoffs.

“I tell them all the time (during games), ‘You got to win this battle. You got to win this battle.’ Now I have my own battle to win.”

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