Idaho's Corey Sandberg: From the battlefield to the gridiron
Lewiston Tribune, Idaho
MOSCOW, Idaho — As a handful young men and women lined up at the Kibbie Dome's 50-yard line to make a promise that would alter the course of their lives forever, University of Idaho reserve linebacker Corey Sandberg sat in the Vandals' locker room and listened to coaches as the team prepared itself for what would become a thrilling second half against the Pokes of Wyoming.
He didn't hear the oath taken by these young men and women over the public-address system on Idaho's Military Appreciation Day, but then again, he didn't need to hear it. He already knows it.
It was very similar to an oath he took seven years ago when swearing in for military service as a wide-eyed, fresh-out-of-high-school teenager in a time of war.
It was a pact that, over the course of five years, took Sandberg halfway across the globe twice and left him with a visible reminder of his life as a member of the U.S. Army's airborne infantry.
It was a commitment that placed Sandberg at the front lines in both Iraq and Afghanistan and introduced a new world littered with death and destruction, hope and fear.
"First of all, it makes you nervous," said Lori Sandberg, Corey's mother. "Then I thought about how my son was so courageous. I was just really proud of him that at 17 he had such a courageous heart.
"He knew that he was going to put his life on the line for his country and to fight for something that he firmly believed in, and that was our freedom."
Although Corey is the first to serve in his immediate family, he did have two grandfathers and two uncles who were all enlisted.
Not a particularly imposing kid, nor one that was a socialite, the normally reserved teen was sent overseas to Iraq for his first tour of duty in the spring of 2007.
Despite scoring exceptionally well on military aptitude tests, Corey knew exactly what he wanted to do the second he enlisted - he wanted to be first to the fight.
"That was probably the most difficult time in my life, as a mother," Lori said. "When he said (he wanted to be airborne infantry) I knew he could be killed and I didn't try to discourage him.
"I had to just let him go with that because in his heart, he wanted to be doing something hands-on. He didn't want to be in the background looking at a computer screen or anything like that."
Death didn't scare the young Prescott, Ariz., native. Failure did.
"I'm a Christian and I have a strong faith in God that everything happens for a reason," Corey said.
In Iraq, Corey said his life was very much like the "Call of Duty" video game series.
They busted down doors, performed night raids and completed other missions in an effort to break down enemy strongholds.
While staying safe was a priority, Corey's main objective was simple: Wipe out the enemy, help civilians and rebuild a country that had been ravaged by the tyranny of both Saddam Hussein and post-Hussein insurgents.
"Seeing the enemy die isn't such a big deal, they're bad people and do messed-up things," Corey said. "But seeing what they would do to children and women to get them to do their (bidding), that's what I sometimes struggled with.
"At least being over there, we were trying to help those helpless people."
Over time, they earned the trust of the locals, which became vital to U.S. military operations.
When trouble moved into the area, the locals reported it and Corey's company quickly neutralized the threat.
"It gets real intense, it's like a drug," Corey said. "One of my favorite quotes is from Robert E. Lee, who said that if war wasn't so terrible, we'd grow fond of it.
"The adrenaline you feel can't be compared to anything I've ever experienced. The feeling of knowing that you could die at any time, but also knowing that you're accomplishing something great - the adrenaline is just phenomenal."
Although danger still loomed, this trust allowed the military to eventually set up shop and gave Corey the ability to report to his nervous family back home.
After spending more than a year fighting in the Middle East, he was brought home in the summer of '08 before being shipped to Afghanistan in December of '09.
Promoted to sergeant, Corey's role in Afghanistan was the same - except this time the enemy was quite different.
"It was a bit different, more open," he said. "You're fighting more of an army there and their object is to control the country some, but mostly, they're fighting to kill Americans."
In February of '10, Corey was on a mission and was caught in the line of fire.
He had been shot.
The call to his parents came early in the morning. Neither was able to answer.
Eventually, a military representative got in touch with Corey's father, Scott, and told him that his son had been shot in the lower extremities.
At the time, Lori was teaching at a local school and was pulled out of class before being told the news.
"It was terrible," Lori said as her voice began to quake.
Neither of them knew the severity of the injury. The only thing they knew was that their wounded son was on his way back to the states.
The news was relayed to Dallas, Corey's brother and starting offensive lineman for the Vandals. At the time, Dallas, who is four years younger than his sibling, was on his way to compete in a high-school basketball game.
After anxiously waiting for hours - which no doubt felt more like years - Corey's parents received a call from his wife, Drew, who said that the damage was not life-threatening and was limited to his buttocks.
To Corey, it was nothing but a flesh wound as he quickly recovered and returned to Afghanistan to finish out his tour, which was completed in October of '10.
"As soon as you touch down on American soil again, you get some tears in your eyes," Corey said. "You miss the guys you lost, but you want to live for them and not dwell too much on that. (Being back is) an amazing feeling, it's hard to describe."
Five years and two months after vowing to protect his country, Corey was finally home.
"It was so good to see him upright," Lori said. "We were terribly blessed to have our son alive because there was someone else who had lost someone and also someone else who had a son who was shot and his leg very damaged.
"The Lord just blessed us to bring Corey back alive. It was unbelievable."
For many veterans, the difficult task of assimilating back into society is well-documented.
Many, especially those who were at the front, struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and have a hard time finding jobs due to a lack of experience and training.
Knowing this, Corey is actively working to make sure he doesn't fall into the same trap.
With his G.I. Bill in hand, Corey followed Dallas to UI and walked on with the Vandal football team.
Even with a full ride because to his service, the redshirt freshman still doesn't exactly know what he wants to do when he's done with school.
"I know a lot of guys who kinda get out (of the service) and drift and people ask me what I want to do as a career, what'll be fun," Corey said. "Nothing will ever top the job satisfaction that I had of not only serving the country, but as a sergeant taking in 18-year-old guys - mostly from broken homes - and teaching them how to be a man and give them some pride in themselves."
While Corey's career path may be undecided, one thing that is solid is his relationship with Dallas.
Growing up together, the pair didn't always get along, but as Corey got farther away, the two grew closer.
Corey thought Dallas was fat and Dallas thought Corey was a geek.
That all changed when Corey left for Iraq.
"When he went in, it really changed and it changed me," Dallas said. "I can't explain why it did, but it made me look up to him a lot more.
"We went from being friends to being brothers."
Dallas, along with Lori and Scott, worried about his big brother constantly.
They all prayed for him on a regular basis and Lori's church collectively prayed for Corey's entire company.
"That morning that Corey got shot, I woke up a lot during the night (before)," Lori said. "I didn't get much sleep during those years but that one night I woke up and I just had to get up and pray for him. I went into his bedroom and felt like I just needed to touch something of his. I found his bed and I prayed for him.
"And I didn't know (that he had been shot). The Holy Spirit would bring this concern and I found a terrible turmoil within me and I prayed for an hour, finally found peace and went back to bed. We found out that the time he was shot was very close to the time that I was praying for him."
At home, Dallas, who checks in a 6-foot-5, 311 pounds, took up more responsibilities while Corey was fighting.
He comforted his mom on days when Corey felt half a world away and waited patiently for his brother to check in to let everyone know he was all right.
"One time, I had just come downstairs from talking on the phone with Corey, and Dallas knew I had been crying," Lori said. "He came up to me and said, 'Mom, what's wrong?' And I said, 'I just miss Corey.'
"He wrapped his big arms around me and said, 'Mom, I know why God made me so big, it was so that I could hug you for me and Corey.' "
Once reunited in Moscow, the pair has become inseparable.
Ironically, one of the few times that the brothers won't be together will be this weekend when Dallas plays in front of his parents in Chapel Hill, N.C.
After moving to Sweetwater, Tenn., in the summer, Lori and Scott will hit the road for the six-hour trip to Chapel Hill to see Dallas, but lament that Corey, as a member of the scout team, will be left behind in Moscow.
"I wanted to call coach (Robb) Akey and say, 'Would you just let Corey be the ballboy or the waterboy,' " Lori said with a chuckle.
Even though he won't be there on Saturday, Lori readily admits that she is just happy to have her son back on the same continent and in one piece.
"To have Corey on home soil, the distance from Idaho to wherever I am in the United States is not as far as Iraq or Afghanistan," she said.