SHAW AIR FORCE BASE - Leaning back in his chair behind a busy but orderly desk, Col. Larry Saunders reminisces about the great moments in his career as a football official.
"There are so many memories that stand out from over the years," he says. "Working coach John McKissick's 500th win at Summerville High School in 2003, doing the coin toss at the South Carolina state championship in 2004 after returning from a combat deployment to Iraq, and division one bowl games like the Cotton Bowl."
"Getting a chance to meet then Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville at a recent game, that was probably the best."
Saunders, a military police officer and U.S. Army Central's Provost Marshal charged with law enforcement oversite for Army organizations across the U.S. Central Command region, is also a Division I official in a Power Five conference who regularly officiates major college football games. He says he finds it ironic that his work requires him to enforce the rules "on and off the field."
As a South Carolina National Guard officer, he serves on active-duty orders at USARCENT where he finds similarity with the relationship between officials.
"Working on a crew of nine like-minded individuals in a stressful environment builds incredibly strong teams," he said. "Some of my best friends are those with whom I work on the field. We spend so much time together, our bond becomes very strong. In that way, it's a lot like the Army."
Saunders started officiating various sports in 1992 at the urging of his civilian law enforcement supervisor who encouraged him to stay involved with sports and the community. Two years into his officiating career, he decided to join the National Guard.
"I started umpiring little league baseball and football and fell in love with both sports," he said. "The skills I learned in law enforcement, officiating, and military service all intertwined nicely over the years. Things like conflict resolution, leadership, patience, perseverance, and honestly, being thick-skinned."
Now in his 23rd year officiating college football, he believes the ties between his military service and his time on the football field are a great example of why Soldiers need outlets outside the Army.
"Whether working in military law enforcement or officiating, the rewards and challenges are similar," he said. "We are typically the people who must hold others accountable. Too many times, Soldiers get so focused on the mission that we lose sight of life outside the uniform. There are many ways to empower your passion and give back to the community outside traditional volunteering."
According to retired Maj. Gen.Alex Fink, former Chief of the United States Army Enterprise Marketing team, one of the top three concerns young Americans have about military service is a fear of leaving family and friends. However, Saunders doesn't believe young recruits and Soldiers need to sacrifice who they are to serve in the Army.
"Do Soldiers have to give up everything outside the military? Absolutely not," said Saunders. "There were many times when officiating dates conflicted with military duties, especially in previous positions. But my commanders have always been very supportive of my passions, both serving as a 'MP' and officiating."
Now as a senior officer, Saunders is focusing more on mentoring and cultivating the success of the next generation. He believes his time in the National Guard is foundational to his commitment and his character.
"The leadership opportunities and mentors I have in the National Guard have helped to develop me and prepare me for where I am today," said Saunders. "In football, as in the Army, you often must do more listening than talking in order to learn. And contrary to popular opinion," he added, "no one grieves over a missed call more than we do. I use my position in college football to apply those leadership and mentorship lessons I learned in the Army to help those young, up and coming officials."
Placing a well-used official's yellow flag on the desk, Saunders emphasized that he doesn't believe officiating is everyone's best way to get involved outside the military. However, he does believe finding an outlet for community involvement is important.
"This avocation is not for everyone," he said "However, we encourage others to come out and give it a shot. It is a great way to stay involved. I think it is critical for Soldiers to be actively involved in the community to reconnect with that part of life."
USARCENT is the Army Service Component Command for United States Central Command and is responsible to the Secretary of the Army for the support and administration of more than 12,000 Soldiers, including those assigned to joint task forces and embassies, across the 21 countries in the CENTCOM Area of Responsibility.
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