BURLESON, Texas — In a place where life can end abruptly or change forever in an instant, Arnold Norman is offering a belt buckle to the best soldier.
Correction: the best roper soldier.
Of all of Norman's missions as an agricultural adviser at a remote outpost in Afghanistan, organizing a roping competition would not have appeared anywhere.
But Norman, 59, an avid team roper on weekends in Texas, discovered dozens of young American soldiers, and a few Afghans, who found swinging a rope at a dummy steer to be an unexpected salve for the stresses of combat and loneliness.
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"I thought it'd be kind of cool to have a little dummy-roping contest," said Norman, who lives outside Burleson. "It just kept getting bigger. I've probably got 50 guys signed up for it now."
The contest is scheduled for Oct. 1 in the town of Baraki Barak, a couple of weeks after Norman returns from his leave. The best roper will get to take custom-made belt buckles home from deployment. Norman hears that the Stars & Stripes newspaper and Armed Forces Network might cover it.
Norman won't be winning, though.
"No one was going to enter if I did," he said, laughing. "But I'm doing this for them anyway."
More soldiers from other bases would like to participate, but neither Norman nor their commanders are willing to get someone hurt or killed to rope a metal and wood steer. Conditions on the ground have deteriorated significantly just outside his post in recent weeks.
"I've told people, 'If you can't figure out a way to come on a helicopter, don't come,'" Norman said. "I don't travel in (ground) vehicles anymore. That's what has really changed since I've been here. When I came last fall, very seldom was anyone getting blown up. Now it's common."
He says this matter-of-factly, as if U.S. Department of Agriculture employees say it all the time.
Used to be, in what feels like a very long time ago, Norman drove to work every morning at the federal complex on Felix Street in south Fort Worth.
He works as a range management specialist for the National Resources Conservation Service, an agency within the USDA. He teaches other USDA employees around the country about methods of restoring land to its pre-farming days.
But last year, the USDA asked for volunteers to go to Afghanistan. Norman didn't need to volunteer. He could retire whenever he wants after 37 years of service.
Maybe it was the enticement of "danger pay" for a USDA employee.
"It's been an adventure, for sure," he said. "You know, I've had a very successful career. I've been able to teach a lot of people about land and their animals. I thought I had some skills to improve the Afghans' way of life."
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