For some, Memorial Day means a day off from work, for others, the start of the summer season down the shore. But for Ben Kotwica and many in our great country, the occasion is a solemn reminder of what we have and who we have lost.
"I don't think you're ever completely removed from the war," Kotwica, 34, in his third season as a Jets assistant coach, said at an informal news conference late last week. "This job, in season, is seven days a week, all-consuming. But you're never immune from it. You still know people over there. I still have many friends in the military. Some are back here in the states, some are still overseas.
"We lost four pilots in our unit. You think about those guys from time to time."
Kotwica, many Jets fans know, lived a whole other life before Eric Mangini asked him to join his staff after the 2006 season. He was a decorated officer who spent seven years in the Army after graduating from West Point. His stops included Bosnia-Herzegovina, Korea and, in January 2004, Baghdad, Iraq, where he served as a combat attack helicopter commander and flew over 1,000 combat hours in Operation Iraqi Freedom II.
His missions included convoy security operations, VIP escorts for then-President Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and search-and-destroy missions to suppress insurgent activities.
"Yeah, we got shot at," Kotwica said, recalling the "tink-tink-tink" he and his fellow soldiers would hear from time to time on the underside of their Apache. "You hear that thump of mortars, that sound is going to stay with you.
"There are close calls, but you're just dong your job, not worrying about the danger involved. ... You're just trained to do it."
Kotwica's training had him on a fast track up the ranks, if he so chose. He won the Army Achievement Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Meritorious Service Medal and Bronze Star. In between deployments in harm's way, he was a platoon leader and a training officer.
But after returning to Fort Hood, Texas, from Iraq in 2005, he decided to pursue another career course, in some ways related but, despite the metaphors we all use from time to time, not involving live ammunition.
Kotwica wanted to be a football coach.
"Growing up, I always looked at the coaches who coached me, whether it was little league or high school, and said, 'That's something I'd really like to do,' " he said. "I always kind of wanted to do that, and I knew my playing days were going to end for me eventually.
"I didn't leave the Army because I didn't like it. I left the Army because I wanted to do this."
Kotwica had a good reference in the NFL — before beginning his military service, he was a three-year linebacker starter for Bob Sutton at Army and captain of the winningest team in academy history in 1996. After his service, he served two seasons as defensive coordinator at USMA Prep.
When Mangini was looking for a quality control coach for defense and special teams, Sutton, then the Jets' D-coordinator, had a candidate.
Kotwica helped Sutton on defense and Mike Westhoff and Kevin O'Dea for the past two seasons. And he and Sutton also introduced Mangini to the concept of working up AARs — After Action Reports, feedback immediately after games from the coaching staff on what the team did well or poorly and why.
When Rex Ryan came aboard in January, he had to put together his own coaching staff. But one thing he knew when he first arrived and appreciates even more today is that Kotwica needed to stay. He's now listed as assistant special teams coach.
"Ben's a sharp guy, very humble," Ryan said after last week's OTA practice. "He's really just an impressive guy and I knew I wanted him on my staff. I wanted him several roles, and that's why I think you see he's helping the defense."
Kotwica said that defense — and specifically the kind of aggressive defense that Ryan and new DC Mike Pettine preach — is right up his alley.
"I'm an attack guy. That's kind of how I'm wired," Kotwica said. "I was a linebacker by trade up at Army. And the way we approach special teams is with a physical style."
Ryan even described how he's tapped into Kotwica's leadership skills for the minicamps and OTAs by handing him a daunting piece of equipment from the coaching arsenal.
"He's actually the only coach we have out there with a whistle, so he's standing with me," Ryan said. "To be honest with you, [Bill] Callahan never really wanted that job, so I went to Kotwica and said, "Come here Ben, this will be good training for you to be a head coach one day." I gave him the bad job. He'd better get used to it, too, because I can see him one day really climbing these ranks and being in that position, I really can."
Heady stuff from the Jets' commander-in-chief, but then again, consider where Kotwica has been.
"I would just like to continue to grow in this profession," he said. "I think I've been very, very fortunate. I can't thank Eric enough for the opportunity of bringing me in. I consider getting to do this a tremendous privilege. Whether it's coordinator or position coach, I'd love to make that natural transition. And I'd love to be a head coach some day."
Whatever area Kotwica specializes in, he'll be bringing a lot of life experience and leadership to bear on the task at hand. Happy Memorial Day, Ben.