War Games: From Afghanistan to Roller Derby

War Games: From Afghanistan to Roller Derby
Mo "Ska Face" Bak was tough before she got to roller derby (pic left: Gil Leora)

Police Line – Do Not Cross” read the yellow band. And knowing a little about who I was meeting with that morning, I thought it wise to proceed with a soft step.

Two months earlier, I saw her at a roller derby bout wearing a trilby hat, carrying black and white checkered crutches. So I knew she accessorized well. But the winter scarf strapped around her neck, modeled after barrier tape --the kind used by the police at a crime scene-- was the first of its kind.

Nonetheless, Maureen Bak, also known as Mo to most of her friends --or her derby name "Ska Face"-- is pretty easy going. She has been a member of the Windy City Rollers since 2009. But before roller derby, Ska spent a part of the last decade in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, in intelligence.

After the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001, Ska, like many Americans, was shocked and felt personally motivated to serve her country. She enlisted with the US Army and makes no bones about her aims.

"I wanted to kill bad guys," she said in a serious but disarmed manner. "But mostly I wanted to serve and do my part."

Ska Face, center, with teammates (pic: Travis Taylor).

The first years after basic training, Ska was stationed at Ft Bragg, NC, home of the 82nd. Her main work involved a variety of things, but most important bolstering the mission to to find the enemy and never lose them.

While defending the country in a war zone is a 24/7 job, the Army makes time for athletics to promote morale, according to Ska and her husband, Aaron, who served in Iraq before the two were later deployed together to Afghanistan.

Along with running a regular flag football league within the 82nd Airborne, the division promotes a week-long field day of sorts, called "All American Week". Aside AA week, sports were commonplace.

"We played volleyball," says Aaron, of his time in Khandahar back in 2002. "But you couldn't really play on the moondust so they flew in some beach sand for the games." There was also softball, horseshoes, and a drop contest which involves competitive parachuting from a Blackhawk helicopter at 800 feet.

Aaron was an all-sports athlete during his time overseas, also playing football and hockey later when back on US soil. But Ska's sports preference was different than that of her future husband. She got involved in "combatives", a hand-to-hand style of fighting that incorporates grappling and other wrestling techniques used today in Ultimate Fighting and MMA.

During regular competitions within the 82nd, Ska participated in organized combatives with both men and women. She beat some of the men she wrestled, and dominated the women in the program she met in competitions.

Ska, left, in a combatives test match makes her opponent tap out.

Combatives training, probably a good life skill, goes hand-in-hand with the hard work and commitment that today's military demands. Later when it was time, her unit was deployed to Afghanistan, where she was stationed for over a year, continuing in the same functions.

"I really wanted to go." says Ska. "At one point it looked like I'd be transferred (elsewhere), but it was important for me to go over to Afghanistan, and be with my unit on the front lines."

At the end of 2008, right after she returned to Ft Bragg from Afghanistan, Mo got involved in roller derby.

"I was out one day with some friends and we went to the mall, and there was a car that said "Rogue Rollergirls". So the three of us got tickets to see a bout at the local roller rink, and it was awesome," she says. After that she went for a tryout and joined as "Hard Mod Mo" in a league that skated in camouflage uniforms.

After a season in North Carolina roller derby, Mo headed back to Chicago and wanted to get involved with the Windy City Rollers.

"I had told them I spent some time in a league in North Carolina, but they told me I had to wait for a rolling tryout," she said. "It kinda freaked me out. I couldn't just walk on," she said, noting the increased skill level.

In the meantime, she joined open practices with The Chicago Outfit, coming up with her new derby name, "Ska Face", which referenced both her love for Jamaican ska music and Chicago's "Scarface" Al Capone.

"I don't go into it thinking that anyone tries to play dirty. If someone elbows me, even if it's illegal, I don't take that personally. An elbow in the gut? Shit happens. It's rough. That's just part of the game."

Ska's wrist tattoo, above, in remembrance, Cpl Adam Quinn, of one of her enlisted fellows killed in action.

Much has been made about the hard training, bumps, and bruises that are required of the women who make roller derby part of their life. But Ska's view on her success boils down to vision and the willingness of players to skate as a team. This may be where her time in a military unit comes into play most.

"Team captains are important --and maybe it's a military thing-- but teams have to skate as a team, not just play as individuals. We're all on a team for the same purpose. To win, but to support each other."

As it turns out, Ska has never lost a bout during her time skating for her Chicago home team, The Fury. She is also a key jammer for the Second Wind all-star team.

After breaking her leg last fall, Ska is currently duty-inactive, but itching to get back in. Missed by her teammates, it is safe to say that Ska Face will continue to be an integral part of their mission as sisters-in-arms.

"War Games" is part of a series of stories about military personnel and the sports and recreation they undertake while on active duty.

Andy Frye has written for ESPN.com, The Chicago Sun-Times and FiveonFive magazine. Follow on Twitter at @MySportsComplex.

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