A Marine comes home

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 3, 2005

Last summer, Cody Alexander and some of his fellow marines were between patrols in Iraq. Some of them began teasing Alexander about his past in gymnastics and cheerleading.

“They joked me for a while,” said the Suffolk native, 19, a Level Five gymnast. “I showed them what I could do.”

He stood perfectly still, then leaped into the air, did a backtuck, and landed on his feet.

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“They were impressed by that,” he said. “They pretty much stopped teasing me. They were like, ‘This isn’t such a gay thing after all!’”

Alexander’s gymnastics career began on a trampoline outside his home, and continued all the way to becoming one of the first males on the Cheer Attitude All-Star senior recreation league team, which won three regional competitions in 2003 and took second at 2004 national competition at Disney World.

“I was looking for a way to keep up with my gymnastics,” he said of his cheering beginnings. “I found that it was pretty fun, and then there were all those cute girls!”

After graduating from Tidewater Adventist Academy in June 2004, Alexander followed in his grandfather’s footsteps to the Marines, and spent three months in boot camp at Paris Island, S.C. Then he headed north to Camp Gieger, N.C., where he studied at the School of Infantry to become a mortarman, someone who, in his words, “provides indirect fire and suppresses targets. When riflemen go in, we take out machine gun bunkers.”

In early January, he was transferred to Camp Lejeune in South Carolina. Two months later, Alexander went to Iraq. By this point, over 1,000 Americans had been killed in combat, a number that recently passed 2,000.

“I had a job to do,” he said. “I knew what I was getting into when I signed the contract.”

When he arrived, Alexander was told he wouldn’t be a mortarman; instead, he’d be assigned to patrols and guard duty. For the next few months, he and other soldiers, both Americans and Iraqis, spent two-hour shifts on the streets.

“We made sure that people weren’t doing things they weren’t supposed to be doing,” he said. “Once in a while, we’d see some shady-looking people, and we’d search their house. About 90 percent of the time, it was nothing, but sometimes, they had AKs (guns) or ammunition. We’d blow it up on the spot, and if we couldn’t do that, we’d call in the Explosion Ordinance Disposal team, and they’d take it and get rid of it.”

Sometimes, they did more than look for weaponry.

“A couple of times, shots were fired over our heads,” he said. “We’d hear gunfire a block away.” A member of Alexander’s troop was killed by an explosive device.

On two occasions, Alexander shot a car advancing on him, hitting the tires or the grill.

“That was just some guys going home and not paying attention to what they were doing,” he said. “I got scared a couple of times.”

But not while stepping back to his athletic roots. Aside from the aforementioned incident, he also did some stunts on a rooftop for some of the Iraqi soldiers.

“They were impressed,” he said. “They’d never seen anything like it before.”

On Oct. 12, Alexander came back to Camp Lejeune, and he occasionally comes back to Suffolk to coach cheerers at the All-Star Academy in Godwin Commerce Park, the new home of the Attitude All-Stars.

“I loved being a gymnast,” he said. “I had such a passion for it. I don’t know if I can do everything I used to do, but if I can help the kids do something, it makes me feel good.”

Come next September, he may have to go back overseas.

“It probably won’t be so hard,” he said. “I’ve been to Iraq, so I have some experience, but every part of it is different. I know what it’s going to be like. I’m not a young marine anymore. I’m not the scared kid I was when I went over there.”