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Jets assistant Kotwica goes from leading soldiers to NFL players

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Ben Kotwica remembers the pinging of bullets bouncing off his Apache helicopter and the thumping of mortar rounds pounding into the ground around him.

The vivid sounds, powerful reminders that he was far from any football stadium, are etched into his mind.

"There are close calls, but you're doing your job," the New York Jets' special teams assistant coach said. "I don't think you ever sit there in the moment and say, 'Oh, God. Why am I here?' It's more like, 'Yeah, that was a close call and let's keep moving on.'"

Coaching file
Age: 34

Years with Jets: 3

Years in NFL: 3

That attitude has served the 34-year-old Kotwica well as he has made a seamless transition from the battlefield in Iraq to the football field, now leading players as a coach instead of soldiers as a company commander. After two seasons as a quality control coach for defense and special teams under Eric Mangini, Kotwica was promoted to special teams assistant by new coach Rex Ryan.

"Being a commander in the military, you're coaching, you're mentoring, you're teaching," said Kotwica, who earned various honors including the Bronze Star. "That aspect always appealed to me. Whether it be in Bosnia, Iraq or Korea, we always had some type of athletics going on and I always found myself kind of spearheading those activities."

Kotwica, who'd like to become an NFL head coach, was a three-year starter at linebacker and a co-captain for Army under current Jets linebackers coach Bob Sutton before graduating in 1997. After leaving West Point, Kotwica served his country for more than seven years as an attack pilot, routinely flying in and out of danger.

"I was kind of wired that way, going up to shoot and attack things," he said with a grin. "I kind of liked that mentality, liked that mind-set, liked that mission."

After his final tour was up in 2005, Kotwica left the Army to become the defensive coordinator at the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School in Eatontown, N.J. That led to his stint with the Jets two years later.

"For me, it's been great," he said. "I didn't leave the Army because I didn't like it. I left the Army because I really, really wanted to do this. I didn't want to be 40, 45 years old and say, 'You know what? Maybe I could've been pretty good at that.'"

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Ryan has no doubts about that.

"I can tell you this, he's not breaking nerves on anything," said Ryan, who also has Kotwica involved in defensive meetings. "He's a sharp guy, very humble and I believe he's going to be a star in this league as a coach, I really do."

Kotwica was a member of Operation Iraqi Freedom II in 2004, providing security and convoy escorts to supply trucks and troops that were moving through Baghdad.

"We got shot at and our helicopter got hit on occasion," he recalled. "Yeah, you would fly through the skies of Baghdad at night and you'd see some tracer rounds out there and they kind of looked like fireflies and you'd be going, 'OK, turn right. OK, go the other way.'"

He experienced countless moments when fear was overcome by adrenaline, like the time Kotwica was forced to make a rough landing when one of his chopper's three tires was shot out by a 50-caliber round.

"You do see a lot of things and not just everyday things," he said. "I mean, you see heroism, you see bravery, you see cowardice, you see fear. Those are the realities of this war thing."

And so is taking lives, a brutal aspect of battle that he gradually accepted.

"When I pulled the trigger on occasions, I don't think I consciously said, 'OK, somebody over there is going to lose their life today,'" he said. "I think it was more, 'Hey, they did something to us and now we've got to do something to them.'"

Kotwica, who is married and has two children, is comfortable talking about his past and said he isn't haunted by his wartime experiences.

"I haven't had a moment where I've woken up in the middle of the night screaming or running into the front yard," he said.

Then, Kotwica laughed and added, "Now, that loss last year at Seattle, though ..."

Five years removed from the days of worrying about bullets and shrapnel, Kotwica has settled into his role of coach. Still, he thinks about those moments from time to time, especially on holidays such as Memorial Day. Four pilots in Kotwica's unit were killed during his time in Iraq, and he knows several soldiers still fighting overseas.

"As an officer and somebody that served in the military, it's kind of neat to be the guy that allowed other people to do what they do here," Kotwica said. "And now, I'm that guy thanking them for what they do."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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