Punimata promoted to Sergeant in pinning ceremony

LAS VEGAS, Nev. – Men’s Eagles Sevens forward Nu’u Punimata was promoted to the rank of Sergeant in the United States Army in a ceremony at Sam Boyd Stadium Thursday following the Eagles’ captain’s run.

Marine Corps Major Thomas Wagner, Eagles team manager, swore in Punimata with the Oath of Office during the ceremony, which was attended by the remaining Eagles, Punimata’s father Chief Warrant Officer Four Nicholas Luga, Colonel Mark Drown, World Class Athlete Program Senior Enlisted Leader First Sergeant Sebastien Harris and Punimata’s wife Hannah.

Fellow WCAP Eagles Captain Andrew Locke and Air Force Captain Eric Duechle were also in attendance at the ceremony, where Punimata was presented with his citation from First Sergeant Harris. Punimata’s rank was pinned to his hat by his father and to his chest by his wife.

“I don’t want this to take anything away from what’s going on tomorrow,” Punimata told the Eagles following the ceremony. “I think, for all the preparation we’ve had leading up to this week, it’s about our flag, it’s about our country, but more importantly it’s about the brothers on our left and our right.

“When we take the field tomorrow that’s who we’re playing for. It’s just the 12 of us out there. Nobody and nothing else. Just us.”

Punimata had originally played for the Eagles on the circuit two years ago before enlisting with the Utah National Guard, which took him away from the game of rugby. With the All-Army Sevens team at Serevi RugbyTown Sevens last summer, Punimata was seen by the Eagles coaching staff.

“We said, ‘He’s still got it,’” Wagner said. “It was great to see. He went away for a year-and-a-half, but he still had it. We selected him [for the Residency program at the Olympic Training Center] and sent a selection letter to the Utah National Guard. They said, ‘Yes, we’d love to have an Olympic athlete from the Utah National Guard.’ He was our first WCAP athlete to show up.”

The World Class Athlete Program was created under the U.S. Army Community and Family Support Center, which includes activities to help get soldiers’ minds outside the normal grind of being a soldier and training. In WCAP, selected athletes are taken from respective units and given the opportunity to train to compete for an Olympic medal. While soldiers are still paid, most of the training and travel money required comes from fundraising by the Community and Family Support Center.

WCAP athletes will still return to their units on a case-by-case basis and will be deployed if called upon, however.

“We’re still soldiers first,” Punimata said.

When Wagner got wind of Punimata’s promotion, he called the Eagle’s father, who recently retired from active duty following more than 30 years of service.

“It takes a lot to make a Green Beret cry,” Wagner said. “But I could tell on the other end of the phone there was some whimpering.”

“I was surprised, because Tom’s a Marine,” the senior Punimata said. “But I’ve known Tom for years. I wasn’t expecting it because this is usually a low-key ceremony and not usually done on this level.

“It was touching. I pulled the car over to call the wife. It’s a big deal for me and we don’t get the chance to do this often.”

The Eagles, one by one, congratulated Punimata with a handshake and a hug after the ceremony. With a new nickname – “Sarge” – Punimata and the Eagles will hope their next handshakes at Sam Boyd Stadium will come after a win against Argentina at USA Sevens Friday.