By Jilane Rodgers
Video By Chad Kurz
NFLPLAYERS.COMIn recognition of Veterans Day, the NFL Players Association opened its doors Tuesday to guests from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, members of the Tuskegee Airmen and senior military officials. Hosting the event to honor those in the Armed Services were Executive Director DeMaurice Smith, Washington Redskins Rock Cartwright, Chris Cooley, Phillip Daniels, Fred Smoot and Renaldo Wynn, and former players John Booty and Carl Kammerer.
The day’s activities kicked off with an Internet videoconference between the players and members of Team Shadow, a Military Transition Team (MiTT) outside Kirkuk, Iraq. The 20-minute conversation covered everyday topics from food and family to specifics of the troops’ experiences overseas, including climate conditions and interactions with locals.
“I feel like we could have all gone out as a group,” Cooley said. “They’re great guys that would be easy to talk to, easy to hang out with. They’re in such a different world, and we can all still relate.”
Members of a MiTT are usually senior members of their respective branch who bring a variety of experiences and skills to the table, and the teams advise Iraqi and Afghan security forces on the skills which will aid them in protecting their respective country after U.S. forces leave. Participating from Team Shadow were Cpt. Randolph Bueno (Infantry Officer), Sgt. Jamal Cunningham (Communications Sergeant), Cpt. Matthew Nelson (Engineer Officer), Cpt. Heath Mullins (Logistics Officer) Cpt. Michael Pachucki (Logistics Officer) and Ssg. Craig Showman (Maintenance Sergeant).
“We’re talking about guys, about fellas, relating and having fun,” Smoot said. “We all understand the importance of teamwork. We both go to battles even though they’re totally different battles. We understand what they go through, being away from their families. Just to get to talk to them live when they’re out there was a blessing for us.”After some banter as to which side would win in a head-to-head matchup of Madden NFL 10, the players pledged to ship consoles and copies of the game to the base in hopes of eventually staging a real showdown. Team Shadow’s Pachucki, a lifelong Redskins fan, was given another treat, as his fiancé surprised him on the NFLPA’s side of the video conference call. A few hours later, Pachucki sent an e-mail to friends and family detailing the experience as “one of the greatest of my life.”
After the call concluded, the players joined up with Smith, Booty, Kammerer and other NFLPA executives for a luncheon in the Garvey Center to honor the Armed Services attendees. Smith, whose father served in the Marines and was present for the activities, welcomed the groups and thanked them for their service.
Smith said, “On behalf of the NFLPA and all of our players, we are grateful for your service and your sacrifices. We are honored to welcome the Tuskegee Airmen as well as these men and women from Walter Reed, and we thank you for being here with us today. We hope that you know this praise is deserved year-round, but it is special for us to have the opportunity to express our gratitude to you this Veterans Day.”
The veterans in attendance ranged from those recently serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom to those who first took to the air nearly seven decades ago. The Tuskegee Airmen flew the 332nd Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II, becoming the United States’ first African-American military pilots. Three of the original fighter pilots were present at Tuesday’s function.
“We come for the wounded warriors,” said James Pryde, a former radio operator with the Tuskegee Airmen. He eventually joined the National Security Agency in 1950 and worked in the signals analysis section, becoming the chief of a Soviet analysis office in 1965. In 1978, Pryde was named the Director of the Defense Special Missile and Astronautic Center. “I’ve seen lots of Veterans Days and I hope to see a lot more,” he added. “I’m from the old school; I still have my leather helmet.”
The day’s surprises didn’t end with the video conference call, however, as Cooley sat down to face off against Army veterans in Madden NFL 10 – often passing to himself – much to the delight of those who were watching the game. Then, Sfc. Timothy Wysong, an Indianapolis Colts fan currently recovering at Walter Reed, received an unexpected call.
“I got to talk to Jeff Saturday,” Wysong said. “I’m a big fan. He asked how I got hurt and told me how he had a lot of family in the military. He wanted to wish me a Happy Veterans Day.”
At the NFLPA and across the country, NFL players videotaped personal messages to overseas troops, which will go live on NFLPLAYERS.COM on Nov. 11.
“Any time you can respect the brotherhood of other people doing positive things, it’s a good day,” Daniels said. “We have fans all over the world. They’re our fans, but we’re their fans, as well. I’m probably more of a fan of them than they are of me. I know without them, this country couldn’t survive.”
Additionally, the NFLPA facilitated participation in the Support a Solider program. Nearly 100 players sent personalized e-mails to members of the Airmen representing the 844th Communications Group (Air Force), the United States Marine Corps and the U.S. Army.
“We come together and celebrate with them in a luncheon so they can see some of their heroes, but they are the real true heroes,” Booty said. “Veterans Day means respect. The single word is respect. Respect the veterans who have done it, who are doing it and just salute them.”
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