On a night at Heinz Field when it was all about saying thank you to the military, all Coban Shaw wanted was an opportunity to say thank you to the Steelers. It was something he has tried to find a way to do the last six years, and on this night, on the field with some of his heroes, he was finally able to do so.
Shaw, who was in the United States Army, was on deployment in Iraq when the Steelers defeated the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. A lifelong Steelers fan, Shaw paid one of his fellow infantrymen $50 to take his guard shift so he could watch the game.
But it wasn’t just winning the game that was special. It was the fact the Steelers won the game on his first wedding anniversary, making being away from his wife Sara somewhat tolerable.
Shaw was one of about 75 military veterans who took part in “Heroes at Heinz Field,” an event annually hosted by the Steelers and VA Healthcare VISN 4 to honor veterans who were injured in Iraq or Afghanistan.
So as Shaw, who suffered a severe traumatic brain injury while deployed that still brings severe headaches, met some of the players taking part he finally had that chance to say thank you.
“I have always wanted to share my thanks with the team about making a bad day better,” said Shaw. “It was a bright spot for me. I am humbled by this event. It blows my mind. These were my heroes growing up. I was born in 1975 so I just thought the Steelers won Super Bowls. My whole life has been the Steelers.”
Saying thank you definitely wasn’t a one way street. For the players who attended the event it was their turn to do the same, and for Brett Keisel it took on special meeting. His father, Lane, as well as all of his uncles on both sides of his family served in the military. His cousin Shane Keisel was deployed to Iraq, while his nephew Wes Johnson served in Afghanistan.
“It’s amazing to see all of these guys,” said Keisel. “Speaking from a military family I really appreciate their service. They are the true heroes. We are honored to be able to share a little bit of what we do with them.
“I was talking to a kid who had to use a walker and he just turned 21 years old. It puts into perspective the sacrifice they make on a daily basis.”
And it took on an even deeper meaning that the event took place on the 11th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, a time when many joined the military to defend the country they love so much from future attacks.
“You think about how lucky we have it to be in this great country,” said Keisel. “One of the reasons it is great is these folks here. They put their lives on the line for all of our rights and freedoms. It means a lot to come here and tell them thank you.”
It shocked many of the military veterans to hear the players say thank you, the same players they look at as heroes, were referring to the veterans as being the true heroes, the ones everyone should look up to.
“It’s unreal,” said Army Infantryman Michael Morelli from the North Hills area of Pittsburgh. “I always thought of it as the other way around. It’s cool to hear that.”
Morelli, who joined the Army right after the Sept. 11 attacks because “I had to go out and do something about it,” admitted that he needs to get out more often to events like this.
“It’s good to get out here,” said Morelli. “I don’t get out as much as I should. It’s good to get out here with other veterans. I need someone to kick me in the butt to get out. I think this is the kind of thing that is good for people to get out. I have been talking to a couple of people. It’s always good to meet up with other veterans. People don’t understand what is going on with you.
“(There was) a lot of combat I went through. It’s hard, 18 hour days and four hour nights every day. People die. You have to do what you have to do. It’s rough stuff. I am here. I made it through.”
As did all of the others surrounding him on the field, decked out in Steelers gear to enjoy an evening of on-field activities ranging from kicking, passing and receiving drills and for a while escape the injuries and pain, both physical and mental.
“I am having such a great time,” said David Crispin from Butler, Pa., a member of the Army’s 101st Airborne Infantry Division. “To come out here and meet them, play on the field with them is great. Being around the other veterans is a help. We have all been in the same place. It’s not like out on the streets where people can’t relate to you.”
The veterans shared stories of their deployment with all of the players, which included Will Allen, Drew Butler, Ramon Foster, Ziggy Hood, Keisel, Doug Legursky, John Malecki, Ryan Mundy, Max Starks, Shaun Suisham, and Greg Warren, along with Steelers alumni Tunch Ilkin adnd Craig Wolfley, opening up to them about the good and the bad of what they went through.
“They have given up so much, so much sacrifice for this country and citizens like me,” said Legursky. “This is the least I can do. They are so happy to come here and see us. We feel privileged to be out here with them. It’s great to hear stories from them. They give so much. For us to give a little inspiration is the least we can do.”
And that is exactly what those at VA Healthcare hope for, a chance to get the veterans out with each other as many are still adjusting to their injuries, being back home, and there is no better way to bond than through their love of football.
“You can’t imagine what it means to these service members,” said Buzz Bryan, Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom transition patient advocate for VISN 4. “The Steelers are their heroes. What they do on the field brings them joy. They might be going through a tough time and they turn on the Steelers game and it brings joy to them that you can’t explain.”
On this night, though, it was clear who the real heroes were.
“We look up to these guys for what they do for us, our country and freedom,” said Warren. “Today we remember all of those who died on Sept. 11 and at the same time we are able to embrace the future of a safer tomorrow because of what these guys do.”
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