A chance to say thanks to heroes

When Steelers players take the field at Heinz Field, there are normally thousands of fans in the seats, cheering them on, waving Terrible Towels and giving them their complete and total support.

Pittsburgh Steelers players show their support for military veterans at Heinz Field.

On Tuesday night, the Steelers turned the tables, taking the field to give their support to a group of men and women who are true American heroes.

The Steelers teamed with the VA Healthcare VISN 4 to host "Heroes at Heinz Field," an event held annually to honor veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan who are now adjusting to civilian life.

"For the veterans it gives them a chance to relax and enjoy the evening," said William Smathers, Transition Patient Advocate for the VA Healthcare VISN 4. "They have fought, they have sacrificed, and for the Steelers to open their doors and welcome them in, it's a dream for them.

"In addition, for us at the VA it's important because many veterans are hesitant to seek or get services. But this environment offers them the opportunity to be with other veterans and to relax and have fun. For us at the VA it's a time and an opportunity to help."

Tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger who served three tours of duty in Afghanistan, was happy to be taking part in the event, giving his time to those who like him, served our country.

"I think it's interesting. We talk about different units and areas and what they were facing. Just to get their perspective and see they are okay now and are Steelers fans is a great experience.

"I really enjoyed the military and I wish I could have done it for the rest of my life. I feel like I am missing out. If I were talking to active duty soldiers right now I would probably want to put a uniform on and join them. I am a little more comfortable because they are out of the military and they are in the same situation I am. You always want to be contributing and putting your hand in the pile especially when they are dying for something."

Richard Curtician, from Greenville, Pa., was an Army Ranger like Villanueva and was deployed 19 times with the 75th Ranger Regiment. He spent time talking with Villanueva and the two had a lot in common.  

"I had no idea how close in proximity that we were at the same place where we were stationed," said Curtician. "I got out just before he did his last tour. It was cool to see that. He is such a big guy. I want to bend his ear and ask him how the heck he gets out of the aircraft when we jump because he is a big guy.

"This is pretty cool. I missed it last year because I was having surgery done. It's awesome to see the camaraderie with the players and the organization itself is really cool."  

For many in the military, football was an incredible diversion, something they could enjoy to get away from the stress of being on a deployment. That was the case for David Tylosky, who served in the United States Marine Corp and Air Force for a combined 20 years.  

"They don't know how much it helped sometimes," said Tylosky from Ambridge, Pa. "One of my deployments in Iraq and (Jerome) Bettis fumbled the ball and the Colts are running it back and Ben (Roethlisberger) makes the shoe-string tackle. And here is me…bombs are flying over there and I am not moving. I wanted to see it.

"It gives you something to look forward to. You are out there. There is nothing there but dirt. You are fighting over there. You just want to survive. Following something at home, something you love, you are following your team and they are doing good. It makes that little bit of being away more worth it."

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