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A night to honor heroes

The recent rain might have changed the plans a little bit, but it didn’t dampen the enthusiasm at Heinz Field on Tuesday night.

On what has become known as Patriot Day and National Day of Service and Remembrance of the September 11 attacks, the Steelers hosted “Heroes at Heinz Field,” an event held in conjunction with the VA Healthcare VISN 4 to honor the men and women who truly embody what being a hero is all about.

The event aids post-9/11 veterans who are still adjusting back to civilian life, but it does a whole lot more for them. It makes them realize how admired and respected they are.

“It amazes me the excitement and energy hasn’t changed every year,” said William Smathers, Transition Patient Advocate for the VA Healthcare VISN 4. “The veterans appreciate being able to come to Heinz Field. It gives them a certain connection with the team. I know it’s something they look forward to and talk about all of the time.

“To have it today gives it special meaning. We spend a lot of time talking about that. Some of the veterans are relatively new to the VA and getting healthcare, and some have just returned within the last year or so. You have the full spectrum of veterans who have been involved in some time in their life in the war on terror. For the Steelers and players to take part in this day with them is very meaningful. I know a lot of thought has gone into the day, but for these guys it’s an opportunity to relax and enjoy. And us at the VA, we get an opportunity to connect with veterans, whether it’s about healthcare, benefits, whatever. In this environment, they just unwind. They are willing to talk, be themselves. There are so many stories that have come out of this event about veterans getting help.”

The event normally takes place on the playing field, but the recent rain moved the event into the FedEx Great Hall, where veterans took part in different football stations, including passing and receiving drills with Steelers players.

For Jason Winters, who serves in the United States Army, it was a special night interacting with the team he cheered on while he was deployed in Afghanistan.

“For me it’s a combination of I am happy the Steelers are doing this for veterans and thankful they are showing appreciation for veterans,” said Winters. “Out of my three deployments, during the second one especially, some of us got together and we spray painted a towel and called it the ‘Afghan Terrible Towel’. We hung it up in the mountains of Afghanistan. It helped us cheer on the Steelers and got us through a 15-month deployment. Having that piece of home got us through some of the worst times. It got us through home sickness and it was nice to cheer on the Steelers during that time.

“We have all been through some horrendous things. We have all been away from our families. This is our way of coming together as a family. It’s a happy homecoming.” 

The veterans shared stories with the players about the deployment, many of them bonding with fellow veteran Alejandro Villanueva. But they also talked football too, and that was what it was all about.

“It’s awesome, seeing the support for the veterans, seeing them relax and enjoying themselves,” said Matt Feiler, whose wife Julie is in the Army Reserves. “It’s cool to see. They mean a lot. They are fighting for our freedom and protecting us. It’s something not a lot of people can do. These people are willing to do it. They are willing to fight for our country.”

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