Knowing who the true heroes are

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On Sunday afternoon Heinz Field will be packed with fans waving Terrible Towels, wearing jerseys of their favorite players and cheering for the Steelers as they take on the San Francisco 49ers in the home opener.

But on Monday night, with the seats empty and the stadium relatively quiet, Steelers players cheered on a group of American heroes, a group that might not get the spotlight the players do, but deserve it even more.

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.

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

"For many service members who are returning home, life can be full of challenges," said William Smathers, Transition Patient Advocate for the VA Healthcare VISN 4. "This is an event where the Steelers say thank you to these veterans, but also an opportunity for these veterans to connect with other veterans and with the VA, giving us an opportunity to get to know them and connect them with services.

"It's a great night of fun for them. The players giving of their time is special, and the veterans all want to come when you mention it to them. It's amazing to see some of these veterans, when they first return home, are so uncomfortable going to a VA Hospital. But when you give them the opportunity to go see the players, people they looked up to, when you say the Steelers they are there."

And when you say veterans, the Steelers are there. It's an event that players love to attend, as it's an opportunity for them to say thank you and get to know the men and women they consider heroes.

"It's my favorite community event," said center Doug Legursky, whose father served in the 82nd Airborne in Desert Storm. "Just to give a little bit of our time to put a smile on the face of someone who has sacrificed so much for this country. They have sacrificed their family, their safety, so we can do things like play this game we love so much. To spend time with them is the least we can do.

"I always looked up to the military and soldiers and sacrifices they make for their country. It's something I always appreciate giving back to and will do for the rest of my life."

After some brief introductions, it was all about having fun for the veterans who took part in on-field drills conducted by the players.

"The fact that the players are willing to give some of their time back to all of these veterans is really special," said Cary Crislip, who served in the United States Army Special Forces. "It's a mutual admiration. We do what we did because we wanted to and they are here because they want to. We look up to those guys when they go on the field and it's nice to know they appreciate what we do."

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 Tiffany Isenberg, who served in the United States Army and was deployed when the Steelers played in Super Bowl XLIII and XLV.

"This is a dream come true," said Tiffany Isenberg, who served in the United States Army. "I have been a Steelers fans since I was born. To get to be on the field with them is beyond words. They got me through some of the worst times I have been through. Being able to watch them on television was awesome. It meant everything to be able to depend on that. The games wouldn't be on until the middle of the night, but it would give us something to look forward."

She wasn't the only one who used football as a diversion during deployment. Steelers tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger, also turned to football during his deployments as a diversion. And being at the event he hopes he helped those who recently returned from deployment have a well-deserved diversion.

"It's a great opportunity for the Steelers and veterans to get together," said Villanueva, who was able to spend time with a former member of his unit who was one of the military attending the event. "To have so many of my teammates out here today supporting the veterans, not just today but to see the appreciation they have for the veterans is special.

"Every time I was deployed it was during football season and it does help you get through the day if you had a bad day or just to keep you mind off of things."

From the looks of things at Heinz Field on Monday, nobody had a bad day.

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