The Steelers join the rest of the National Football League in honoring the men and women of the Armed Forces as part of Salute to Service month, and will take part in honoring the military when they play the Titans at Heinz Field.
Honoring the military, appreciating what they do, isn’t something that just happens one day a year, though. It’s something that the players think about daily, especially the many players on the team who have family who have, or continue to serve, in the military.
Over 30 players have military connections in their families, and a few of them shared the story of those who make them so proud, those in the military who are their heroes, and the heroes in this country.
L.J. Fort has an appreciation for the military that many won’t ever be able to understand.
He grew up in a military family, both his father, Larry Fort Sr., and his mother, Amy Fort, having served in the Army from the time he was young.
“It was cool from the sense that you travelled around and saw the world,” said Fort. “But it was tough, him being gone from time to time.
“My dad was in Kuwait for a while, and Afghanistan. My mom was stationed in Afghanistan as well. Her base was raided once. They sent out people on patrols. She lost a lot of friends. That was scary. There were some scary situations. When you are deployed, you worry, especially when everything was intense over there.
“I was in high school when they were deployed and you would see the danger on the news. They were deployed at the same time when I was in college. That was wild. My sister stepped up and took care of my younger brother. It was stressful to an extent, but you can’t do much other than pray that everything works out.”
His father recently retired after 20 plus years of service, his mother still active in the National Guard. And when he talks about them, he beams with pride.
“I am so proud of them,” said Fort. “What they instilled in me growing up in a military family is stuff you can’t get anywhere else, the discipline and stuff. We are the freest country in the world and we wouldn’t have that freedom without people serving.
“When I think of heroes, I think of saviors. I think of someone that saves. I think our military does that, they save us and fight for others who want to be free across the world.”
The service in the family doesn’t stop there. His brother, Larry Fort, is an Army medic stationed in Georgia, and his grandfather, Jack Matthews, served in Vietnam.
“It’s pretty awesome,” said Fort. “It’s something to be proud of. My grandpa, dad and brother, through the generations it’s cool to be part of family that has served this country like that.
“I am definitely proud of my brother for being able to endure everything that comes with serving, moving all of the time. I am extremely proud of him.”
Terrell Watson admits he isn’t always sure what type of mission his brother, Deshawn Watson, is going on when he is deployed. But he knows one thing, he couldn’t be prouder.
“He has been doing it since he was 18, and is still doing it at 23, and he loves it,” said Watson. “Growing up we always knew he had something different about him. He has excelled in the Army. He loves doing his job. He loves it so much. We are all proud of him.
“He has been deployed three times. He goes on a lot of special missions. I don’t know everything he does. He is attached to Special Forces. He has been all over the place. Sometimes we won’t hear from him for about two weeks and we think he is in the United States, and then we find out he has been on a mission.”
Watson said he doesn’t worry about his brother when he is on a mission, because he knows his brother knows what he is doing.
“For me, I know it’s his job, I know what he does is dangerous and serious,” said Watson. “I know my parents want to know what he is doing. They worry. I never ask where he is going.
“I feel like they do have some fear, but they are fighting for their brothers next to them. My brother told me when you are in a firefight it’s like either you go home, or I go home, and I am going home. When you are in a firefight, you are thinking about your brother next to you. There is dedication to each other. They protect each other.”
Watson is filled with pride talking about his brother, knowing that while he gets all of the attention for being an NFL player, it’s those who serve that deserve all the accolades.
“People who serve this country, from police officers, to firefighters, paramedics, first responders and the military, they are the heroes,” said Watson. “I always say the pay grade is kind of messed up. They are the ones who should get paid more. They are laying their lives on the line for people they don’t know.
“Every time the National Anthem is played I think about him and the things he has done, the sacrifices he has made and the friends he has lost throughout his time in the Army. It means a lot.”
You can see by the look in his eyes how proud Mike Hilton is of his father, Michael Hilton, who joined the Army right out of high school, before his son was even born.
“He has had some unique experiences,” said Hilton. ‘He lived in Sydney, Australia for a while. He said in some of the other countries when they see you as a member of the military, they see that you served, and they treat you with so much respect. They honor what you do because they know what it means to serve.
“It means everything to me what he did. He might not have been in the heat of battle, but he put forth the effort to help our country be what it is. He always taught me and my brothers the same thing.”
His father’s sacrifice and commitment to the United States has instilled a lifelong appreciation for the military in Hilton.
“The sacrifice they put forth to saving us, and making sure we are safe, is amazing,” said Hilton. “You can’t have anything but respect for those guys. We might complain about what we have to do at times, but those guys are risking their lives every day. And it’s much appreciated.
“They wake up and know what their job is. They understand what they are doing and how they have to go about doing it. I have nothing but love and respect for those men and women.”
Jerald Hawkins gave the ROTC a shot when he was in high school, and quickly realized it wasn’t for him, as that path is not meant for everyone.
He gave it a shot, though, because his two older brothers went down that path when they were younger, and are still serving our country.
Warren Hawkins and Chester Hawkins are both serving in the Army, stationed in Virginia, and are the two people their young brother looks up to.
“They are my heroes,” said Hawkins. “I respect all they do. They made me the person I am today. They sacrificed so I can get where I am today.”
Warren Hawkins has done three tours of duty in Afghanistan, the first time shortly after the attacks on America on September 11, 2001.
“The first time he went I was kind of scared,” said Hawkins, who was only in third grade at the time. “I didn’t know what to expect. It was right after Sept. 11. I didn’t want him to leave. He enlisted before the attacks. He was always in the ROTC in high school and thought that was the right way to go. And he just kept going back.
“He came back one time after being deployed. He was on a turret and a shell got stuck in his uniform and burnt through his shoulder. One time he was riding in a Humvee and a land mine blew up in front of him. He has some crazy stories.”
It was Warren’s commitment that had Chester also enlist in the Army.
“He wanted to follow in his footsteps,” said Hawkins. “He always liked doing the things that he did. He wanted to be like him. He has not been deployed yet. He went to Germany and Kuwait, but he said that wasn’t too bad.”
When it comes to appreciating what the military do, Hawkins just beams with pride talking about his brothers, and everyone who serves.
“I respect them so much for putting their lives on the line for others,” said Hawkins. “Just hearing the real-life stories, the things they endure, it puts them on a whole other level for me.
“It’s tremendous. The things they go through, the stress. If they are putting their lives on the line for our country, you can’t ask anything more. That is the highest pedestal for me, going overseas, so I can live free while they protect us.”
For Matt Feiler, his appreciation for the military is close to his heart, as close as you possibly can get.
Feiler’s fiancé, Julie Carpenter, is in the Army Reserves. She followed in the footsteps of her brother, Rob, who first joined, doing so for a two-fold purpose.
“It was something she wanted to be a part of,” said Feiler. “It was meaningful to her. And she also did it to get some financial help for school.”
Carpenter went through all the rigors of everyone else who joins the Army, challenges that aren’t easy by a long shot.
“She went through basic training and everything like anyone who joins the Army,” said Feiler. “She then went into the reserves, and would do drill weekends once a month. She would go through classes and different techniques.
“I am so proud. It takes guts and everything. Not many people can do what she has gone through. She is very mentally strong, and physically strong as well. I am so proud of her.”
Carpenter, whose mother Mara Carpenter also joined the Army Reserves to support her children and the sacrifice they made, is still in the reserves and makes the Salute to Service game so meaningful for Feiler.
“Those in the military, they protect our country, our beliefs, it’s huge what they do for us,” said Feiler. “The military men and women are the true heroes.”
James Conner is someone many look to as a hero because of his battle with leukemia. But Conner looks at someone else as a hero, his brother Michael Conner.
Michael, 25, is a Staff Sgt. in the U.S. Air Force, stationed at Eglin Air Force base in Florida.
And in his younger brother’s eyes, he and those who serve in the military are the true heroes.
“I am proud of him because he is fighting for our country,” said Conner. “I am so thankful for that. He is one of my role models.
“I have the utmost respect for the military. People like to say football players are heroes. Those guys who are in the military, like my brother, are the real heroes.”
The elder Conner has yet to be deployed, something his brother is thankful for, but he understands it might happen some day.
“If he isn’t scared, I am not scared of it,” said Conner. “He wants to serve our country. I appreciate what he does, and what all who serve our country do.”
It should come as no surprise that one of Arthur Moats’ mentors is his father, Arthur Moats Jr., a former pastor and United State Marine. He is the man who taught him about values, character, discipline, giving back and much more.
“From him I always got the whole mentality of no matter how bleak a situation is, you are going to persevere and come out on top,” said Moats. “I am so proud of him. I don’t take what he did lightly. Everything I do as a man I try to represent him and this wonderful country. Ultimately I want to instill the same core values he instilled in me, in my country.”
Moats was just born when his father left the Marines, so he didn’t have to experience the fear of deployment. But he has heard stories from his father of what it was like to serve his country.
“One of the most eye-opening things was the transition from civilian lifestyle to boot camp, the mental standpoint with all of that and so forth,” said Moats.
It’s the stories his father has shared, and the values he instilled in him, that have given Moats a strong appreciation for what all who serve this country do.
“Those in the military mean a lot to me,” said Moats. “They provide us the safety that we need to live our everyday lives. I don’t even think about it just for my safety, but for my wife and kids. They protect us from everything, from enemies foreign and domestic. They are making the ultimate sacrifice. These people go to different countries for sometimes years with their deployments, and sometimes they don’t come back. These are things you don’t take for granted and that is why I have the utmost respect for everybody in the service.”
Sean Davis wasn’t born when his father served in the Army, as Sean Davis Sr. joined the Army straight out of high school.
The elder Davis, who was a cook in the Army, something that turned into a career as a chef for him, still instilled the values of hard work and commitment that come with serving in the military in his son. And he also instilled in him the respect all should have for those who serve.
“I have a great appreciation for them,” said Davis. “Without them, we wouldn’t have our defense system, we wouldn’t have our freedom. I am grateful for our troops, for people like my father, protecting the people in America.”