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Saying thank you to heroes


On a beautiful fall night, men and women who embody the true meaning of what a hero is had the chance to do what the Steelers had done a few days earlier.

They were able to throw passes, catch a few and even get a shot at kicking a field goal

It was a far cry from their normal routine of rehabbing injuries, both physical and mental, that were suffered while serving our country.

It was all a part of Heroes at Heinz Field, an event hosted by the Steelers and VA Healthcare VISN 4 to honor wounded veterans from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. It's also an opportunity for VA Healthcare to make the veterans aware of the services available to them, something that they don't always realize.   

"The biggest thing is here you are not alone," said former Steelers running back Rocky Bleier, a Vietnam veteran who came back from his injury in service to play football. "You are with everybody. You are no different than any other veteran that is here. They are all in the same boat. It's an opportunity to talk to one another and get to know each other and learn what's available.

"It's also a chance to be able to say thank you. It's a great thing. I know how appreciative returning solders are that someone cares and has an interest. If we can bolster the spirits of our returning vets and show that we care, it goes a long way in their lives and rehab."

Chris Nowak, a retired Marine who is the VISN 4 prosthetics manager and a driving force behind the event, understands the importance of the event as he lost his leg while in the service and is now helping others who face similar situations.

 "It's an unbelievable mental lift," said Nowak. "That is the biggest part of rehab, the mental aspect, having a positive mind. Being able to do things like this gives them the courage to try different things. That is what this is about."

The event included three on-field drills, receiving, kicking and passing, conducted by Steelers players who signed autographs and posed for pictures as well, before the 75 service members, each accompanied by a family member, gathered for dinner.

"It's an opportunity to give a little bit of time to those who have given way more than their time," said punter Dan Sepulveda. "They gave their service, their heart and a huge part of their life to serve this country and make it what it is for us. It's so little to ask. To see the smile you put on their face by showing up and going out and having a good time with them is more than worth it."

Cpl. James Plummer of the United States Marine Corps wore a metal contraption on the arm where he was hit after a machine gun nest opened on him while on patrol in Afghanistan. For the past month his life was about healing. In two weeks, he will undergo surgery. But on this night, it was about having fun for the 21-year old from Huntington, Pa.

"It means a lot," said Plummer. "To get to walk on the field and meet the players is surreal. I haven't been able to get out of the house since I have been injured. I have just been lying on the couch. Just to be able to come here and meet some of the best players in the NFL it's really great."

And the stories of strength and survival, of true grit, didn't stop there. Air Force Capt. Kyle Deem, a 26-year old from Upper Burrell, Pa., smiled as others ran short receiving routes and pulled in a touchdown pass from Lawrence Timmons or Ike Taylor. A little while later, as he leaned on his crutches, he shared some of what happened to him with Bleier. And what an amazing story it is.

Deem was piloting his HH-60G Pave Hawk Helicopter on a rescue mission for a British soldier in Afghanistan. The helicopter was shot at, and while it wasn't brought down, a bullet penetrated it hitting Deem in the leg. The damage was significant, with him quickly losing a lot of blood still while in mid-flight.

"It tore through a couple of arteries," said Deem, a member of the 41st Rescue Squadron. "I lost a lot of blood. I had a parajumper medic on the back that got a tourniquet on me and saved my life."

And in the truest act of selflessness, Deem continued on with the mission. But his struggles were far from over. Since the incident in July he has undergone 10 surgeries, but instead of dwelling on them is thankful.

"There lot of different doctors who saved the leg," said Deem, who was awarded a Purple Heart. "I am very lucky. I should make a full recovery. I am glad to have the leg."

That attitude of others first was on display again at the event. While he was happy to take part in the event, it was even more important that he got to do so with his father.

"It's nice to get down here and spend time with my dad," said Deem. "I am in the area rehabbing. They have been doing a lot for me and to be able to bring him is nice."

And then he looked around at the other veterans, watching them enjoy the evening, and added.

"For the Steelers to do this, it's great because the people around here really deserve it," said Deem. "It's good to get down here. These guys all went through something in their own right. It's good to be here with them. We all share a common bond."

As the evening progressed, they shared a bond with the players as well.

"It means everything," said Doug Legursky, whose father Wayne served in the 82nd Airborne. "It's a great feeling to come out here and give a little piece of our day to help the veterans who have done so much for our country. I know what it means to sacrifice and we appreciate it in my family." 

Also attending were Ryan Clark, Trai Essex, James Farrior, Keyaron Fox, Doug Legursky, Keenan Lewis, Jeff Reed, Matt Spaeth, Ike Taylor, Lawrence Timmons and Greg Warren. And for each of them, being able to say thank you to the veterans was special.  

"These guys give so much to us," said Spaeth. "It's something so little we can do for them. It's unbelievable to see them out here doing everything they could before. It's unbelievable to think about what they do for us and give up. These people are what make our country so great to live in."

For Essex, taking part was a no brainer. His dad also served in the military and being there touched him. 

"We want to show them support like they show us support," said Essex. "To see this little bit goes a long way with them it really touches my heart.  It puts everything in perspective. I can't imagine what they go through. We play a game on Sunday but these guys actually put their lives on the line for us when they fight for our country. We are here safe and sound and it's all because of them."

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