By Teresa Varley
Aaron Smith spent time talking with Baron Berg, chatting about football and life. He shared some advice with him, said thanks and just enjoyed getting to know him.
Smith had no idea, though, what that time and those words of encouragement meant to the young United States Marine.
"It definitely boosted my morale," said Berg, who is from Clearfield, Pa. "It makes me realize that these guys care about me and the other veterans and they appreciate our service to our country."
Berg was among those who attended Heroes at Heinz Field, an event hosted by the Steelers and VA Healthcare to honor wounded veterans from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. The event included on-field drills, autographs and a welcome by Steelers president Art Rooney, II before dinner.
For Berg the time spent at Heinz Field was just what the doctor ordered.
"Aaron offered me a lot of good advice," said Berg. "He told me to believe in myself, keep the tempo, work hard and challenge myself. And he said thanks. That little bit of a difference those things make – like when we were in Iraq and Fallujah watching the Super Bowl on TV - mean so much."
Karar Alabsaw also enjoyed himself as he was all smiles after Jeff Reed helped him kicking field goals, something the Steelers fan never imagined he would have the chance to do.
"It's almost surreal," said Alabsaw, who is in the U.S. Army and hails from Erie, Pa. "I never thought I would be out here kicking with a Steelers player. It hasn't kicked in yet. It's nice to get away from where I am for a while and be in a different setting, especially meeting the other veterans who are in the same boat as I am. They know what I am going through and I know what they are going through. It's something good."
That is just what everyone was hoping for.
"Some of these men and women have very traumatic injuries," said Michael Moreland, director of the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. "To let them have the ability to get out and do something like this picks their spirits up, let's them feel good about things and their families too. It's good for them as well. They need a break every once in a while."
The veterans didn't let those injuries get in the way of getting out on the field and taking part in the football drills.
"They are full of life," said Smith. "They are smiling and talking. To see that throws me back the most. Despite what they have been through they still have an upbeat attitude."
There were those without limps throwing passes, some with prosthetic legs kicking field goals and a loss of his sight didn't hold back U.S. Army Sgt. Jeremy Feldbusch.
"It's nice to meet some of the guys," said Feldbusch, who chatted with many of the players, "It's great for the invite. For the veterans and wounded service members, it's just nice to be part of it."
Jessica Lynch, the Army PFC who was held hostage when the conflict in Iraq began, also tried out her skills tossing the football and enjoyed the experience, getting autographs for herself and a few others back home as well.
"It's an honor to have been invited here and be a part of it," said Lynch. "It's a lot of fun. It's nice to do events like this where we are appreciated."
Smith and Reed were two of the 10 players who attended the event, along with Patrick Bailey, Chris Hoke, Roy Lewis, Mewelde Moore, Dan Sepulveda, Dezmond Sherrod, Matt Spaeth and Greg Warren.
"As an American citizen, father and husband, this is the most honorable thing I can do," said Smith. "They fight for my freedom so I can come out here and play football. To give something back to them with the sacrifice they made is the ultimate thing for me."
Moore, who has family and friends who have served in the military, considered it an honor to take part in the event and was amazed at the attitude the veterans had.
"It's unbelievable to see their strength," said Moore. "It's one of those things you get stronger from. You see how strong they are, their will power. It's inspirational. You want to continue to do better in everything you do because you see such great things coming out of them."