Thanking their own on Veterans Day

Today Americans will say thank you to the heroes among us, to the brave men and women who sacrificed so much to serve in the Armed Forces.

From World War II, to those who recently served, this day, Veterans Day, is about honoring them for what they have done to protect our freedom, protect our country.

Inside the Steelers' locker room, saying thank you will be easy, because one of those heroes walks among the players.

Alejandro Villanueva is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and a former U.S. Army Ranger who served three tours of duty in Afghanistan, and now does his job to protect the team's quarterbacks and blast holes through opposing defenses for running backs. While his role has changed from his days as an Army Ranger, the respect his teammates have for him hasn't.

"Even before he played for us I had the ultimate respect for the military," said David DeCastro. "To have him, talk to him, and learn about his experience adds even more to that respect. It's great to have him on the team."

That sentiment was echoed by others.

"It's great to have him around. He is an awesome guy. A guy you want to have on your team," said Chris Hubbard. "I have gained so much more respect for what they do. The stories he tells us are way beyond what you could imagine. I don't think I could be able to go out there and do that. I respect him so much and thank him for what he has done for us and our country."

The Pittsburgh Steelers would like to thank those who have served our country.

While others will be thanking him, Villanueva is appreciative of those who served before him, with him and continue to serve. And that is a daily thing, not just something on Veterans Day. Earlier this year he attended Heroes at Heinz Field, an event through the VA Healthcare System to honor veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan who are now adjusting to civilian life. While the veterans were getting pictures with him, he was getting to know them better. It also made him miss his time in the military.

"I really enjoyed the military and I wish I could have done it for the rest of my life," Villanueva said at the event. "I feel like I am missing out. If I were talking to active duty soldiers, I would probably want to put a uniform on and join them. You always want to be contributing and putting your hand in the pile especially when they are dying for something."

Those words are explanation enough as to why Villanueva is the Steelers' nominee for the Salute to Service Award, an award presented in conjunction with the NFL and USAA. The award honors a league member who demonstrates an exemplary commitment to honoring and supporting the military community, and the winner will be announced at the 6th Annual NFL Honors awards show. Villanueva, who received a Bronze Star during his deployment for rescuing wounded soldiers while under attack from enemy fire, gives back to those who have served whenever he can.

"It's provides real perspective about who the real heroes are," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "To have Al with us is a continual reminder that the people who serve our country and provide a blanket of protection for us on a day-to-day basis are the real American heroes."

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