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Servicemembers reenlist at Carolina Panther’s game

By Sgt. Derek L. Kuhn
40th PAD

  Photos by Sgt. Derek L. Kuhn/40th PAD
Sergeant Gabriel Hulse, a paratrooper with the 44th Medical Brigade, reenlists with more than 40 other servicemembers prior to the Carolina Panthers football game as part of the team’s Military Appreciation Day at Charlotte, N.C., Nov. 21. Servicemembers who are deployed as part of Operation New Dawn also reenlisted via satellite feed from a USO center in Baghdad. The feed was displayed on the stadium’s video screen.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — On any given Sunday in autumn, thousands of fans flock to various stadiums throughout the U.S. They go to watch some of the best football players in the world face off.

Most of these players tower over six feet tall, dwarfing the average American, but during the Carolina Panthers’ Military Appreciation Day, Nov. 21, they weren’t the ones standing tall — servicemembers were.

Before kickoff, more than 40 servicemembers, including 15 who are currently deployed to Iraq, participated in a mass reenlistment ceremony at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., prior to the day’s football game. The servicemembers at one of the United Service Organizations in Baghdad, Iraq participated through a live satellite feed.

“The ceremony was a joint effort of the military services, the United Service Organizations of North Carolina and the Carolina Panthers,” said John Falkenbury, the president of the USO-N.C. “We thought having a military appreciation game would be a good way to show our men and women in uniform how much they’re appreciated. Being able to have a reenlistment ceremony here, made a good idea great.”

However, great ideas often require a lot of coordination between many people.

“There were hundreds of people involved,” said Peter Vacho, the youth football manager for the Carolina Panthers. Vacho, whose job involves coordinating events like this with the military, said the event was a team effort.

Falkenbury agreed with Vacho and said the coordination efforts to honor servicemembers began back in August.

“Between the services, the USO-N.C., the satellite feed and the Panthers, it took quite a bit of work,” Falkenbury said. But the former Army public affairs officer was quick to add that, “seeing the reaction of the servicemembers being honored made all the effort worth it.”

As the servicemembers walked out of one of the stadium’s tunnels before the start of the game, they received a standing ovation from the crowd.

Specialist Mandy Hellerich, a human resources specialist with 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division’s Aviation Regiment, said the pop of the crowd when they walked onto the field made her feel good.

“I am proud to wear this uniform,” the paratrooper from Decatur, Ga., said. “But it felt great walking out there and knowing by the ovation we got, everyone in the stadium was behind us 100 percent.”

The effect of the crowd’s response was evident on the servicemembers, Vacho said.

“It really warmed my heart to see the smiles on the faces of these fine American heroes,” said Vacho, whose grandfather served with the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne during World War II. “It gave me goose bumps.”

Falkenbury agreed. “It is important for Americans to honor the young men and women who sacrifice so much for our freedom,” he said.

Suffice to say, that is why the USO goes to such lengths partnering with organizations like the Carolina Panthers, Falkenbury said.

Besides coordinating mass reenlistment ceremonies, Vacho said the Panthers have many programs to honor and show appreciation for servicemembers.

For instance, the Panthers have programs where football players work with wounded warriors and play video games (from the states) with deployed servicemembers through the USO, he said.
“We are very passionate about supporting our military here,” Vacho said. “Any opportunity the Panthers have to honor these heroes, we do.”

Hellerich said it was great fun and an honor reenlisting at the game, but having a good time wasn’t what was most important to her.

“It was awesome to be able to come here and participate in the event, but the important thing was having the opportunity to continue serving my country,” Hellerich said smiling.


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