News: Service members re-enlist at Carolina Panther’s game
Story by Sgt. Derek Kuhn
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 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, they weren’t the only ones standing tall—service members were.
Prior to kickoff, more than 40 service members, including 15 currently deployed to Iraq, participated in a mass re-enlistment ceremony at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., prior to the day’s football game. The service members at one of the United Service Organization in Baghdad participated through a live satellite feed.
“The ceremony was a joint effort of the military services, the United Service Organization of North Carolina and the Carolina Panthers,” said John Falkenbury, the president of the USO-NC. “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 re-enlistment 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 were a team effort.
Falkenbury agreed with Vacho and said the coordination efforts to honor
Service members began back in August.
“Between the services, the USO-NC, 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 service members being honored made all the effort worth it.”
As the service members walked out of one of the stadium’s tunnels before the start of the game, they received a standing ovation from the crowd.
Spc. Mandy Hellerich, a human resources specialist with 3rd Brigade, 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 service members, 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 and noted that “it is important for Americans to honor the young men and women who sacrifice so much for our freedom.”
Suffice to say, that is why the USO goes to such lengths partnering with organizations like the Carolina Panthers, Falkenbury said.
Besides coordinating mass re-enlistment ceremonies, Vacho said the Panthers have many programs to honor and show appreciation for service members. For instance, the Panthers have programs where football players work with wounded warriors and play video games (from the states) with deployed service members 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 re-enlisting 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,” she said smiling.