I’ve been around for a whole lot of Veterans Days and probably let most of them pass without much notice. I’m sure somewhere in the back of my head I understood what Veterans Day was all about, but never took a pause and offered it any proper respect. But after spending more than half my career working on a Verizon IndyCar Series car dressed in camouflage, and surrounded by men and women in a uniform that matched, that sentiment has long since made an about face.
During a six-year stint working with Panther Racing’s National Guard team, we met thousands of soldiers. We met soldiers returning to American soil after a year at war and soldiers in the minutes before they left. We watched their families say hello and wave goodbye, and cried shamelessly from the side. We visited VA Hospital rooms from Tampa Bay to Palo Alto and seemingly everywhere in between. We met soldiers who had lost arms and soldiers who had lost legs. We met soldiers who had lost both.
We met families who lost a lot more than that.
When you talk about Veterans, you can’t avoid that minefield of clichés: They’re selfless, noble, courageous and fearless. They put service to our nation above everything that is good for themselves. They are heroes. Nearly everything else in life, accompanied by that level of hype, seems to always fall short of its mark.
Veterans deliver on every adjective.
At Texas one year we finished 10th in a race where I was pretty certain we should have finished fifth. I ripped off my headset in frustration. I punched the side of the timing stand. And as I went to storm off I saw a soldier we were hosting that weekend, good friend SPC Joey Paulk, who had been badly burned – nearly beyond recognition – in an explosion and fuel fire while serving in Afghanistan. The details of his injuries and the road map to his recovery would bring the hardest of men to tears. But that night at Texas Motor Speedway he was smiling and laughing – visibly in awe of being able to stand there and watch an IndyCar race live from pit lane. I’m not sure perspective has ever landed a better shot on my chin.
After returning home, we received a thank-you letter from Joey: “I haven’t been this happy or excited about anything in a long time,” it read. “You have put happiness and excitement back into my life.” Since then Joey’s been featured in every news outlet from People Magazine to the New York Times, proving to other injured Soldiers that the road to recovery has a light at the end of it.
Remind me again what I was so ticked off about after that race?
I once attended a ceremony for my friend LTC Shawn Gardner, the former Public Affairs Officer for the Indiana National Guard, who received a well-deserved promotion to Lieutenant Colonel. I’d worked closely with Shawn for years – organizing everything from press conferences and base visits to photo shoots and helicopter rides. During his ceremony, I learned details of his military history he’d never volunteered – stories of training at Fort Bragg, about being a Ranger who could rappel out of a Blackhawk helicopter while shooting the eye out of a needle, about his deployment to fight the war, and all those long nights he’d left his wife and two kids at home while he was gone.
Less than a month later, he invited me to an Indianapolis Colts game where he was meeting with a Colts executive to discuss their partnership with the Indiana National Guard. To make a long story short, the Colts have a motorcycle with a sidecar that leads the team onto to field at the start of the games. Shawn’s friend with the Colts gave him a pass to ride in the sidecar as it led the team through the smoke and pyrotechnics and onto the football field – to be greeted with the roar of 65,000 screaming NFL fans.
Shawn took the pass, and handed it to me. He never hesitated. My attempts to give it back to him were futile. His decision was not negotiable. The ride was mine.
“There are a lot of people wearing this uniform,” Shawn explained. “Who don’t have the opportunity to ride that bike onto the field. I don’t want one of them to see me doing it and think I’m taking advantage of my position here.”
We once met a soldier at Walter Reed Hospital who was missing both legs. He told us about the IED blast that injured many soldiers in his command. Shortly after the explosion he regained his senses and, realizing both legs were in bad shape, quickly found two tourniquets and tied them around his thighs. He had morphine in his bag, but he didn’t use it – at least not on himself. Because, in that dire moment, it wasn’t about him at all.
“I was the medic,” he explained. “Lots of our guys were hurt worse than me. If I didn’t help them … who would?”
At Mid-Ohio one year Ohio National Guard Adjutant General Deborah Ashenhurst told us the story of SFC Ty Henery, who was serving in northern Afghanistan when the small group he was in got ambushed. One of his buddies, MSG Doug Reed, got shot and was hit so badly it was immediately determined his chances at survival were grim. The team knew they had to get Reed out of there immediately and to the nearest surgical team. As the soldiers prepared to evacuate only one of their two Hummers was still operable – and there was no room inside the vehicle for the wounded MSG Reed.
Quickly, the soldiers realized they had no choice but to transport their injured comrade on the hood of the vehicle. As they prepared to evacuate, with enemy fire still raining down, SFC Henery – to protect his friend – decided to lay on top of MSG Reed as they drove through the gunfire. He used his body as a shield, while returning fire on the enemies, as the Soldiers fled the kill zone. SFC Henery remained in that position for the entire six-mile ride back to safety.
As you read this, MSG Reed is sitting at home alive and well with his family.
I haven’t written anything you haven’t heard a thousand times before. Please forgive me, but this is the only way I know how to say “thank you”: To our ancestors who put down the pitchfork and picked up a rifle to create this great nation. To those who fought to free slaves. To our great-grandfathers who turned concentration camps into tourist attractions. To everybody who lent much more than a hand before, during and after 9/11. To every man and woman in uniform who has ever responded to a flood, fire, crash, riot, and every other tragedy that’s gone unseen. And to every veteran that helped write all the pages of history that fall in-between.
Thanks to LTC Shawn Gardner for making my old dream of leading an NFL team onto the field come true. Thank you to SPC Joey Paulk for kicking adversity in the butt, and showing us what a real comeback is all about. Thank you to SFC Henery for proving that “No Man Left Behind” is far more than a cliché catch phrase. Thank you to the medic at Walter Reed Hospital whose disregard for his own life saved so many others. And thank you to every other soldier I’ll never meet for being “Always Ready, Always There.”
I was never brave enough to wear that uniform.
Thank you to every veteran that was.