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NFL Pittsburgh Steelers honor veterans

Richard Cunningham pointed to the nosebleed seats, where he sat the last time he came to Heinz Field for a Kenny Chesney concert.

"I was all the way up there in 529," said Mr. Cunningham, a 41-year-old Army veteran who lives in Grove City.

But Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Cunningham, a sergeant who served two tours in Iraq, was among 75 combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and their guests who were invited to the field for some face time with a dozen Steelers, who signed autographs, joked and tossed footballs around.

"Just to meet these guys and for them to take their time off and come down is awesome," Mr. Cunningham said.

The Heroes at Heinz Field event, in its sixth year, is intended to give the veterans -- many of whom are struggling with post-traumatic stress, delayed disability payments, and family and employment problems -- a "break from the norm," said Marc Lockett, a case manager for the VA Healthcare Veterans Integrated Service Network 4 area, which includes 10 Veterans Affairs medical centers in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Ohio.

Mr. Lockett said most of the veterans invited to Heinz Field have "been through the most stressful deployments."

Some of the injuries were obvious as the veterans ran passing routes and attempted field goals, including prostheses to replace lost legs and canes to help them amble across the grass.

Other lingering effects from their military service are less apparent.

"A lot of the guys aren't stable financially," Mr. Lockett said. "This is just a break from reality."

Caleb Perkins, 29, and his wife, Abby, of Parkersburg, W.Va., had endured eight years of the training and deployment cycle during their 11-year marriage.

"This is a great event," said Mr. Perkins, who left the Army in August as a staff sergeant after six deployments. "It's like a vacation."

Carlos Jativa, a 25-year-old Marine corporal from Ross who served two tours in Iraq, was injured in 2009 when an explosive hit his vehicle and knocked it off a bridge.

"We don't ask for much. I didn't join the Marines for recognition," Cpl. Jativa said. "It makes you realize people still care."

It was a sobering experience for the players as well.

"It's great to be out here. This is what true sacrifice is," said cornerback Cortez Allen, who was drafted by the Steelers in 2011 from The Citadel, which gave him a window into military life. Mr. Allen said some of his friends and classmates from the South Carolina military academy are still serving overseas.

"To be in the midst of them is truly humbling," he said.

Former Steelers offensive lineman Craig Wolfley, whose son, Kyle, spent a year in Afghanistan with the Army, told the assembled veterans and their relatives that the organization was "in awe of your presence."

"When you meet a man or woman who has served in combat, you are awed and you are diminished," said Mr. Wolfley, who was joined by Steelers broadcaster Tunch Ilkin and a dozen current players, including offensive tackle Mike Adams, guard David DeCastro, cornerback William Gay, quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, defensive end Brett Keisel, punter Zoltan Mesko, tight end Heath Miller, linebacker Sean Spence, cornerback Ike Taylor, longsnapper Greg Warren and linebacker Jason Worilds.

Jason Johnson, a 24-year-old Marine corporal from Altoona who lost his lower leg in Afghanistan to an improvised explosive device, was beaming as he headed out of the stadium.

"My highlight was catching the ball against Ike Taylor. That was pretty nice," Cpl. Johnson said.

 

Robert Zullo: rzullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3909.

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