ESPN celebrates Veterans Day with troops, families at Grafenwöhr
GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — Soldiers, veterans and their families, many wearing the colors of professional football, baseball, basketball or hockey teams, packed the Grafenwöhr parade field and the post exchange parking lot Thursday for a live Veterans Day broadcast of ESPN’s SportsCenter.
SportsCenter anchors Josh Elliot and Hannah Storm broadcast for six hours from a stage inside a large tent on the parade field while soldiers competed in military skills contests or grilled hot dogs and drank beer at a tailgate party in the parking lot.
Sitting in the front row in the tent were members of the German Parachute Battalion 373, many still recovering from wounds suffered in combat. At the start of the show members of the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade’s 5th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment marched into the tent and embraced the Germans to a standing ovation.
The soldiers from the two nations last saw each other April 2, when the Americans flew through a hail of Taliban fire to evacuate 11 wounded Germans, action that earned each the German Gold Cross for valor.
During a commercial break, Sgt. Steve Shumaker, 34, of Riverside, Calif., put his arm around one of the Germans, Master Sgt. Ralf Rönckendorf, who was left blind after the battle, and helped him cross the parade field.
“Last time we walked like this we were in Afghanistan,” Shumaker said, his voice breaking with emotion. “This guy was so brave. He wouldn’t let them put him on a stretcher so we walked like this to the helicopter … and the battle was going on all around us.”
Rönckendorf said it was difficult meeting the Americans who saved him.
“I’m blind from the explosion,” he said. “It’s a big problem.”
There were other reminders of the costs of war during the broadcast. When Joint Multinational Training Command chief Brig. Gen. Steven Salazar introduced the audience to three Gold Star wives, who had lost their husbands in combat, the women also got a standing ovation.
“They are the reason we are here,” Salazar said. “They are the reason we are in Afghanistan and Iraq and they are the reason why ESPN has come to Grafenwöhr, Germany.”