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Military vets get access to Super Bowl Experience, sense of community

A Department of Homeland Security police officer checks the security of a fence built around Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the surrounding area for the Super Bowl on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, in Atlanta.

CURTIS COMPTON, ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION/TNS

By ARIELLE KASS | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution | Published: January 29, 2019

ATLANTA (Tribune Content Agency) — Orrick Curry served in the Army for 28 years before he was medically retired after spending time in Afghanistan. It was a tough transition back to civillian life, he said, helped by groups like the Wounded Warrior Project, which connected him to other veterans.

On Monday, more than 2,500 veterans and their families, including Curry, came to the Super Bowl Experience through the Salute to Service program, which provided free tickets to the NFL event. For Curry, it was a good distraction and a way to meet others who have served.

“There are a lot of things going on politically,” the Douglasville resident said. “It gives you time just to relax and enjoy the game of football.”

Curry was bringing his 7-year-old grandson to the Georgia World Congress Center, hoping to show him the parallels between the teamwork in the military and in the NFL. Since he didn’t have to pay for the tickets, he expected to spend the money on NFL gear for the boy.

Inside the Super Bowl Experience, fans lined up to see previous winning teams’ Super Bowl rings, to test their speed at the 40-yard dash or to collect autographs from NFL players. Melissa Schiller, the NFL’s director of community relations, said Salute to Service launched in 2012, and was intended in part to help ensure veterans got out of the house and interacted with each other.

The NFL also plans to have a another event for service members Tuesday evening at Fort Benning in Columbus. Jordan Smith, a previous winner of the television singing contest “The Voice,” will perform.

“As a country, our responsibility is to say thank you to service members,” Schiller said. “It really is one of the top priorities of the NFL.”

Andrew Coughlan, a major gifts specialist with the Wounded Warrior Project who also served, said for some veterans, the event might be the first time they have left the house in several weeks.

“They come here for a couple hours and they’re not thinking about their injuries, their VA appointments,” he said. “It’s a way to enjoy life and be normal without worrying about injuries.”

For Kimberly Walker, who served 15 months in Iraq, the day felt like “winning the lottery.”

Walker, who lives in Lithonia, is a die-hard Patriots fan. She said being able to experience them in the Super Bowl is a really big dream.

“It feels like they did it just for me,” she said. “The Wounded Warrior Project, they keep me engaged. … I wouldn’t have come on my own.”

Wayne Wycuff, who lives in Newnan and did tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait, doesn’t watch much football anymore. But he makes an exception for the Super Bowl and to bring his 13-year-old son Hunter for some bonding time.

“It means a lot,” he said. “The fact that they donate (the tickets) means that someone cares about the time we did, what we sacrificed.”

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