NFL team welcomes home warfighters

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Ben Gonzales
  • Air Force Print News
Homecomings are times of celebrations to honor those coming back from a time away from those who care for them. The NFL Carolina Panthers organization and players gave returning servicemembers the ultimate fan experience with Operation Welcome Home Oct. 24 at Bank of America Stadium here.

Two members from the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps as well as several Army and Air National Guard members were welcomed into the home of the Carolina Panthers for a behind-the-scenes look at the pro football team and met four Panthers stars. Each uniformed member also was able to bring up to four family members or close friends to share in the experience.

The servicemembers toured the weight room, stepped on the Bank of America grass, visited the owner's suite with a commanding view of the field and city, and then went to the players' locker room. As they left the locker room, the military members went into a conference room and meet current Panthers stars Mike Minter, Mike Rucker, Brad Hoover and Chris Draft.

The players then took turns asking questions of the military members who all served overseas in the war on terrorism and heard personal accounts of servicemembers' experiences and emotions while deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. The Panthers players took the time to talk to and take a photo with each military member. Later they all had a meal together and the NFL stars signed autographs.

Tech. Sgt. Curtis Jamison, the NCO in charge of radio maintenance for the 437th Communications Squadron at Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., was one of the military members the Panthers honored. While serving as a land mobile radio policy manager with an Army Signal Brigade in Iraq, Sergeant Jamison was injured June 22, 2005, when a mortar attack hit his living quarters he was taking shelter in. Shrapnel ripped through his left foot and right leg and later that day was medevaced out to save his foot. Five days later he was in the home of his wife, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Shereda Jamison Jacksonville, Fla. Sergeant Jamison received the Purple Heart for his wounds and still walks with difficult and a slight limp.

When asked by Panthers fullback Brad Hoover what he enjoys most about being home, Sergeant Jamison replied, "How free we are. We take a lot for granted and seeing how (Iraqis) live, it makes you re-evaluate your life."

"This was an awesome time," said Aaron Banks, the 15-year-old stepson of Sergeant Jamison who spent the day with the Panthers. "I now have a few things to throw in my friends' faces."

Also participating in the Panthers Operation Welcome Home was Staff Sgt. Steven Stone, an explosive ordnance disposal technician from the 437th Civil Engineer Squadron at Charleston AFB. While serving in Afghanistan from May through September 2005, he earned the Army Commendation Medal for saving three military engineers lives who were injured when they stepped on a land mine and treated them until Army medics arrived. Sergeant Stone brought his wife, Melissa, and two sons Gavin and Kasen, for the up-close look at the Panthers stadium and to meet the players.

"Today was so exciting," said Navy Seaman Eric Taylor from Navy Hospital Charleston in South Carolina, who served as a hospital corpsman treating American and coalition troops injured from February to August 2006 while serving in Qatar. "It really made me realize people appreciate what we do."

"Doing this is something close to my heart having some of my family members serve and just being able to give back is so important," said Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker, whose brother served in the Navy and grandfather and cousin served in the Army. "It's the least I can do. They are the real heroes."

"This experience was great," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Crisco, an operations battle captain for Charlie Company of the 505th Combat Heavy Engineers for the Army National Guard in Lexington, N.C. Sergeant Crisco served almost 12 months in Iraq building living quarters and shelters for Iraqi army and coalition troops. "We are doing a lot of good for Iraqis, and a tribute like this today means all the good we do is making a difference."

The Panthers also invited Marine Sgt. Matthew Queen to Operation Welcome Home. Sergeant Queen is a combat radar technician with the Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron at Cherry Point, N.C. While stationed in Iraq from July 2005 through February 2006, the seven-year Marine fixed EA-6 Prowlers.

"He always wanted to be a Marine," said Jackie Hamrick, the mother of Sergeant Queen who joined her son in the Panthers tribute to servicemembers. "I'm so proud of him and all our people in uniform."

"Any time I can give back and show how I feel about what (the military members) do, that is what life is all about," said 10-year Panthers safety Mike Minter. "You guys are the true warriors and we appreciate it. We try to liken ourselves as warriors as we go out on the battlefield to play football. But you guys are really going out there with your lives. We definitely appreciate what you and all your friends do and we are enjoying our freedom that you are fighting for."