Nov. 2, 2010
By Andrew Heller
Casimir Werda of Novi may be the happiest fan inside the Big House for Saturday's game against Illinois. And yet he won't see a single play.
Werda -- a former Army specialist with the 1st Infantry Division -- lost both eyes in 2007 when an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated near his Humvee while he was on patrol in Iraq.
"I would love to see Denard Robinson juking, but I've seen (football) before so I can picture it in my head," says the 27-year-old Novi man. "It's gonna be exciting."
As part of a special Veterans Day celebration -- Veterans Day is Thursday, Nov. 11 -- Werda and hundreds of fellow wounded Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans and family members will be honored prior to Saturday's game against Illinois at Michigan Stadium.
Following an indoor tailgate party at Oosterbaan Fieldhouse, vets and Gold Star families -- those who have lost a loved one in military service -- will line the tunnel as the Wolverines take the field.
The pregame program also includes a military medley by the U-M Marching Band, a bagpipe salute to fallen heroes, the presentation of enormous field flags -- each 7,800 square feet, requiring 70 volunteers to hold -- and a flyover of T-38 jet trainers led by Air Force Major Jason Earley, a 1996 U-M graduate from the College of Engineering.
For U-M Athletic Director Dave Brandon, the program should provide a "goose bump moment" for the Big House's 112,000 fans.
Brandon, whose father was a Korean War infantryman, experienced just such a moment last spring when President Obama administered the officer's oath to ROTC graduates inside Michigan Stadium.
"The place just went electric," Brandon recalled. "It was such a goose bump moment because we were paying tribute to these folks, and I thought there's got to be a way to recreate that feeling."
His father's experiences, he says, "taught me up close and personal about the sacrifices these people make, (so) I view this as a special opportunity to not only honor them but help our fans feel good about their country."
Carol Ann Fausone, adjutant general for veteran's affairs in Michigan and a 1975 U-M nursing school graduate, could not agree more.
"It's spectacular that the university is recognizing veterans in this way," she said, especially since veterans and their families sometimes feel overlooked.
"My belief is that every day should be Veteran's Day, so to have 113,000 people applauding them, there's nothing better."
Army Capt. Mike Erwin of Ann Arbor, founder and director of Team RWB (red, white and blue), a group that helps veterans reintegrate to society, agrees that Saturday's event "shows how much the university thinks of veterans."
Captain Mike Erwin visiting LT Dan
Cnossen at Walter Reed Hospital.
More importantly, he's expecting fan approval to "go a long way toward showing support for not just our soldiers overseas but for the wounded vets, who are going to feel that respect and admiration from the fans. The whole day is going to prove that Michigan really does care."
That affirmation is vital to veterans, many of whom have trouble adjusting to civilian life once they leave the service.
"The problem," says Erwin, "is when you're in the military and you're 19 and 20 years old, you're getting told what to do all the time. It's very concrete, very team-oriented. But the real world is very nebulous. Guess what, no one's going to chew your ass. Once they get out of the military -- especially if they've been wounded or seen some traumatic things and whether or not they have PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder, a condition affecting at least six percent of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans) -- they find it very difficult to adjust to civilian life. A lot of them stay in their homes all day unless they have a reason to go out."
That's precisely what Team RWB does by pairing wounded soldiers with volunteer civilians, who help them get involved in their communities.
Team RWB volunteers and others will be outside the Big House prior to the game collecting goods for overseas veterans (socks, personal care items, snacks, DVDs) and Afghan civilians (eyeglasses, school supplies, winter clothing).
Also at the game Saturday will be servicemen and women with the U.S. Army's Wounded Warrior Program (AW2), which assists and advocates for severely wounded veterans.
Melvin Kearney, a North Carolina National Guard member who became the lead advocate of the Michigan AW2 program after witnessing five buddies killed and 34 severely wounded in Iraq, says tributes like Saturday's truly mean a lot to wounded veterans.
"I tell everyone about the sacrifices my buddies made, what it was like for them because people have no clue what a typical day over there is like. So this means a lot to me, and it'll mean a lot to them, too. It means we're going to honor our fallen comrades. We'll make the community aware."
One AW2 member who will be on hand for the game is Ira Brownridge, 32, of Ypsilanti.
Brownridge, an Army E4 specialist, was wounded while on night patrol near Rustamyah, Iraq, in 2007. A sniper's bullet ricocheted up from the ground, hitting the inside of his helmet then down into his skull.
"All I remember is my buddy doing first aid," Brownridge said. "I knew I was hurt pretty bad. I couldn't move, and I guess I stopped breathing, but I don't believe in quitting and none of my guys thought to quit on me either."
Ira Brownridge received a Purple Heart.
After recovering from his wound, Brownridge returned to Michigan rather than his hometown, the Bronx, N.Y.
Why? He moved here in 2000, in part because of his love for Michigan football.
"When I started watching college football as a kid, there was just something about the Wolverines. The aura around (the program), the history, and I love the colors. Maize and blue are awesome colors."
His favorite Wolverine memory was "watching Tyrone Wheatley going off on Washington in the Rose Bowl" in 1993. In that game, Wheatley ran for 235 yards and three touchdowns. He was named game MVP.
As for Saturday's celebration, he says, "It's great, especially coming from my favorite team.
I'm glad they're doing something like that. Whatever you believe about the war, you should always honor the veterans. It's going to be an amazing day for me."
Werda, also an AW2 member, could not agree more. True, he can no longer see his beloved Wolverines -- he wears prosthetics -- "but I see everything more clear than ever," he says.
He'll listen to the play-by-play via a special link to the press box, and when the Big House crowd gets too loud to hear that, he'll rely on his fiancée, Laura McWilliams, and other fans to tell him what's going on.
"I realize every day it's going to be up and down for me, but I figure I fought for my freedom and for my family's freedom, so I'm not going to have a pity party. I'm going to enjoy myself."
For more information on the Wounded Warrior Project, visit www.aw2.army.mil or call (877) 393-9058. For more information on Team RWB, please visit www.teamrwb.com.
There will also be a donation drive Saturday at gates two and eight.
Requested items for soldiers include black socks, deodorant, baby wipes, hand sanitizer, gum, protein bars, Ramen noodles, canned meat, trail mix, and new or used DVDs or video games.
Requested items for the Afghan families include new or used winter clothing, coats, hats, and gloves, Michigan clothing, pens, pencils, crayons, notebooks, children's books, generic bifocal lenses, blankets, and small toys or stuffed animals.