WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Oct. 22, 2015) — Army combat veteran and four-time Super Bowl champion Rocky Bleier of the Pittsburgh Steelers said he’s often asked what it’s like to be in combat.
“We pray that we come back from war,” he said he tells them. “We have to live with the scars, both visible and invisible. We have to live with the trauma. We have to live with what happens during that period of time.
“But it’s a foundation. It’s an experience that we who have served in the military understand,” he said. “And, it’s the lessons that you learn from them that you incorporate into your own life.
“Those lessons we learned on the gridiron as well as on the battlefield are the same ones that we learn every day in our lives,” he continued. “And that is to take care of one another. Never leave a comrade behind and to fight for what is right and to do what’s right.”
Bleier said he’s not asked what it’s like to play football, since a lot of kids have had that experience in school or in backyard pickup games.
But combat, they ask about, he said. Less than one percent of Americans are in the military and less than 10 percent of those find themselves in combat, he said. So for most he meets, he said, “there’s really no reference point.”
Bleier and Navy combat veteran and two-time Super Bowl champion Roger Staubach of the Dallas Cowboys, spoke at the Pentagon at the Army G-4-sponsored Vietnam War Commemoration event: “Game Changers: Reflections on Service, Sports and Life,” Oct. 21.
When asked what it’s like in combat, Bleier said he also tells them that in 1968, after 10 games into the season with the Steelers, he was drafted into the Army and was sent to Hiep Duc near Chu Lai, South Vietnam, as a specialist 4 infantryman assigned to the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, 23rd “Americal” Division.
During one mission, his company was tasked with returning to the place where a firefight had taken place two days earlier. Their mission was to retrieve Soldiers’ bodies that had been left behind.
About 8 a.m., while crossing a rice paddy, they were attacked. Bleier, a grenadier, covered his buddies by firing his M-79 grenade launcher at the enemy. About that same time, he got hit by an enemy bullet in the thigh. He was wounded once more and was later awarded the Bronze Star Medal.
Being a Vietnam veteran was tough, he said. There was less unit cohesion than in today’s Army. For instance, Soldiers did not deploy to Vietnam as units, they deployed and returned stateside as individual replacements.
Also, it was a different social climate in the country. People were protesting the war and there was not a lot of love for veterans, he said.
“Fellow brothers and sisters didn’t have that same ability to talk about it, many to this very day,” he said. “I run across children of Vietnam veterans who say their dad never talked about it. I feel sad for them. There wasn’t a support group they could go to.”
Bleier said he was luckier than most. After spending a lot of time recuperating from his injuries in the hospital, he was welcomed back to the Steelers.
He said he became somewhat of a “poster child for the military” because of the success he experienced on the gridiron along with his combat experiences.
Being asked to tell his story “for me was a personal catharsis,” he said. “It gave me a chance to come to terms with that service that everyone else repressed.”
While Bleier praises today’s Army and military, he said that in some ways he laments the end of the draft. “Back then, everyone had skin in game.” Today, service is for the patriots, he said, and when they’re sent into harm’s way, it’s not like it was during Vietnam, where many Families had or knew somebody who served.
Another difference between then and today, he said, is then, you wrote letters. It might take weeks or months to receive one back so getting one was really special.
Getting care packages was special too, he said. “You looked forward to that. Everyone in your company somehow sensed that you were going to get a care package that day and they sort of hung around you. They knew before you knew. Then bam, they were there to take everything they could out of that package.”
Today, Soldiers can often chat real time on social media to their loved ones, he said. He said he wonders how Soldiers can focus on the mission at hand if a loved one is chatting about problems at home. “That would be difficult. It’s got to be tough.”
Bleier said he’s proud of his service, but it’s “been a slow time coming” for Vietnam veterans to receive recognition for theirs.
MORE ABOUT NO. 20
Bleier, number 20, was a round 16 pick in the NFL draft, playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers as a running back in 1968 and from 1971 to 1980. He’s a four-time Super Bowl champion.
While playing for the Steelers, he totaled 3,865 rushing yards, averaged 4.2 yards per carry, ran a total of 5,159 yards and made 25 touchdowns.
Before playing for the Steelers, he played on the 1966 national championship Notre Dame football team.
Staubach attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where he won the 1963 Heisman Trophy, playing for the Midshipmen.
During the Vietnam War, Staubach served as a supply corps officer, attaining the rank of lieutenant.
Staubach said he volunteered to go to Vietnam “because I wanted to give something back.”
He was stationed at the Naval Support Group in Da Nang for six months, then Chu Lai for six months. The I Corps area at that time, from 1966 and 1967, was occupied by Marines, so everything he did was for them, he said. The Army would move into that area later, just as he was leaving.
“I came to love the Marine Corps,” he said, adding that he loves all of the services “but the Marines, I saw them in action. Some of my teammates were Marines, some were shot and killed. It wasn’t a popular war but we were asked to do it. It was a shame how our Vietnam veterans were treated.”
The good news today, he said, “is that we really care about our military. I’m really proud of them and what they do for us.”
The world is a really unstable place today, he continued. “Our military are important to ourselves and our kids.”
He encouraged employers to hire veterans because they have so much more to offer, having the instilled values of service, duty and sacrifice.
MORE ABOUT NO. 12
In 1969, Staubach was an NFL round 10 draft pick for quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, where he played from 1969 to 1979.
In 1971, he was named the NFL’s most valuable player. He’s was a six-time Pro Bowl Selection, two-time Super Bowl champion and was named most valuable player in Super Bowl VI.
While playing for the Cowboys, he totaled 22,700 passing yards, his quarterback rating was 83.4, and he completed 153 passing touchdowns and 20 rushing touchdowns.
In 1985, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame
TRIBUTE FROM THE DAS
Lt. Gen. Gary Cheek, director of the Army staff, provided opening remarks and moderated Staubach and Bleier’s discussion in the packed Pentagon Auditorium.
It has been almost 40 years since the epic Super Bowls between the Cowboys and Steelers, Cheek said, right before once-rivals Staubach and Bleier traded friendly jabs at each other over which team was the greatest.
Cheek then showed a short video tribute by Tom Landry and Howard Cosell, both of whom served in World War II. Landry served in the Army Air Corps while Cosell served in the Army. The two of them described Staubach and Bleier as real heroes, not just sports heroes.
Echoing what Staubach and Bleier said, Cheek said, “Our memories of the Vietnam War that started 50 years ago are quite different from any other war. We sent troops to perform a duty, and many Americans did not support or honor them. They returned home to criticism and scorn and many continue to deal with the challenges they faced.
“But our country has changed. The positive response Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans get today is due, in large part, because our Vietnam veterans were determined that their experience would not be re-lived by future generations,” he said.
“Our gratitude for those who served in the Vietnam era may be 50 years late, but it is sincere,” he said.
This year, almost 9,000 commemorative partners across the country are holding commemorative events in parks, businesses, and schools to honor Vietnam veterans and their Families, he said.
“We remember the 58,220 Americans who gave their lives, including Bob Kalsu of the Buffalo Bills and Don Steinbrunner of the Cleveland Browns,” Cheek mentioned.
“Today, we are joined by two great leaders to reflect on service, sports, and life, and to help us honor the millions who served,” Cheek said. “Let us all be inspired to see veterans – past, present, and future – with a renewed perspective. Welcome home, vets.”
MEETING THE ARMY
During their visit to the Pentagon, Staubach and Bleier spent some time visiting Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel A. Dailey. They also spent time visiting Vietnam veterans who were invited to the Pentagon.
Staubach and Bleier also signed a commemorative “golden football” and presented it to Milley. The football, donated by the National Football League, or NFL, will be placed in a Vietnam War exhibit that will be constructed in the Pentagon, as part of the 50th Anniversary Commemoration, an Army G-4 spokesperson said. The exhibit is planned to open in 2017.
In February 2016, two teams will compete in the Super Bowl 50 – the first was played in 1967 between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Green Bay Packers. Thirty-two NFL players, coaches and managers served during the Vietnam War era, according to Army G-4. Three of them went on to be inducted into the Hall of Fame: Staubach, Charlie Joiner, and Ray Nitschke.
Ernest Cheatham, who played during 1954 for both the Steelers and Colts, went on to become a lieutenant general in the Marines – the highest rank an NFL player ever attained.
By David Vergun