Super Bowl festivities were in full swing last night at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center here, as hundreds of wounded warriors and their families gathered for the big game.
The party, the largest since the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and the National Naval Medical Center here merged in September, featured live entertainment, celebrity guests, door prizes and other giveaways, activities for the kids and all the traditional Super Bowl fare.
Wounded warriors and their families gathered around tables in the new wounded warrior barracks complex to cheer on their favorite team and enjoy the entertainment, both on and off the TV screens positioned around the hall.
Actor Jon Voight, former NFL stars Roy Jefferson and Carlton Kammerer and Washington Redskins cheerleaders mingled among them, shaking hands, posing for photos and thanking them for their sacrifices.
Professional impersonators brought the personas of Lady Gaga, Bette Midler, Elvis Presley and other stars to the party, and members of the New York Fire Department crooned the national anthem and other selections.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Colts and Washington Redskins player Roy Jefferson said he felt honored to be able to join in the party. “For me, it’s a no-brainer. I want to do as much as I can for them, because they have all given me so much,” he said.
Meanwhile, a balloon artist entertained the kids, who also got a chance to do handicraft projects between visits to an egg cream soda station. Other goodies served up during the party included pulled pork and chicken, as well as side fixings and finger foods ranging from Buffalo wings to pizza and nachos.
The event, hosted by Rolling Thunder, the Yellow Ribbon Fund, the USO and the New York City Fire Department, was designed to ensure every wounded warrior felt special, said Gary Scheffmeyer, national president for the Rolling Thunder veterans organization.
Rolling Thunder hosted Super Bowl parties at the now-closed Walter Reed Army Medical Center for the past six or seven years, he said, and joined this year with other groups to throw the biggest Super Bowl bash yet at the integrated Bethesda facility.
“Our major goal with these parties is to make sure these troops get what we didn’t,” explained Scheffmeyer, who recalled the poor reception he and his fellow Vietnam veterans received when they returned home from that conflict. “The bottom line is, this is good for the troops.”
Scheffmeyer said the Super Bowl is a particularly special time to celebrate. “Whether you are a Giants fan or a Patriots fan, this is the Super Bowl,” he said. “These troops get to watch it. They get to party. They get a break from their medical treatments. So it’s a really good reason to have a party.”
“The Super Bowl is real American tradition, one of the biggest events of the year in America,” agreed Navy Rear Adm. (Dr.) Alton L. Stocks, the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center commander. “So it’s a particularly important time for us to be able to say ‘Welcome home’ to these service members and make them feel at home.
“It’s a lot of fun for everyone, but it’s also a big part of the healing process,” Stocks said. “As these wounded warriors physically heal, events like this help them heal emotionally as well.”
Marine Cpl. Jesse Fletcher, a sniper wounded in Kajaki, Afghanistan, in October, said the Super Bowl party offered far more than the chance to cheer his New York Giants on to victory.
“The socializing here is great for us,” he said. “It’s great for our state of mind and outlook, and a great way for us to work on our recovery.”
Marine Sgt. John Peck, a quadruple amputee who was wounded two years ago in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, sported a New England Patriots jersey for the party. And although his team ultimately lost to the Giants, 21-17, the Super Bowl party made him and his fellow wounded warriors feel like winners. “It means people still care and show their support,” he said. “That means a lot.”
Army Sgt. Kevin Gatson, a 101st Airborne Division soldier wounded in Afghanistan in July, wasn’t going to let the fact that his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t playing keep him from wearing their team colors to the party. It’s the same attire he wore to last year’s Super Bowl, which Gatson watched at the White House with a personal invitation from President Barack Obama.
For Super Bowl XLVI, Gatson declared himself an “honorary Giants fan” and said he planned to spend the night rooting for a Patriots defeat.
But regardless of which team would win or lose, Gatson said, he was up for a good time. “This a fun time, getting everyone together and rooting for their teams and enjoying good camaraderie and good food,” he said.
Voight, who gave the wounded warriors autographed photos with notes of appreciation, said he wouldn’t miss the chance to share the Super Bowl with them.
“These guys are the reason we are living in peace and freedom,” he said. “All of us are in their debt, and every free American should find a way to do whatever they can to support these great heroes and their families.”
“Lindsay A,” as one of the Redskins cheerleaders is known, said she developed a soft spot for military members spending time with them during a goodwill tour to Iraq.
“I’m really excited about seeing them home and in such good spirits,” she said. She said she hoped her squad’s presence, along with the other Super Bowl festivities, would help give them an emotional boost.
Diane Shoemaker, a volunteer for the Yellow Ribbon Fund, which assists families as their loved ones are receiving care here, said throwing a big-scale party sends a strong message to the wounded warriors. “We want the injured service members to know that they are cared about,” she said. “So for me, being a part of this is very personal. I feel like they are my own family. I love them all.”
About 30 members of the New York City Fire Department knew they had plenty of options for watching their home team take a Super Bowl victory, but elected to spend it hosting wounded warriors.
“This is a way to give back, and to thank them for their service,” said Bill Rautenstrauch. “I feel honored to be in their presence.”