Colleges shine spotlight on America's service members

We've seen them on television. Even though they risk their lives fighting for their country on almost a daily basis, we still see them screaming their lungs out for those who play games. Be it the Rose Bowl game or the Final Four, networks always flash to shots of several dozen 20-somethings wearing fatigues, huddled around a small TV screen in some far-off place like Kabul, rooting like crazy for their favorite schools.

Many of America's finest soldiers overseas are former student-athletes, and a vast majority of those who weren't still root for their alma maters from thousands of miles away. But it's time, at last, for those roles to be reversed. Thanks to a new partnership forged between the Wounded Warrior Project and the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics on June 21, U.S. soldiers returning from war will be able hear the cheers of college students who are the same age as many of America's brave soldiers.

"War falls to the back of everyone's mind," says John Fernandez, a coordinator for the Wounded Warrior Project and a war veteran who lost his right leg and left foot during an explosion April 3, 2003, while serving in Iraq. "Whether it's because of Israel and Palestine or the situation in Lebanon or whatever -- the bottom line is, people are forgetting about what's going on in Iraq. A lot of people are getting hurt -- 20,000 people have been injured in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. It's very important to get [that information] out there. It makes people think a little more about the sacrifices that are being made."

The Wounded Warrior Project -- a nonprofit organization that helps U.S. soldiers who have suffered severe war-related injuries on their path toward recovery -- is teaming up with NACDA for the 2006-07 college athletics season in an effort to bring more attention and support to service members wounded during the War on Terror. NACDA is pledging to uphold the Wounded Warrior Project's motto that "The greatest casualty is being forgotten."

To ensure that these soldiers are not forgotten, the partnership includes a turnkey program that encourages NACDA member institutions to participate in a number of ways: honoring wounded soldiers by featuring them in halftime programs; having pregame coin tosses that use Wounded Warrior Project coins that will later be auctioned off to raise money for the project; public-address announcements detailing the project's mission; or inviting a wounded soldier to give a motivational speech during a team banquet, at a training camp or in the locker room. The Wounded Warrior Project is hoping Division I-A and I-AA schools will be prepared to participate by Saturday, Nov. 11 --Veterans Day.

"This helps support both us and them," says Fernandez, 28, who captained and starred for the Army lacrosse team in 2001. "There's a motivating aspect [to this partnership]. It's a huge motivating factor for soldiers since it will show that they are supported, and that people do recognize their sacrifice. It will also be motivating for the athletes to see soldiers who are injured and have been through adversity. The options are unlimited."

The partnership is particularly gearing its efforts toward football season, where there are no larger forums in America than the packed 100,000-seat (and change) venues such as Michigan's Big House and Tennessee's Neyland Stadium. "For [the soldiers] to look around and see a stadium filled with their peers -- that would be great for them," Fernandez says.

NACDA, a professional and educational association for more than 6,100 collegiate athletics administrators at more than 1,600 institutions, is imploring its member schools to get involved. The Wounded Warrior Project, in collaboration with NACDA, recently mailed the association's Division I members information packets informing them of what they can do and explaining exactly how they can get involved.

Ayla Tezel, a public relations counselor for the Wounded Warrior Project, expects to hear from a majority of the schools as the fall season gets under way. "We're proactively going after the bigger schools," says Tezel, noting the importance of showcasing the Wounded Warrior Project in front of the gargantuan live audiences those schools' football games attract. "The Nov. 11 [football] games are a huge target for us, but we're really looking at any games -- basketball, volleyball, whatever."

The partnership was formed with the intent of testing the 2006-07 school year -- including fall, winter and spring sports -- to see how those in attendance, primarily college students, respond. "A lot of our wounded soldiers are in their early 20s when they are coming back from war," Tezel explains. "These college students are their peers."

Fernandez believes that such large-scale efforts to attract attention -- whether they be wounded soldiers accompanying the color guard during the national anthem or using Wounded Warrior Project coins for the coin toss -- are necessary in raising awareness.

And the more people think about our soldiers' sacrifices, the more the applause in places such as the Big House, Neyland Stadium and the Rose Bowl should be loud enough for our troops still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan to hear them.

Chris Preston is a staff writer for the Shelburne News. He can be reached at ChrisPreston@shelburnenews.com.