PHILADELPHIA – Army veteran Thomas Brooks and Navy veteran Christopher Andrieu waited as a clutch of reporters snapped photos of them and two draped vehicles they’d see revealed.
Amid the fanfare surrounding the 123rd Army Navy Game here a series of events such as vehicle donations continues apace alongside organizations looking to spotlight ways to support veterans and military members.
Brooks enlisted in the Vermont Army National Guard right out of high school in 2002. He deployed with the Vermont Guard’s 86th Field Artillery Regiment to Iraq and was in country six months before a mortar strike took his left leg.
Andrieu served as a Navy explosive ordnance disposal technician, joining the service in 2007 and deploying to both Iraq and Afghanistan.
On Feb. 3, 2013, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, a Improvised Explosive Device took both of his legs.
Separately, the soldier and the sailor had recently struggled with transportation. Brooks couldn’t get his wheelchair in the vehicle he shared with his wife and children.
Andrieu often had to detach his prosthetic legs to maneuver around his smaller SUV. And a third child meant a crowded ride.
But on Friday, the pair received the final two vehicles of 100 given to veterans through a United Services Automobile Association partnership with the National Auto Body Council’s and a share of nonprofits for the Recycled Rides program.
Brooks got a black Chevrolet 2500 pickup truck and Andrieu took home a black Chevrolet Tahoe SUV.
The number of vehicles donated pairs with the 100th anniversary of USAA’s founding. The company was formed by a group of Army officers who wanted to provide servicemembers insurance they couldn’t receive from other companies, USAA officials said.
Brooks told Military Times that the vehicle gift seemed, “meant to be,” because two weeks before USAA called him with the news, his other vehicle had been wrecked.
Andrieu knew a fellow servicemember who’d been given a vehicle through the program earlier and signed up for the program.
“It’s just exciting, I don’t really have any words for it right now. It’s a blessing that there’s companies doing this,” Andrieu said.
With the game as the backdrop, veteran and military issues have a kind of vehicle of their own to gain public awareness. The same day, hundreds of troop care packages were being boxed up by volunteers to send out ahead of the holidays.
Vets4Warriors CEO Mark Graham, a retired Army major general, spoke with Military Times about work that his organization does to connect veterans and servicemembers with the help they need, whether that’s counseling, suicide prevention, job networking or just someone to talk with.
“It doesn’t really matter which service they’re from, doesn’t matter which era. You served, I served, let’s talk,” Graham said.
Graham knows the need. He lost two sons, one to combat and another to suicide. His organization’s mission is to ensure that no veteran or servicemember fights their struggle, whatever that is, alone.
“Don’t go through this alone,” Graham said. “We’ll connect to organizations that can help you.”
Or, the retired two-star said, people can just call if they need another veteran to talk with. Though the organization does do repeated calls and follow ups with callers if they desire, many simply want someone to talk to and it may only call once.
USAA CEO Wayne Peacock said the company started their work to support and promote the Army-Navy Game more than a decade ago. The company sponsors and hosts organizations and events surrounding the game.
And it serves a larger purpose, he said.
“At this point in time at where we are in our country, things like Army Navy are a way for the country to rally together and what our common vision is, our common objectives are and no matter whether you’re rooting for Army or Navy,” Peacock said.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.
Jonathan is a staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief newsletter for Military Times. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media