Saturday is Veterans Day, a public holiday honoring all those who have served in the United States Armed Forces. It’s a special day for me, a first-generation immigrant, army veteran, and Wildcat fan living out the American Dream in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.
As a kid growing up in the Sixties, my first memories of the US Military were during the Vietnam War. I vividly remember my dad and I sitting in front of our black and white Zenith, watching all the shaky images and endless newsfeeds of rice paddies, helicopters, and body counts. What was even more abhorrent, though, were the stories of Vietnam vets returning home to shameful receptions and disgraceful homecomings. My eight-year-old brain just couldn’t comprehend how you could be treated like crap while dying for your country.
How times have changed in the last fifty years. Rather than being spat upon, Armed Forces Veterans are now brazenly revered for their service. We’re recognized as heroes at nearly all sporting events, church services, and while walking through airports. As an army veteran, I can get tickets to ballgames, a haircut on the house, or a free meal at Golden Corral if I wish.
I’m proud of my service, but like many others who signed up, I didn’t do it for the accolades. I didn’t get commissioned, either, because I wanted to jump out of planes, eat MREs, or kill Communists. I signed up because it was the right thing to do for me at the time. As a recent dental school graduate, I needed to gain experience, save money, and see the world. The fact that I might have to die for my country while serving was just a minor inconvenience in my youthful idealistic mindset. Honestly, I never really thought much about the sacrifice required.
As it turned out—during my decade of service–rather than shooting my M-16, I ended up shooting Novocain. Instead of defusing bombs, I restored bombed-out molars. In lieu of drilling with staff sergeants, I drilled on full bird colonels (ouch!). Through Grenada, Panama, and the first Gulf War, I never got deployed to the front lines of battle, but I knew others who did that didn’t make it back. With time to reflect, I’m prouder than ever now to have served my country using my specialized skills.
Having survived and advanced into my current life in sports media, I was ecstatic upon hearing that the University of Kentucky would be honoring veterans during the Lexington Week of Valor. To see and hear the coaches and players of my alma mater paying homage to all who have so valiantly defended our freedoms somehow resonated deeply within both the soldier and the sports junkie in me.
“The freedoms that we all enjoy are because people are willing to put their life on the line for all of us,” said UK Men’s Basketball coach John Calipari. “You can’t ever take that lightly. Now we have Americans around the globe trying to protect us here at home in what they’re doing. (That’s something) for my team and for all of us to really recognize.” After a moment of somber reflection, he added, “Yeah, this is a special time, especially now with all that’s going on around the world.”
“We feel so blessed to play in Memorial Coliseum,” said UK Women’s Basketball coach Matthew Mitchell. “So many Kentuckians have paid the ultimate sacrifice, so we can live in America and have the freedom that we have that so many people around the globe don’t have. We are so thankful for the people who have made that sacrifice and are out there right now sacrificing and protecting us and keeping us safe. I have utmost respect for our military and our veterans.”
The thing I love most about sports is the passion it generates within me. It’s embarrassing to admit how euphoric I get after the Wildcats win and how dejected I am after they lose. Despite my passion, I also know that victories or defeats simply aren’t important in the overall world scheme. What is important is life, liberty, and national security—a monumental task delegated to the brave men and women of the United States Military. For many of them, sports is an outlet, a diversion, and an oasis from the real-world reality of Kim Jong-un, disaster relief, and terrorist threats. It’s a much-needed distraction from the isolation, stress, and danger of always residing in harm’s way. I can’t tell you how many times just perusing through my tattered month-old issues of The Cats’ Pause–reading about my beloved Wildcats—brought a smile to my face during the endless lonely winters while stationed abroad. I’m honored to be able to repay the favor.
For me, sports and service are forever intertwined. I asked former Kentucky quarterback-turned-football guru Freddie Maggard for some of his Veterans Day thoughts. After all, he lived the sport that I only dreamed about playing. He waxes eloquently about the extraordinary bond between his football and military experiences.
“Much like looking your teammates in the eyes in a huddle, in the military the man or woman to your left or right must be as valuable to you as the next breath you take. The term “having your back” takes on a whole new meaning. The term Battle Buddy is taught to soldiers in Basic Combat Training. I’m blessed to have Battle Buddies for life. That’s what it’s all about; selflessly serving your fellow teammates or soldiers… I’m proud to be a Kentuckian. I’m more proud to be a veteran much like my dad was. Fortunately, I get to spend most days with my hero as my wife is nearing in on 20 years of service and has accomplished a great deal in her career as a Warrant Officer. She is the epitome of a professional and adheres to the Army leadership values: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage. God Bless America.”
HOOAH! On behalf of Freddie, Coach Cal, Coach Mitchell, the University of Kentucky Wildcats, and a grateful Big Blue Nation, we hereby salute all United States Military Veterans past and present. Whether you actually played the game or you’re just a fan at heart, we’re cheering you on. Thank you for your service. Happy Veterans Day. This one’s on me.
John Huang is a retired orthodontist currently covering University of Kentucky Sports for Nolan Group Media. He served ten years on active duty in the United States Army Dental Corps attaining the rank of Major. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.
Check out his most recent UK Sports coverage at http://www.themanchesterenterprise.com/category/uk-live-breathe-blue/
Check out his most recent Cincinnati Bengals coverage at http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/category/writers/john-huang/