Wounded warriors, Families enjoy Aggie hospitality
October 7, 2008
COLLEGE STATION, Texas - Sgt. Andy Weissenberger was ready for some football. He was one of more than 100 wounded warriors and Family members from Fort Hood's Warrior Transition Unit to get a free-pass to the Texas A&M game against the Black Knights of Army.
The 42-year-old Enterprise, Ala., native grew up loving the Auburn Tigers and playing for his hometown team.
"I played both offense and defense - wide receiver and middle linebacker," he recalled. "My senior year, we went to the state championship. We tied, 14-14, so we had to share the state championship with another team. ...I wish we could have won it outright, but I was just glad we got to go to the state championship (game)."
But at least for this day, Weissenberger was pulling for the Black Knights to whip the Aggies on their home turf.
"My father-in-law is a Texas A&M Aggies fan, so even if I wasn't in the Army I'd still be for Army just so I could antagonize him," he said with a smile. He planned to call his wife's dad after the Army win, to rub it in.
Andy brought along his wife of seven years, Heather, their son William Deskins, 13, and two other invited guests: Matthew and Austin Bourgeous, whose father, Staff Sgt. Jerry Bourgeous, currently serves in Iraq with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.
"Jerry's a big football fan," Andy said. "He'll be thrilled that the boys got to go to the game."
The Weissenbergers left their two young daughters, Ember, 6, and Alexis, 4, with friends for the day. Both were deemed too young to handle the game, let alone the long bus rides.
Andy won't be playing football again, though he remains an avid fan. He was the only wounded warrior making the trip to the game in a wheel chair. A knee that needs replacing, a cracked hip and neck and back issues have him chair-bound for the time being. During a 2.5-hour bus ride from Fort Hood, he reflected on his reasons to return to military life after a 14-year hiatus. He said Sept. 11, 2001, events changed his thinking.
"At that point, it became a personal thing," he said. "I looked at my kids and I told my wife, 'I have to do this.' Not for me. I have three young kids and I need to know that I did everything I could to provide them a safe place to live, away from harm and away from terrorists so they could have Families of their own and grow old."
He deployed in July 2005 with the "Roadrunners" of the Alabama Army National Guard's Co. A, 31st Support Battalion. The unit was based in Kuwait as part of the 37th Transportation Group, but troops like Andy spent their tour delivering supplies to base camps in Iraq. He was first injured in a fateful supply run in November 2005.
"We were on our way to (Forward Operating Base) Warrior and we got ambushed. Somebody found an IED (improvised explosive device), so we stopped the convoy and it ended up being nine IEDs that were daisy-chained," Andy recalled haltingly. "Four went off. Two were next to my truck. We got hit with RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), small-arms fire, mortars; it was about 45 minutes of pure hell."
Despite the dangers, Andy is proud that his unit brought all 173 members home. He joined the active Army upon his return. Once at Fort Hood, he was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder in addition to his physical injuries.
"Even with the injuries I have now, I'm not angry about it," he said. "I'd do it again in a minute."
A police escort, including dozens of motorcycles, guided in the WTU buses and vans to Kyle Field. A section of the south end zone was set aside for the wounded warriors. The Weissenberger troupe wound up at field level.
The game itself was uninspiring for the first 15 minutes. It looked as though the punters would be the game most valuable players for both teams. Though the Black Knights controlled the clock with their option-running game, just before halftime an Army fumble was scooped up by Aggie defensive end Paul Freeney who rambled 58 yards to put his team on top, 14-7, at intermission.
Halftime was a stirring tribute to the military. Heather got a bit misty-eyed when the wounded warriors were recognized over the public address system.
"It was moving," she said.
The Secretary of the Army, the honorable Peter Geren visited with the wounded warriors during the half. Many received coins to commemorate the day.
The Aggies managed to hold off the Black Knight Army cadets, winning 21-17. Afterwards another police escort whisked the troops and their Families to the home of Texas A&M University System Chancellor Michael McKinney for a backyard picnic. Besides the large food spread, there was live musicians and performers and children borrowed fishing rods to test their skills in the backyard pond. The hosts were touched to have the Soldiers visit after the game.
"We felt like when A&M played Army today, these Soldiers had to be here," said Lou Ann McKinney, the hostess of the event. "I would have had the whole Fort Hood here if we could, but through the 12th Man Foundation ... they made it happen."
The Texas A&M chancellor echoed her sentiment highlighting the patriotism of the two schools.
"A&M playing Army, it rises above just a football game," the chancellor said. "Both of us take a lot of pride in our country and take a lot of pride in our patriotism. So we take a lot of pride in the real Soldiers, too."
Still, there was a game played.
"I've been yelling plays to the Aggies for 30 years," chancellor McKinney said with a chuckle. "They don't listen to me all that well, but it was real good because I yelled right before half, 'Pick up a fumble and run it back!' and that worked."
Heather said her husband had some trouble with the cannon shots after each touchdown scored at Kyle Field. Other than that, she was glad to know that America cares for its troops and grateful for a day away.
"It's been really good for him," she said. "I've been watching him relax and unwind and it's something that he needed so bad. They all do."
For Andy, there would be no razzing via cell phone.
"It was a good game," he said. "At least it wasn't a blow-out."