By Annette Crawford, Special to American Forces Press ServiceDecember 28, 2006
FORT WORTH, Texas, Dec. 24, 2006 - The game may have been all about football, but the overall event was a tribute to 1.2 million very special people - the men and women of the United States armed forces.
The Universities of Utah and Tulsa took to the field last night at Amon G. Carter Stadium for the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl. Utah won its sixth straight post-season bowl appearance, 25-13.
The flurry of activities before the game started off with a Fan Fest Adventure Area. Attendees could visit any number of military hardware displays, climb a rock wall, listen to a military band or take a ride in a simulator. There was also a display of an Army and Air Force Exchange Service mini-exchange, similar to the ones supporting deployed members overseas.
Near the center of the midway, one booth in particular held special meaning for servicemembers. The organization was Connect and Join, and founder and president Linda Dennis was more than happy to share her story. She paged through a scrapbook, one of several she and volunteers have made from thousands of pages that have found their way to her office in Columbia, S.C.
The pages are letters and drawings from children and adults all over the nation. They are done in pen, crayon, pencil and some, even in Braille. No matter the medium, they all bring words of encouragement to servicemembers deployed overseas.
"It all started as a way to connect with the troops," said Dennis, who has found the project to be an emotional experience. She received some pages from a 5-year-old boy in Iowa that were particularly moving.
"It's been very rewarding. I don't think I've ever cried so much," she said of the pages that were done in Braille by Sawyer Deevers. The boy and his mother, Sonni, were part of a presentation during the fourth quarter of the game; Dennis presented a scrapbook to Air Force Maj. Gen. Allen R. Dehnert, assistant adjutant general and commander, Texas Air National Guard, who would send it to deployed servicemembers.
Opening ceremonies for the game featured six parachutists - five carried the flags of the armed forces and one brought in the American flag. Fireworks and a flyover by Navy jets started off the festivities in grand style.
The honors of the opening coin toss were deferred by the chief executive officer of Bell Helicopter, Michael Redenbaugh. He passed the honors on to Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England, who is a Fort Worth resident.
Representatives from all the armed forces were at the 50-yard line for the coin toss ceremony. Dehnert represented the Air Force. From the Marines it was Brig. Gen. Richard Tryon, commander general of the Marine Corps Recruiting Command. Commander Kevin Hannes, commander of the U.S. Navy Recruiting District, Dallas-Fort Worth, represented his service, while Capt. Bill Diehl, captain of the port of Houston and commander of the Coast Guard Sector Houston-Galveston, represented the Coast Guard.
Pfc. Dennis Bowsher, the 2005 national pentathlete champion and member of the Army World Class Athlete Program, represented the Army. He is a potential 2008 Olympic participant and native of the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Also on hand was former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Drew Pearson, a University of Tulsa graduate.
"It feels great (to be here)," Pearson said. "The armed forces are involved in it, and anything we can do to support what they do for us is important."
The Cowboy legend had a message for servicemembers deployed overseas.
"You've got to keep hanging in there, and just know that the people here, even though we're at bowl games and enjoying our holidays with our families, we still think about you and what you are doing over there for our country and for us," he said. "We know we would not have the freedom we have if it wasn't for you."
At halftime, in addition to the universities' marching bands, there were also several military-themed events. The highlight of the evening was the presentation of the first Great American Patriot Award to England.
"There should really be 1.2 million Patriot awards," England said. "Patriot awards should be for all our magnificent men and women who serve our nation, so I accept this award on behalf of all of them because they are the true patriots who protect and defend this country every day."
The award was presented by Military Alliance and Associates LLC, known as MA3 LLC, as selected by the Military Affairs Committee of the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl. MA3 LLC is a military recruiting firm specializing in placing former military officers and NCOs into leadership positions in the private sector.
"Secretary England has displayed remarkable leadership in serving our country in three major defense-related departments the past five years," said Tom Starr, executive director of the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl. "We are honored to give our first Great American Patriot Award to him."
The Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl is one of several events featuring America Supports you, a Department of Defense program that showcases and facilitates American support for members of the armed forces.
(Annette Crawford is assigned to Air Force Print News.)