By Devon L. Suits, Army News ServiceJanuary 31, 2020
FORT MEADE, Md. -- As the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs run onto the field during Super Bowl Sunday in Miami, Florida, the Cardenas family and friends will all be huddled around their TVs, waiting for that "special moment."
Dressed in an Army uniform, former Staff Sgt. Odón Cardenas, a World War II veteran, will join a handful of other veterans during the game's coin toss ceremony. He will be accompanied on the field by one of his sons, former Sgt. Raul Cardenas, a Gulf War veteran.
"[I'm] excited to see my dad go on the field and receive some recognition," said retired Air Force Master Sgt. Arthur Cardenas. Arthur will join his father and brother on the field during the coin toss ceremony. Arthur will then stay to enjoy the rest of the game with his daughter, son in law, and grandson.
David, his grandson, is interested in history and cannot wait to see his great grandfather on the field to be recognized for his service, Arthur said.
"[My father] is a very good man -- a humble man -- a religious man," he said. "He was always there for us, and he set a good example by treating everybody right. I will be very proud to see [him at the Super Bowl], as I watch him take it all in."
While working as a beet farmer, Odón enlisted into the Army on March 29, 1941, at Fort Snelling, Minnesota. Nine months later, Japan launched a vicious surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, forcing the United States to take action during World War II.
As a squad leader, the Army assigned Odón to 172nd Battalion, Company C, a unit from an infantry replacement training center in California. Shortly after his arrival, the battalion deployed in November 1944, to provide support during the Ardennes Counteroffensive, also known as the "Battle of the Bulge."
During the operation, Odón and his unit were operating on the front lines when they were ambushed by German forces, killing several of his comrades. With the unit overrun from their position, they retreated and spent the next day avoiding the enemy through thick snow-covered terrain. At times, they would find shelter in vacant houses.
German forces were in constant pursuit and eventually caught up and captured Odón and other members of his unit. The Nazi forces then transported him to a prisoner of war camp near Dusseldorf, Germany.
As a man of faith, Odón never lost hope during his internment, said his daughter, Dolores Kotilaidze. He always prayed and asked to make it home safely. At the same time, his mother, back home in Texas, also drew strength in her faith and asked for his safe return.
Close to two weeks later, the U.S. liberated the POW camp -- Odón and his fellow Soldiers were set free.
As friendly forces released them from their confines, Odón raced the other prisoners to the camp's flag pole, fighting to be the first to take down and seize the Nazi flag, Arthur shared. Once the flag was in his possession, Odón hid it until he returned to the U.S.
"Even though he went through all of that, he remained humble," Arthur said. "What was interesting is that he never got injured. I always had a lot of admiration and respect for him."
The Army discharged Odón honorably on in October 1945. Two months later, the war ended.
To this day, Odón still keeps the flag secure in a keepsake box, only to be taken out during special occasions, Arthur said. It serves as a hard reminder of his actions during World War II.
"I think it's important to learn about the sacrifices they went through for our country," Arthur said. The World War II Generation "sacrificed … and went through a lot.
"We don't leverage the older generations enough to get those lessons learned," he added. "They built this country. They got their orders and charged forward. They kept going, and nothing stopped them."
POST MILITARY LIFE
After his time in the military, Odón married Maria Inez Valadez and found work as a mechanic, and barber later on.
Over their 60 years of marriage, the two embraced the family lifestyle and helped raise and support their combined family of 10 children. The family grew to include 18 grandchildren, 30 great-grandchildren, and four great-great-grandchildren.
To his family and community, Odón was often seen by all as a positive role model, Kotilaidze said. As a Christian, he always "practiced what he preached."
"If somebody were sick, he would go pay them a visit. He would give money to the church, and would always help out whoever he could," she said. "He prays every night with my grandchildren, which are his great-grandchildren."
However, in 2013, the family mourned the loss of their beloved mother, Kotilaidze said. Shortly after her passing, Odón fell ill and was put into a nursing home for around the clock treatment.
"He went to the nursing home … and I saw that he wasn't eating," Kotilaidze said. "We are Mexican, and you grow up eating the food that we love. [At] the nursing home, they give you bland hospital food. I was afraid he was going to get depressed."
After some deliberation with her siblings, the family opted to take care of Odón in his family home in San Antonio, Texas. Everyone would chip in to support, but Kotilaidze volunteered to be his primary caretaker.
"Since I was little, I was his shadow. I followed him everywhere," she shared. "He's my rock. I have had him for 57 years. I can't imagine being without him."
About a month before the big game, Dolores Kotilaidze, Odón's daughter, received an email from the National Football League, she said.
After reading the message, she started jumping with excitement. Her father playfully accused her of "going crazy." The letter, signed by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, read:
I understand you recently turned 100 years old and are a veteran of World War II. The NFL is also celebrating its 100th season, along with the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II.
I would like to thank you for your service to our great nation and the Army. I was humbled to read of your sacrifices and accomplishments while serving in the Third Army under Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., and your heroics during the Battle of the Bulge.
Considering all our celebrations, I would like to invite you to participate as our special guest at this year's Super Bowl. It would be our honor to have you participate in our opening coin toss ceremony.
"I told my father what the [email] said, and he replied, 'Oh, that's nice,'" she shared. "He is very humble [and] doesn't like the limelight. He just stayed quiet for a few seconds, then said, 'Well that's good -- I'm very happy.'"
To prepare for the big day, Kotilaidze sent Odón's uniform to the dry cleaner and helped put on all his medals and accouterments. She also put a final shine on his shoes and gave him a proper haircut, manicure, and pedicure, to ensure that he looked his best.
"I can care less who wins the game. I am looking forward to seeing him march on the field," she said. "I know I will get goosebumps, and I will probably shed a couple of tears. We all will be cheering for him."