By Elizabeth M. LorgeDecember 20, 2007
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Dec. 20, 2007) - More than 90 "Soldier heroes" will be paired with America's leading high-school athletes in the week of festivities leading up the Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio, Jan. 5.
Sponsored by Army Accessions Command, the bowl is an annual East-West match-up of the top high-school football players in the country.
The Soldiers, recipients of Silver Stars, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, will be honored for their heroism in combat during the game, but they will also have the opportunity to teach the students what true leadership, teamwork and courage are all about.
"I would hope that what we're able to do is show that we're all people, not just who have received awards, but we're all members of the military," said Capt. Lee Vandewater, a Bronze Star with Valor recipient from the Iowa National Guard. "We all are role models and hopefully we can show the high level of integrity we all have, and can pass it on to them. I'm hoping that we can positively influence these athletes because some of these guys are going to be in the NFL. They're going to be role models."
Capt. Vandewater added that he doesn't have any words of wisdom prepared yet, but that he doesn't plan to mentor the player he is assigned for six days and simply walk away. He considers it a long-term commitment.
"I'm just looking forward to meeting whoever the player is that they assign to me, getting to know him and hopefully carrying on a relationship with him in the future. It's something that I would absolutely be willing to carry on, whether they go to college or the pros or they don't go anywhere beyond high school for football; it doesn't matter."
Capt. Vandewater played football and soccer in high school, so he will have plenty to talk about with his player. He said he's always found playing on a football team to be similar to the Army because teamwork is central to both.
"They're two very similar situations," he said. "One may be for entertainment and one may be for national security, but the things that play into them are similar: the leadership aspect, doing things as a team, relying on the strength of certain individuals and realizing the weakness of others, using all of that to your advantage. That's what makes a strong, cohesive military unit and that's what makes a successful football team."
Deployed to Afghanistan in 2004-2005 with the Iowa Guard's 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry, Capt. Vandewater exhibited teamwork and leadership when his outnumbered platoon came under rocket-propelled grenade and machine-gun fire near the Pakistan border.
One Soldier was killed and several others were wounded, and after the platoon had evacuated and began treating its casualties, Capt. Vandewater realized a Humvee and four Soldiers were missing.
"Right about that time they radioed in for help. Their truck had been disabled in the kill zone and they were pretty frightened and wanting to get out of there. I realized that I only had one truck I could take back because the terrain was so tight. I ordered three Soldiers into the Humvee with me and we drove all the way back to the kill zone. This whole time, we could hear machine-gun fire and RPGs in the distance, so we were prepared for anything. We had no idea what we were going to encounter."
The four Soldiers were still alive, firing against an unknown number of combatants. Capt. Vandewater realized they had to destroy the Humvee and its grenade launcher. The explosion was so hot it ignited the rescue vehicle and the eight Soldiers drove to safety with the back of the Humvee on fire.
Like many decorated combat veterans, Capt. Vandewater insists any Soldier would have done the same.
"The true heroes were Sgt. James Kearney who died and the guys who were injured. Any platoon leader would have done the same thing. It was a no-brainer. I'll admit that I didn't second-guess what I needed to do, but at the time I remember thinking, 'Why me, why am I the guy who has to go do this'' I really didn't want to go back, and neither did the other guys, but it wasn't about what we wanted to do, it was about forcing ourselves to do what was right."
The game will air at noon CST on NBC, Jan. 5. For more information about the game, visit
www.usarmyallamericanbowl.com/. For more information about Soldier heroes visit