Rhode Island Spotlight: Thanking the Veterans

veterans-wheelchairOne by one they all heard their names called. Some answered that call in a wheelchair. Others carrying a cane. And many of the rest ran through the inflatable Patriot helmet onto the field at Gillette Stadium the first Saturday in November, greeted with a sustained round of applause. Close to 30 military veterans gathered from Massachusetts and Rhode Island. They came from all walks of life and eras of service for a football skills day — a joint effort by CVS Health and the New England Patriots in honor of Veterans Day.

veterans-gilletteBefore the day was out they’d run drills with former Patriots players and get autographs from them; then have lunch adjacent to the field, with a chance to chat and share war stories — in some cases literally.

“Thank you to you and your families for the absolutely incredible sacrifices you’ve made and you continue to make every single day, in service to our great nation,’’ David Casey told the group at the beginning of the day. Casey, a former Marine, is now the chief diversity officer for CVS Health.

“I will share with you personally, I can understand that sacrifice,” he said. “I remember 26 years ago, getting on the plane to leave my newly pregnant wife to go serve as a US Marine in Operation Desert Storm.”

veterans-caseyCasey was right in the middle of it all, watching as the veterans broke off into three separate groups. Former Patriot linebacker Vernon Crawford ran a clinic on blocking. Former fullback and special teams player Harold Shaw worked on passing with those in wheelchairs, while former fullback Patrick Pass showed off his arm for those running routes up the field. You could call them Pass patterns.

“When you think about the sacrifices veterans make for our country, it’s absolutely phenomenal,” Casey said. “When you look out on the field today you see some of these disabled veterans out here, having fun, going at it, giving it their all. It’s just another look into the mindset of a veteran. They don’t give up, they persevere through everything. And that’s what I appreciate about my fellow brothers and sisters in uniform.’’

veterans-group-picHenry Caparco of East Providence had never been to Gillette Stadium. “It’s amazing; when I first walked out on the field I said, ‘Gee, it’s not as  big as it is on TV,’ until I walked to the 50-yard line. Then I said, ‘Whoa!’ I tried to kick a field goal from the 10 yard line. I reached the goal, but I had no height whatsoever.”

Caparco served four years in Vietnam — returning home in 1967 — and kept the memories of what he’d seen bottled up for 45 years. Until he went to the VA in 2012. “I hadn’t even spoken to anyone, including my deceased wife; she never knew anything about Vietnam, I never talked about it to anyone until that one day in 2012. What a relief that was, knowing I could talk to somebody who wasn’t going to judge me and was there to help with whatever issues I had.”

And being out on the field with other vets, he said, was the highlight of the day — that and catching a few throws from Patrick Pass.

Crawford, who played for the Patriots in the mid-90s, was having as much fun as the veterans, joking and later signing autographs. “You see the passion, I see the will that they have when we’re throwing the balls out there to them. They’re just no different than the average player who goes out there. You can see the heart, the desire, the hard work, everything that goes with being in the military, [including] the discipline. So you see all of those things and we kind of adopted their training of doing it the Patriot Way.”

Then there was Joyce Cagnon from Pascoag: 24 years in the Army, she was wounded in 2007. It happened during a training accident in Afghanistan when the Humvee she was riding in rolled over. “We all know when somebody’s injured who has a prosthetic and a wheelchair, we all have our own battles. The ones with the unseen injuries are some of the biggest battles to fight.”

We asked Crawford what his favorite part of the day was. “Just being around the guys after the event, like right now and before, and just hanging out and talking about the good times, the bad times, whatever. Telling you about their injuries and I’m like, ‘Wow – I couldn’t really tell you had all of this metal in you or a limb!’ It was awesome to be around the guys. Being a football player is entertainment, what they’re doing is real life.”

So what do the veterans want others to remember about Veterans Day?

Henry Caparco didn’t hesitate. “For everyone to realize that we’re the same people; some people look at us like we’re a different breed. Some of the troops coming back now need to assimilate with civilians. And civilians need to know what some of the vets are going through. To be walking next to someone with prosthetics on both legs or to see someone who doesn’t have a prosthetic yet, I think, gives them a sense of what we’ve all given for the country that I certainly love.”

Cagnon said, “Every service member, past present and future who’s ever served, put themselves on the line. Raising their hand, taking that oath, from day one to whatever the end was. My heroes are the Vietnam vets because they’re the ones who went  unnoticed, the ones who didn’t get the hugs and the high fives and thank yous. God bless America. And God bless our vets.”

If you want to see the video version of this story go to RhodeIslandSpotlight.org. If you know of a person or organization who you think deserves the Spotlight, send an email to Jim@RhodeIslandSpotlight.org.


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