NFL Kickoff Event Honors Service Members
By K.L. Vantran
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 5, 2003 A little rain didn't deter thousands of military people and family members from staking out prime spots for the National Football League's kickoff concert on the National Mall Sept. 4.
The event, formally promoted as "NFL Kickoff Live 2003 From the National Mall Presented by Pepsi Vanilla," saluted America's service members and Department of Defense civilians. It was open to the public, but was designed to honor America's military forces, as part of Operation Tribute to Freedom, especially those who have participated in the global war on terrorism.
Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Philip Nelson, a respiratory specialist with the 865th Combat Support Hospital from Utica, N.Y., was one of the first to camp out next to the stage.
Nelson was dressed in his desert battle dress uniform, his boots caked with fresh mud. The week's rain took its toll on the mall's infield, leaving ankle- deep mud and puddles. But the noncommissioned officer had become used to navigating the slippery field. He arrived Sept. 1 to help as a volunteer with NFL Kickoff 2003, and decided to stay for the concert.
As a light rain began to fall, the staff sergeant who served in an armed forces hospital in Camp Doha, Kuwait, used a towel to wipe his brow.
"We just got back," he said. "We were there Dec. 2 (2002) until July 4 (2003). I wish our whole unit could be here. It's great that they're honoring the service members."
As a civilian, Nelson works for Oneida (N.Y.) Health Care. He said his employer, neighbors and community were very supportive while he was away.
He said he had support when he deployed during 1991's Operation Desert Storm, but it was "not like this." "I received a package almost every day, which put me in a little trouble with the other soldiers - but it was a good trouble," he noted.
"When I came home, there was a 'Welcome Home' sign on my house. The support has just been great," he added.
Army Reserve Pfc. Eric Ambler, a military policeman with the 447th Military Police Company, Akron/Zainesville, Ohio, said his employer also has been very supportive. Just back from working in a prison in Iraq, Ambler came to the concert with a group of service members who are being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here. The private first class said he was taken to a hospital in Germany, and then to Walter Reed after suffering from seizures. His fellow MPs, including his wife, Shannon, a specialist assigned to the company, are still in Iraq.
The young man's eyes teared as he said, "I wish I could trade places with her."
As for the concert, Ambler said it was a very nice event. "I just hope all the troops who come home will be treated just as well," he added.
As festivities got under way, Interior Secretary Gale Norton welcomed the crowd and encouraged guests to volunteer with the Take Pride in America Program.
While local band Good Charlotte from Waldorf, Md., appeared to have quite a following, it was headliners Mary J. Blige, Britney Spears and Aerosmith who drew the most applause.
Eleven-year-old Molly Brown, who attended the concert with her stepfather, Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Terry Loman, Company B, Marine Cryptologic Support Battalion, Fort Meade, Md., said she was there to see Britney, and wouldn't leave even if it rained harder. But as the concert kickoff approached the skies cleared and the pre-teen didn't have to make good on her boast.
Loman, whose unit provides intelligence support to troops on the front lines, called the concert an "outstanding" event. "It's great they're providing support and honoring the military, especially the guys up front."
The concert concluded with Aretha Franklin performing the national anthem just before the kickoff of the first NFL game of the season. Jumbo-sized monitors set up along the mall carried the national telecast of the season opener between the Washington Redskins and New York Jets at nearby FedEx Field. The Redskins won, 16-13, in the final seconds with a 33-yard field goal from former Jet John Hall.