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Face of Defense: Vietnam Veteran, Former Steeler Shares Lessons With Guard

By William Prokopyk
Special to American Forces Press Service

BISMARCK, N.D., Jan. 28, 2009 – A Vietnam War veteran who overcame great odds to become a successful National Football League player shared his message of strength, attitude and optimism during the North Dakota National Guard's 2009 Safety Conference here Jan. 24.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Vietnam veteran and former Pittsburgh Steeler Rocky Bleier gives Army Capt. Doug Larsen an opportunity to try on Bleier's four Super Bowl rings at the North Dakota National Guard's 2009 Safety Conference in Bismarck, N.D., Jan. 24, 2009. Bleier was the keynote speaker for the conference. U.S. Army photo by Bill Prokopyk

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Former Pittsburgh Steeler Rocky Bleier was the conference's keynote speaker, and his message to the Guardsmen was clear and simple: "Never give up, no matter how badly the odds are stacked against you."

Although his football career is truly noteworthy -- he has four Super Bowl rings from his years with the Steelers -- it was the Army veteran in Bleier that was most appreciated by the Guardsmen who listened to him speak.

"We chose Rocky Bleier as our keynote speaker because of his inspirational story of never quitting," Army Chief Warrant Officer Bradley Hoines, North Dakota National Guard state safety officer, said. "His ability to overcome obstacles with hard work coupled with good personal choices fits well with our objectives in our commander's safety program.

"Safety encompasses the myriad of choices that an individual makes, which can either prove to be a positive or negative influence on their life," he said.

In 1968, Bleier was drafted by both the Pittsburgh Steelers and the U.S. Army. After playing sparingly with the Steelers, Bleier headed for basic training and deployed to Vietnam in May 1969. He served as an infantryman

with the Americal Division’s 196th Light Infantry Brigade.

In August of that same year, Bleier was twice wounded in the legs by gunfire and a grenade during the same battle.

It would be a long, arduous journey back to professional football. Military doctors told Bleier that he would probably be able to walk, but that he would never play football again. Bleier refused to believe it.

"I talk a lot about structure and fundamentals and what happens in changing environments,” Bleier said. “It’s really those basic fundamentals that football teaches you and life teaches you. The military teaches you the same thing.”

Through personal devotion and hard work, he rehabilitated himself and finally won a starting position with the Steelers in the 1974 season, playing in the same backfield with Hall of Fame members Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris.

Bleier was destined to play with the "Super Steelers" of the 1970s that won Super Bowls IX, X, XIII and XIV. He retired from football after the 1980 season.

Bleier's enthusiasm and energy engaged the Guardsmen throughout his talk, and he remained open and gracious throughout the conference. He signed autographs when requested and was quick to offer all four of his precious Super Bowl rings for his fans to proudly wear as they posed for pictures alongside him.

"Rocky Bleier's comments were right on the mark," Army Capt. Doug Larsen said. "I think his refusal to accept his destiny as a disabled veteran and his persistence to achieve his dream most likely had a very positive impact on

his teammates. It will certainly have that impact on me."

In addition to being a four-time Super Bowl winner, Bleier also was named by Parade magazine as an All-American high school player, was a member of Notre Dame's 1966 national championship football team, was selected as team captain the next year, and was named to the "Steelers All-Time Team."

Despite his lengthy list of football accomplishments, Bleier is quick to point out that he is just as proud of his military service and the service of his Army buddies during the Vietnam War. He received a Bronze Star and

Purple Heart for his time in combat.

Bleier said he is extremely appreciative that today's military members returning home from war are greeted as the heroes they truly are.

(William Prokopyk serves in the North Dakota National Guard.)

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