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Professional Football Honors Purple Heart Recipients

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

CANTON, Ohio, Aug. 10, 2004 – It was the Deacon's doing.

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Marine Lance Cpls. Christopher Johnson of Lancaster, Pa., and Kevin Rumley of Fairfax, Va., and Army Staff Sgt. Thomas Gillis of Massachusetts get some individual attention from the 2004 Hall of Fame queen and her court Aug. 9 before the National Football League's Hall of Fame game. The three received Purple Hearts for injuries they suffered in Afghanistan and Iraq. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley

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

"(Jones) worked it all out," said Marine Lance Cpl. Kevin Rumley, of Fairfax, Va.

Rumley, Marine Lance Cpl. Christopher Johnson, Army Staff Sgt. Thomas Gillis and former Army Pfc. Alan Lewis were introduced to the crowd gathered at Fawcett Stadium Aug. 8 for the 2004 Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony.

The ceremony also honored retired Marine Col. Ralph Heywood, a three-time war veteran who played for four years in the now-defunct All-America Football Conference and the NFL.

The ceremony was just one of the weekend's highlights, which included a private dinner with hall-of-famers, a recognition luncheon Aug. 9, and player autographs. The Purple Heart recipients all agreed the NFL had been fantastic, and the reception from the public was very positive as well.

"The fact that the NFL has supported us and recognized us has really brought the morale up," said Gillis, currently on medical hold and awaiting a medical discharge resulting from a spine injury suffered in Afghanistan. "It was kind of like, 'Welcome home.'"

Johnson agreed that the reaction from the public and the NFL had been "awesome."

"I had an opinion of (the NFL), and when I met them, that opinion changed," Johnson said. He added that the attention the soldiers received over the weekend was a little overwhelming. "I'm not used to it at all," Johnson said.

The appreciation carried over to the festivities late Aug. 9. In 2004's first NFL pre-season game, the four Purple Heart recipients stood at midfield as they were introduced to the sold-out stadium and millions of TV viewers before the start of the matchup between the Denver Broncos and the Washington Redskins.

Heywood, the retired Marine, delivered the game ball at the start of the matchup.

An appearance by members of Rolling Thunder, a group of military veteran motorcycle enthusiasts involved in POW/MIA issues, completed the military's involvement with the Hall of Fame game, which ended with the Redskins taking home a 20-17 win over the Broncos.

Gillis, of Massachusetts, was with the 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, of the 82nd Airborne Division, when he was injured. His spinal injury has required three surgeries to date, and physical therapy is ongoing.

Gillis's surgeon, Lt. Col. (Dr.) Tim Kuklo, is from Canton, and his parents still reside there. This weekend offered Gillis a chance to meet the Kuklos over breakfast.

Johnson, of Lancaster, Pa., was shot 15 miles from Fallujah, Iraq, on June 20. He lost his right arm and required six blood transfusions. His doctors say he'll be at Walter Reed for another six to 12 months. A self-described optimist, Johnson said hopes to be a guest there for no more than another month.

Lewis was seriously injured serving with the 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq, and has since left the Army. "I know they do this annually," the Milwaukee, Wis., native said. "(But), it was a once in a lifetime for me."

College is in the cards for both Rumley, who currently uses a wheelchair because of his injuries, and Johnson.

Assigned to Company L, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, out of Twentyninepalms, Calif., Rumley is considering a degree in special education dealing with children with Down syndrome when he leaves the Corps. He said a childhood friend had influenced his consideration. Johnson, who is with the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., isn't quite sure of his plans, but suggested he might be leaning toward history or psychology.

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