Tom Steckman is a Vietnam War veteran who spent almost four decades as a member of the Columbus Division of Police.
Yet he still had no idea the surprise his daughter, Amy, had in store when they attended the Jan. 18 Columbus Blue Jackets game on Military Appreciation Night presented by Elk & Elk.
"My entire damn family knew about this -- everybody but me," Steckman says now with a laugh. "Like I tell my daughter, I was a policeman for 30 years, and I was a detective, and I didn't have a stinkin' clue. I ought to turn my badge back in."
Video: Sgt. (Ret.) Tom Steckman enjoys memorable game
Steckman left the game against the Montreal Canadiens with the thrill of a lifetime. The 70-year-old Westerville native was selected to read the lineup to the team in the locker room before the game, then led the Blue Jackets down the tunnel as they took the ice before the opening faceoff on the night the organization honored those who have defended our freedom as a member of the armed forces.
Amy got the idea after talking to a previous Elk & Elk military salute honoree at a game earlier this year. By November, the details were worked out. All that was left was the surprise.
And, boy, was Steckman surprised.
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"I didn't have a clue," said Steckman, who had the chance to talk to head coach John Tortorella and was also presented with a Blue Jackets-themed Military Appreciation Night jersey by captain Nick Foligno. "I've been a hockey nut forever. It was just mind-boggling. I was dumbfounded. I was surprised I could even speak when I got in that locker room."
How much of a hockey fan is Steckman? His support of Columbus teams goes all the way back to the Owls of the International Hockey League, and when he built a home in Plain Township on the northeast side of town, he installed a pond that measured 200 feet long - his so-called "hockey pond" his kids grew up skating on.
The honor was bestowed on Steckman in recognition for his life dedicated to service. Steckman was an infantry sergeant in the 173rd airborne brigade who served for three years as a parachutist. While in Vietnam he earned a Bronze Star Medal, which is "awarded to members of the United States Armed Forces for either heroic achievement, heroic service, meritorious achievement or meritorious service in a combat zone."
Though he served in an era in which the Vietnam War roiled the country, Steckman looks back fondly at his time in the Army.
"When I turned 16, my mom asked me what I wanted for my birthday, and I just said her signature," Steckman said. "And she said, 'For your license?' And I said, 'No, permission,' because I wanted to go skydiving. I wanted to parachute. She said, 'I'm not signing anything to have my son jumping out of an airplane.' At 16, I had already wanted to do that.
"When I enlisted in the Army, you take a battery of tests to see what you're qualified for, and I had qualified for different positions, but I said, 'I want to jump out of airplanes.' This is back when Fort Hayes was where all the military left out of Columbus, Ohio. That's where I took my test and interviewed with the sergeant there, and he called me the dumbest SOB he had seen that day. He said, 'If you join the airborne, you're going to Vietnam,' so I basically volunteered for Vietnam.
"And I loved it. When my time came up, my three years, I wanted to reenlist. I absolutely loved the service. I loved the structure, I loved the discipline and what it taught me at the time."
Steckman left the Army in January, 1972, and was started with the Columbus Division of Police a month later. He also joined the Air Force Reserves from 1977-82 and was part of the 40th Aerial Port Squadron at Rickenbacker (also known as 40 MAPS) and the 76th Aerial Port Squadron.
Steckman's police career was decorated, as well, all the way up to his retirement in 2011. He received a pair of Medals of Valor, becoming the first Columbus officer ever awarded two, and was the division's officer of the year in 1977.
He earned his first Medal of Valor in 1973 when he arrived at the scene of a burning building and rescued a resident on the second floor where other officers had been beaten back by the smoke and flames. He also earned a Medal of Valor for his actions during a hostage situation in which a woman was held at gunpoint. Steckman was able to deter the suspect and rescue and save the hostage.
"It treated me well," he said of his work with Columbus Police. "I tried to do a good job, and it made a good career for me."
Steckman dedicated his life to service like so many of the other military members honored at Military Appreciation Night. It was a memorable way to see not just his service honored but that of the thousands in attendance who also did their part to protect the red, white and blue.
But on a personal level, Steckman couldn't help but think about how much it meant to be recognized.
"To think back, I came back from Vietnam and I walked through O'Hare airport and I got spit on," Steckman said. "Almost 50 years later, I get an honor bestowed on me like this -- whew. I'm just choking up."
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