photo credit: Scott Audette
Some say there is no such thing as a free lunch. No truer words could express the daily duties of America’s military personnel, who sacrifice their time, exhaust their efforts, and risk their lives in protecting our nation’s great freedoms. After all, being a member of the armed forces is a 365-days-a-year job.
Video - Military Appreciation Luncheon
It was pretty emotional entering the building and seeing the red carpet. I haven't had an experience similar to that since I returned from my first deployment in Iraq. It definitely came as a pleasant surprise." - Sergeant Jacob Huey, US Army
But for approximately two hours on November 10, the Tampa Bay Lightning organization, in conjunction with the Lightning Foundation, reduced the number of hours in an otherwise typical work day for approximately 100 soldiers by participating in the first annual Tampa Bay Lightning Military Luncheon.
As soldiers from all branches of the military filed into the St. Pete Times Forum, Lightning employees lined the red carpet and welcomed them to the event with a round of applause signifying a sense of unyielding gratitude on behalf of the lay community.
“This is my first luncheon like this, I’ve never been to anything where a professional sports team hosts us for an event, so this is pretty amazing what the Tampa Bay Lightning have done for us,” Sergeant Jacob Huey of the United States Army said. “It was pretty emotional entering the building and seeing the red carpet. I haven’t had an experience similar to that since I returned from my first deployment in Iraq. It definitely came as a pleasant surprise.”
As military personnel entered the Channelside Club dining room and found their seats, Lightning players joined them in pairs to share not only a meal, but each others’ stories as well.
Lightning center Steven Stamkos shared his experience of being a second-year player in the NHL and his rise to superstar status in the game’s elite league at such a young age. Likewise, the members of the military were equally anxious to get to know the players away from the ice, on a more personal level.
“He [the soldier] had his camera and he was just showing me some pictures he took of when he was at the Bucs game on Sunday. This event is a great way for them to relax a little and to take a break from their daily lives, and for us to show truly how much we care and appreciate what they do,” Stamkos said. “A lot them asked us for autographs, but we’re the ones who should be asking them for theirs.”
Several key figures within the Lightning organization spoke at the podium to address the sheer gratification and significance of the military’s duties.
Lightning owner, Governor and CEO Oren Koules discussed the contrasts of battle between hockey player and soldiers during times of war.
“In hockey we use the word battle a lot, and liken the game to a fight or a war,” Koules said. “But in your experience, those terms we use don’t compare to what you go through every day. We are extremely thankful.”
At the conclusion of the lunch, all military personnel in attendance greeted and got to know Lightning players and personnel in a more familiar sense, as members of the team cordially autographed several items for the soldiers including sticks, jerseys, hats, and pucks.
“They make the ultimate sacrifice,” Lightning right wing Ryan Malone said, who also supports Operation Homefront, a charity which provides morale and support for military members abroad. “It’s pretty simple actually. If they didn’t do their jobs, we wouldn’t be able to do ours. To get involved in Operation Homefront was a no-brainer for me.”
In fact, it’s no coincidence that the Lightning’s theme of “Together We Will” extends beyond the realm of the hockey team. Much like any professional sports team, the various military units exhibit that same sense of unity, teamwork, and trust among all its members.
“That’s what we’re all about,” Lieutenant Colonel Dave Raimo of the United States Marine Corps said. “The Lightning players and everyone associated with the organization has done an outstanding job in continuing their theme of together we will with us. We feel just like we’re part of the team. Being a Marine for 18 years, I always cherish the fact when people stop me and just say thank you, but this event has just gone above and beyond. It boosts the morale, it’s a force multiplier, and it’s just absolutely huge.”
While there may in fact be such a thing as a free lunch, the members of the United States Armed Forces proudly serve to defend something that isn’t free: our freedom.