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Military Veteran Receives Surprise from Penguins

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and head coach Dan Bylsma are considered hockey heroes for helping lead the Penguins to the franchise’s third Stanley Cup championship last June.

Following the morning skate on Thursday, Crosby and Bylsma, were able to honor an American hero – Iraq and Afghanistan veteran Justin Lubash.

Lubash, 23, was injured on Dec. 29 when multiple rounds of fire first struck his living quarters in Afghanistan, and minutes later hit him as he and his fellow comrades ran to safety.

The attack, which left Lubash with eight-and-a-half inch metal plate replacing three inches of bone and nerve damage in his elbow, also destroyed two of his most prized possessions – his black Sidney Crosby jersey and a Penguins Stanley Cup champions banner.

Mario Lemieux shakes hands with veteran Justin Lubash.
Yes, of all the things Lubash could have taken with him to the war zone, he chose a Penguins’ jersey and banner.

“It’s pretty amazing, and I think we appreciate things like that,” Crosby said. “Sometimes I don’t think we realize how important we are to people and how followed we are sometimes. That’s a great example of it there.”

Lubash said the jersey was a gift given to him during Crosby’s rookie season in 2005 from his in-laws.

Crosby made sure to let Lubash know how much both his support of Crosby as a player, and the courageous time Lubash spent defending our country meant to him. Crosby not only spent 15 minutes having a private conversation with Lubash in the Penguins locker room, but he also gave him a new jersey to replace the one he lost – complete with a personalized autograph.

When Crosby presented Lubash with his new sweater, the veteran was at a loss for words to describe what the jersey meant to him.

“I really do appreciate this,” Lubash said multiple times.

Before Lubash could take in what had just happened, another visitor was next to him with another gift.

“I know you lost your banner in battle, so we got you a new one,” Byslma said.

Again, Lubash didn’t know quite what to say.

“Thank you so much,” he told Bylsma. “This is the best thing anyone’s done for me.”

“Well we can’t believe you had these things with you,” Bylsma replied.

Following the presentations, Lubash and Crosby returned to their conversation, this time with Lubash’s son, Jackson, joining them. Jackson quickly became enamored with Crosby’s stick, which the center gave to the young fan, who was sporting his blue jersey.

Lubash later called the exchange with Crosby one of the highlights of his life.

“It’s really cool,” Lubash said. “I am so excited. I know he was excited. It’s definitely an honor to meet him.”

It’s also a great honor to be able to tell the story of Lubash, who at one time was a hockey star in his own right.

Lubash with his newly autographed Sidney Crosby jersey.
Lubash spent four seasons of varsity hockey playing for Serra Catholic, where he led his teams to four-straight Penguins Cup finals and one state championship. He was definitely good enough to take his talents to a higher level, which he always believed he could.

“I thought I could have played in junior but boxing took over,” Lubash said. “In my heart I was a fighter and I knew that is what I wanted to do.

“I took up boxing when I joined the army. One of my goals was to make the army boxing team and sure enough it came true. I was able to try out and make the team.”

Lubash fought one year for the army team and then volunteered for deployment overseas. He was able to spend a tour of duty in Iraq and return home safely, but after he was wounded in Afghanistan, he wasn’t sure he was making it home that time.

Lubash and his team were inside their hooch watching television on Dec. 29 when a series of rounds began impacting their shelter about 15-20 feet away. He reacted quickly and ordered that everyone head to the quickest bunker.

And that was when things took a turn for the worst.

“When I went outside to get to a bunker myself a round impacted about three feet from me but hit one of the vehicles we had,” Lubash said. “From there, I ran up the hill. When I got within 10 feet of the bunker, the first round hit about seven or eight feet from me and impacted my entire body. It hit me in my right arm and my face. I was knocked unconscious for about 15 seconds.”

Befitting his fighting nature, Lubash came to and again made a sprint for safety – only he didn’t quite make it.

“Right before I got to the bunker the second round hit,” he said. “It hit my lower body. When it hit I just fell to the ground because I went numb – the nerves in my legs and my arm. When I got back up, I didn’t know whether I had an arm or not. Everything went numb from elbow down.”

Luckily for Lubash, a medic was close by and was able to help him put a tourniquet on.

Now, back home with his family and several surgeries later, Lubash is back on the road to recovery.

“Physically, I am not 100 percent yet,” he said. “Once I am able to move my arm 100 percent, then I’ll be all the way back. I won’t stop at anything until I get my arm back the way it used to be. Overall, my health is a lot better that I was.”

No matter what percent Lubash’s health is, his courageous recovery – and the sacrifice he made for this country – makes him a hero of whom Pittsburgh can be proud. We know Crosby and Bylsma would certainly agree.

Lubash will be honored at tonight's game against the Ottawa Senators with this video.

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