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D-backs players honor veterans with visit to VA hospital

7/8/2015

Chris Wimmer
Cronkite News

PHOENIX – Major League Baseball teams across the country hosted Fourth of July celebrations this weekend and the fans crowded into the ballparks to devour hotdogs and delight in fireworks shows.
For many, Independence Day is also a time to give thanks to those who protect our freedom. Three Arizona Diamondbacks pitchers visited the Phoenix VA Community Living Center on July 2 to do just that.
Brad Ziegler, Josh Collmenter, and Andrew Chafin posed for pictures, signed autographs, and swapped stories with a group of disabled veterans whose collective service stretches back to World War II.
“It’s actually an honor for us to get to go there and thank them for their service and their dedication,” Chafin said.
Virtually all of the servicemen who gathered in the hospital’s Fellowship Hall to meet the players were Diamondbacks fans, though they quietly acknowledged that there were a couple Dodgers supporters in their group with whom they have lively debates when the rivals from Los Angeles come to town.
Regardless of team allegiance, the veterans love these kinds of visits.
“It’s great for morale,” said Charley Figueroa, an Army sergeant who served three tours in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970. “You’re in here and you get bored. You get stir crazy. This picks you up and makes a day.”
Experiences like these are especially important to Ziegler. His grandfather was an Army colonel in the Korean War and as a boy he dreamed of being a fighter pilot, though he had to scrap that plan before it began.
“My poor vision eliminated me from that early on, but once I got in a position where I could give back, we started the foundation to help the families of the troops that are overseas because we wanted to make sure the families weren’t forgotten at home,” he said.
In 2009, Ziegler founded Pastime for Patriots. The philanthropy helps purchase tickets to games for the families of servicemen and women as well working with the Freedom Alliance Scholarship Fund to provide scholarships to select high school seniors who lost a parent to service.
“I know what it’s like to travel away from my family a lot during the season,” Ziegler said. “I don’t know what it’s like to travel away from my family and be putting my life on the line and what they must be going through at that time. So we wanted to make sure those families weren’t forgotten either.”
George Bruck, an aviation boatswain’s mate on an aircraft carrier for three and a half years during the Korean War, was thrilled to meet the left-handed sidearm pitcher.
“When (Ziegler) comes in, the team is winning because he’s coming in to save the ball game,” Bruck said. “Anytime you see him, the team is winning.”
Bruck tunes in to as many games as possible on the little TV in his room. He has the television positioned near the foot of the bed so he can recline and watch in comfort. The setup is ideal, except for one small thing:
“It’s perfect if you don’t fall asleep,” Bruck said, smiling.
Last weekend at Chase Field, multiple events honored members of the military. Saturday’s Fourth of July celebration featured, among other things, an auction of the patriotic jerseys and caps worn by the players raise money for military charities.
Sunday was Military Appreciation Day. The team highlighted the service of active duty, reserve, and veteran members of all branches of the military.
As their time at the Community Living Center wound down, the players exited the small room to a spontaneous chant of “Let’s go, D-backs” that sent them on their way to the ballpark. The three pitchers couldn’t help but smile and laugh and wave to the veterans.
Josh Collmenter, whose grandfather was in the Air Force and whose brother is a Marine, said an event like this brightens his day as much as it as does the veterans’ day.
“It’s just something that I’ve always appreciated,” Collmenter said, “because the things that we have and we can enjoy here … are squarely on the shoulders of men like we have in this room.”