Cardinals visit Phoenix VA to acknowledge vets who ‘hardly get recognition’

Kaleb Johnson signs a flag for military veteran at the “Salute to Service” visit. (Photo by Jose Esparza/Cronkite News)

Kaleb Johnson shakes hand with military veteran at the “Salute to Service” visit held at VA Phoenix Hospital (Photo by Jose Esparza/Cronkite News)

The Arizona Cardinals and USAA partnered together to show their gratitude for serving. (Photo by Jose Esparza/Cronkite News)

Big Red poses with a military veteran. (Photo by Jose Esparza/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX — For a group of players accustomed to the spotlight, it was time to recognize a community that rarely experiences it.

“One of the things I notice since I’ve been out of the Marine corps as a veteran is we hardly ever get any recognition,” veteran Naeem Abdul-Kareem said, “because (others) don’t often hear what military people do.”

That’s one of the reasons the Arizona Cardinals and USAA teamed up for a “Salute to Service” visit to the Phoenix VA Hospital Wednesday.

The Cardinals visited veterans, signed autographs, took pictures and shared laughs. Four members of the Cardinals — Xavier Williams, Rodney Gunter, Kaleb Johnson and Givens Price — were accompanied by mascot Big Red and the team’s cheerleaders.

“It’s always a good time to come out and give back to the community,” defensive tackle Williams said. “When you do it with veterans it always makes it a little more special. They gave us so much for this country. Anyway you can help those guys out, it always means a lot.”

A long line on the second floor consisted of eager veterans and fans wanting to meet members of the Cardinals for autographs and photos.

For many, it was an emotional event. The acknowledgment was important.

“It really really moves them to the point of tears, because, again, this is very important that someone actually recognizes their service,” said Rory Wicks, a USAA military affairs representative.

According to a study by the Pew Research Center in 2011, 27 percent of veterans said returning to the United States after serving overseas was difficult. The percentage climbed to 44 percent for veterans who served after Sept. 11, 2001.

The Cardinals’ visit Wednesday meant a lot to many of the veterans.

“I have never met a professional football player at all,” Abdul-Kareem said. “To be able to get a chance to come and do it, I like it. I enjoyed it, being able to get my autograph signed by the players and the cheerleaders, of course.”

The Cardinals signed everything from pennants to flags to shirts. They bonded with the veterans over discussions about the season or how ecstatic they were to be there.

“I think it’s great to always support our troops,” offensive guard Johnson said. “We play a sport that America loves, but those troops are really who we should be praising.”

USAA, a financial service group that is dedicated to serving military members and their families, believes events like these are essential for U.S. veterans after coming home from serving.

“A huge impact on them,” Wicks said. “Sometimes military servicemen and women wonder if folks actually know and understand what they do.”

The NFL, which has had a long relationship with the armed forces, found itself embroiled in controversy when senators Jeff Flake and John McCain disclosed in 2014 that the U.S. Department of Defense had spent $5.4 million in contracts from 14 team from 2011.

The NFL later gave back $723,734 to the U.S. government.

“The military and NFL relationship is very strong,” defensive tackle Gunter said. “Once a month we have cleats, clothing that says ‘support the military.’ We have events. From my understanding, the military and NFL have a great relationship.

Several of the Cardinals players said they have family ties with the military.

Gunter’s uncle and cousin served in the military, and the woman he called his future fiancee is serving in the Navy at Norfolk, Virginia.

William’s father, an aunt, an uncle and grandfather served.

Johnson said his father and grandfather served in the military and he has a brother in the Navy who is stationed in Norfolk, Virginia.