Heroes at Heinz Field

Written by Dan Gigler on .

Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel hugs Army veteran Dakota Knisely, 21, of Beaverdale, Tuesday during "Heroes at Heinz Field." (Julia Rendleman/Post Gazette photos)

By Dan Gigler/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Though he'd never before been to Heinz Field, on his first visit Jeremy Arneman received a hero's welcome. The tattoo on his lower left leg of an empty pair of combat boots, helmet and bayoneted rifle -- honoring a fallen friend -- served as a poignant explanation as to why.

Arneman, an Army veteran of two tours of duty in Iraq from Erie was among 75 veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars and their families honored by the Steelers Tuesday afternoon at the fifth annual Heroes at Heinz Field event.

Joshua Caskey Jr., 9, of Cranberry, receives a pass from Brett Keisel while Steelers safety Will Allen plays defense. Caskey's father, a Marine veteran, lost his brother, Joseph Caskey, in Afghanistan in 2010.

The event is a fun one with veterans throwing, catching and kicking footballs with current Steelers players on the Heinz Field grass, followed by a dinner.

That it was held on the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that thrust the United States into war in Afghanistan, added solemnity to the occasion, as did the physical reminders of what the men and women being honored have endured.

One gentleman pinned his Purple Heart his Hines Ward jersey. Like Arneman, some have tattoos marking their service. For others, visible scars, limps and wheelchairs reveal their sacrifice.

Sitting on the rich green sod under a pristine blue sky, enveloped by the bright yellow stadium seats, retired Army Captain Anthony Kennedy, of Hermitage, enjoyed the afternoon with his daughter Jenna, watching his fellow vets try to kick field goals. By his side was Lolo, a trained service dog provided by America's VetDogs.

An infantry platoon leader of two tours in Balad, Iraq, Kennedy struggles with extreme Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms that trigger debilitating nightmares that can result in violent behavior.

Lolo helps mitigate the nightmares.

"She sleeps on top of my feet," Kennedy said, explaining that Lolo is like service dogs employed by chronic seizure sufferers which are able to recognize trembling or mannerisms that precede seizures. Likewise, Lolo recognizes disturbances in Kennedy's sleep and wakes him before another nightmare occurs and helps him manage anxiety while he's awake.

"Since I've had her, I've been able to transition off of medication ... she wakes me up before having a nightmare. It's amazing."

Steelers Brett Kiesel, Max Starks, Ziggy Hood, Ryan Mundy, Doug Legursky, Ramon Foster, Will Allen, John Malecki, Sean Suisham, Greg Warren and Drew Butler participated in the event, which was held in conjunction with VA Healthcare-VISN 4.

Former Steeler Craig Wolfley relayed a personal story as a military father. He'd grown a thick, bushy beard over the past year -- not to emulate Kiesel, but rather to mark the time of his son Kyle's year-long Army deployment in the Mata Khan region of Afghanistan. He didn't shave from the time his son left, until his safe return in July.

His son home, and his beard trim, Wolfley said he can empathize with the loved ones of the veterans on hand, "like you wouldn't believe."

Arneman chatted up Foster and Legursky -- who wore an army cap from a friend who'd served multiple tours in Afghanistan -- during a passing drill.

"I've been a Steelers fan my entire life. I never could've imagined I'd be down here on Heinz Field, throwing a football to some of these guys, or running routes with Ziggy Hood and Brett Kiesel. I never would've imagined in my wildest dreams."

Keisel, who's family has a strong military background, said the honor is his.

"Absolutely. I've been looking forward to today for awhile … To be able to see these people, especially you can see some of them that have been injured -- they’re the ones who are making the sacrifice for all of us in this country, and it's great to be able to come down and personally thank them."

Former Marine Sgt. Jeff Portman, 30, of Shaler, receives a pass while Ryan Mundy plays defense. Portman served a tour of duty in Iraq.

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