MLB honors veterans on July 4

MLB honors veterans on July 4

This promises to be the most patriotic display of an American baseball cap since Bruce Springsteen stuffed a red one into the back pocket of his blue jeans on the cover of his "Born in the U.S.A." album nearly a quarter-century ago.

All Major League Baseball players on this Fourth of July -- and then later for all Sept. 11 games -- will be wearing a very stylish and very symbolic Stars & Stripes baseball cap. Many of those New Era caps will show up sweaty and game-used at the MLB.com Auction to help a great cause in the weeks ahead.

It is all part of Friday's grandiose -- and often emotional -- celebration for returning troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, the next step in the "Welcome Back Veterans" national fundraising and awareness campaign that was announced jointly last week by Major League Baseball, MLB Advanced Media and the McCormick Foundation.

All home teams over this weekend will be host to ceremonies honoring veterans in their community, with veterans throwing out first pitches. For games on the Fourth, "Welcome Back Veterans" will adorn the bases and ceremonial home plates. There will be custom lineup cards, with a place for a local veteran to place his or her signature. Among many fundraising activities, each MLB club will auction off a set of bases, game-worn caps and a specially designed team jersey to benefit Welcome Back Veterans.

It's not a war rally or demonstration, it's a tangible way of starting to really help those who are going to need it -- returning troops and their families. This is an apolitical initiative in the interest of helping some people who, according to one staff sergeant interviewed by MLB.com, "just wanted to get back home." Just consider how it will feel at Chase Field in Arizona, where the National Anthem will be performed by Jessica Schall, whose brother Army Sergeant Kenneth Schall was killed in Iraq during May 2005. Think that song will mean anything?

"Major League Baseball considers it both an obligation and a privilege to assist our troops in any way we can," said MLB president Bob DuPuy, a veteran who served a year in Vietnam and received the Army Commendation Medal for his service. "Welcome Back Veterans was created to help our brave men and women make a successful transition to civilian life when their service to their country has ended. We ask that all Major League Baseball fans join us on the July Fourth weekend and on September 11 in this grand-scale effort to raise funds and bring awareness to this vital cause."

"I congratulate Major League Baseball on this extraordinary act of compassion for our troops throughout our Independence Day weekend," said General David L. Grange, retired U.S. Army brigadier general and president and CEO of the McCormick Foundation. "With Welcome Back Veterans, Major League Baseball is providing financial support and, just as importantly, shining a light on the challenges facing our returning men and women of the armed forces."

Everywhere you look, there will be examples of this support. All of them can't be listed in this space, but MLB.com will have live coverage of the Welcome Back Veterans activities at every home ballpark on this day. In Cincinnati, all active-duty military members can get in free -- and the Reds' players will be wearing camouflage jerseys Saturday and Sunday.

In Philadelphia, where the Phillies will be hosting the Mets, a 16-foot by 10.5-foot flag will be unveiled before the game by impersonators of Betsy Ross and Ben Franklin. The flag will be on display in Ashburn Alley the rest of the weekend. Fifty state flags, plus P.O.W. flags, will be presented on the field, and Col. Mark Ferrara, commanding officer of Stryker Force, will throw out the ceremonial first pitch.

In San Francisco, it will be a rare 1:05 p.m. PT start for a Giants home game. It begins a three-game series against the rival Dodgers, and the first 30,000 fans in attendance receive American flags.

In Atlanta, a truly spectacular homestand slate of patriotism hits a crescendo with Friday's postgame "Salute to America Fireworks Spectacular," presented by Publix Super Markets. It will feature a dazzling display of pyrotechnics, choreographed to patriotic music, that will light up the Atlanta skyline in red, white and blue. Serving as the Braves' Honorary Team Captain for the evening's game against Houston will be Capt. Joseph Anthony, of Richmond, Va., a 16-year veteran of the U.S. Army. Anthony, a decorated soldier, is currently serving in Iraq, and was scheduled to return home to the States shortly before Independence Day.

It's much the same spirit everywhere else at home ballparks for this holiday. And those hats are what most people will especially notice as the theme, whether watching on TV or in person. Exact versions of those caps are available at the MLB.com Shop, and a portion of those proceeds also go to Welcome Back Veterans.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans under the age of 24 have an unemployment rate that is three times the national average. Thousands of younger veterans begin their military service after high school. After their service, many express the desire to go back to school, but have difficulty accomplishing their goals.

Additionally, according to the New England Journal of Medicine (July 2004), one in three Iraq veterans and one in nine Afghanistan veterans will suffer from a mental health problem, ranging from depression to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, upon their return home. That's what Meghan Meade has seen happening already among her fellow veterans, and it is one of the reasons Mets chairman Fred Wilpon began efforts a year ago to bring this ambitious vision to fruition.

"About a year ago, I asked our team when we were in Washington whether they would go to the Walter Reed [Army] Hospital, and everybody voluntarily came," Wilpon said. "We spent most of our day there, talking to the veterans and the troops who had just come back from Afghanistan and Iraq. You couldn't imagine just how proud we were, how proud the players were. Because the sacrifices they were going through -- they didn't want any awards. They didn't want any medals. They just wanted to serve their country.

"When I left there, I said to my wife, Judy, 'We've got to do something more than just going to the hospital.' We need to, in my view, tell all Americans that we're not sharing the sacrifice of our armed forces. We should all realize that. They're burdened with the sacrifice -- although they don't call it a burden -- for our freedom and our way of life. We went home, and I talked to some of my buddies. ... We decided, let's get something together, whereby we could provide certain services that the government either can't provide, by law, or aren't getting to them as fast as they would like. ... We thought about fundraising -- every dollar that came in, we'd bear the administrative costs, and every dollar that came in would go out as a dollar of value to the troops and their families. A lot of what the government does -- and they do a lot -- can't include the families.

"The second thing we thought about was jobs. How do you get the veterans back the second week, the second, third and fifth and 10th week back? How do you get them back to society where they belong, at the highest levels? Because this is a voluntary service and these people are very well-trained and did their jobs very well. So we went and found that we could get corporations to tell us they will have jobs and they will open their arms for the men and women who have served us."

During the announcement news conference, Wilpon gestured at Travelers Insurance CEO Jay Fishman, who was in attendance, in citing just one example of a corporation that is stepping up. He said Travelers had committed 2,000 job opportunities. Another example is 1-800-FLOWERS.

"We have 40,000 to 50,000 job [opportunity] commitments," Wilpon said. "We hope to get to 100,000."

Wilpon said the goal also is to raise $100 million in funds, and that "we have a significant numbers of people who have already committed." Grange, who joined forces six months ago with Wilpon in this initiative, noted that the McCormick Foundation has helped veterans for a half century and stressed the importance that every donor's intention is being met.

"One hundred percent of the donations goes to the cause," he said. "That's important in this, that 100 percent and then some goes to the cause."

According to Wilpon, three major universities -- Cornell, Michigan and Stanford -- are collaborating to create a "protocol" for helping returning veterans -- and their family members -- avoid mental health problems commonly associated with life after combat. He said this will be free of charge and available soon.

"That would be the start of what we hope will be a network around the country, connected with the V.A. hospitals and the Department of Defense areas, where we will have the troops and their families treated for free," Wilpon said. "There is a lot of value in that, not only because of the people who are doing it, but the confidentiality and the fact that some of the troops are hesitant in getting help in these areas. Which they shouldn't be, but they are. So we hope to provide that service."

Major Leaguers are lining up behind this cause.

"We as players are extremely proud not only to wear these caps, but also to represent and pay our respects to our returning veterans," said Mets third baseman David Wright, who comes from the Naval community of Norfolk, Va., and was among the speakers at the news conference. "Growing up in a military town in Virginia, I have friends and family who have given up their lives to serve a cause. Because of these men and women, I get the opportunity to play a game and live in freedom. I hope we remember these veterans."

Yankees outfielder Johnny Damon has been a staunch ally of returning vets with his own support of the "Wounded Warrior Project."

"When it comes to supporting our troops," he said, "everyone in Major League Baseball is on the same team."

That includes Giants pitcher Barry Zito, who in 2005 founded "Strikeouts for Troops." It has raised nearly $1 million, with 100 percent of those funds going to wounded veterans and their families.

Meade, a staff sergeant E5 in the Air National Guard from Long Island, N.Y., was among several returning troops who applauded the intent of the Welcome Back Veterans campaign. She underscored the importance of reaching out, having seen not only the hell of war abroad but also what military colleagues have dealt with in some cases since returning to American shores.

"Generally, what's hard about re-integrating back into everyday civilian life is that it's not structured," she said. "Military life is very structured. You wake up at this time, you eat this, you go to bed, you work, you know exactly what you're doing to get the mission for the day. You have so much freedom when you come back home, that you don't know what to do with yourself. You don't know what you're supposed to be doing. Your whole mindset is focused on: 'There's a mission. What am I supposed to be doing?'

"To just have total freedom is a shellshock. You don't know what to do. ...The military life, especially in Iraq, is so structured, you don't have any time to think for yourself. There are even days designated for laundry, and time. There is absolutely nothing left up to your own imagination. So coming back here and transferring into freedom, if you will, it was overwhelming. It's extremely overwhelming to be able to make every decision on your own, when for nine months you didn't have to do any of that."

It is the simple freedom of going to a Major League Baseball game if you want to.

People like Meade will have a big welcome around baseball this holiday weekend, that's for sure.

All creative materials for Welcome Back Veterans, including television, radio and online creative, were produced pro bono by McCann Erickson North America in conjunction with the Ad Council. This includes a public service announcement for Welcome Back Veterans narrated by Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks and directed by Bennett Miller, nominated for an Oscar for his direction of "Capote."

"Whether you agree with this war or don't -- and frankly we are trying to keep this apolitical -- you have to look at these fine men and women and say, 'They're the ones who are serving,' Wilpon said.

"Thank God they're not being received as the people who came back from the Vietnam War."

Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.