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Meggie Zahneis

Baseball thanks veterans for their service

Several programs throughout big leagues aid and pay tribute to soldiers

Baseball thanks veterans for their service

Baseball and veterans: two of the most American institutions in the country.

And, now more than ever, they're closely linked to one another.

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Across Major League Baseball, players and coaches will don Marine Corps-licensed jerseys and caps on Memorial Day, along with participating in a moment of silence before all games on Memorial Day weekend.

And that's just the start.

"The league itself thinks veterans are very important," said MLB vice president of community affairs Tom Brasuell. "We have a program called Welcome Back Veterans which was a vision of one of the owners [Fred Wilpon] of the New York Mets to make sure that veterans who were returning from Iraq and Afghanistan had the services they needed when they returned. Initially, we were providing grants to a number of non-profits who were helping vets and their families return to civilian life with jobs and job training, mental health and housing issues."

In 2009, the Robert B. McCormick Foundation partnered with MLB on what is now known as the Welcome Back Veterans Initiative, chipping in 50 cents to the dollar on MLB's initial $10 million donation.

Now, the Welcome Back Veterans Initiative sponsors seven university hospitals nationwide for research and treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) to aid veterans.

Major League Baseball on Wednesday announced another $10 million donation to Welcome Back Veterans, bringing its total donations to the cause to $23 million.

"All of our teams support veterans in a number of different ways," Brasuell said. "Some have pregame ceremonies. Some have military appreciation days. On Sunday home games, the Padres players wear camouflage uniforms. Most teams, when they are visiting the Nationals, will go to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, DC. All of our clubs either have discounted or free tickets for veterans and active service members, as well."

In the middle of the second inning of every home game, the Cincinnati Reds recognize a "Hometown Hero" on top of the home dugout.

"[The Hometown Hero program] began as we looked for a way to fulfill all the calls and emails we get requesting for vets and family members on leave to throw out ceremonial first pitches," Reds promotional events coordinator Patrick McGrath said. "We cannot accommodate all the first-pitch requests, so through internal brainstorming we came up with the Hometown Hero program."

Marine Corporal Chad Ohmer, a Purple Heart recipient, was the Hometown Hero recognized Friday.

During a foot patrol in Afghanistan in May 2012, Ohmer and four other Marines were clearing an underground tunnel when an IED exploded, injuring two of Ohmer's fellow soldiers. As Ohmer came to their aid, a second IED was triggered and struck Ohmer himself.

Ohmer was thrown 20 feet by the blow and suffered serious injuries, including to both legs. He had to apply his own tourniquet before being airlifted to a local medical hospital.

Yet Ohmer, who is still undergoing intensive physical therapy and uses a wheelchair, stood on his own two feet as he was recognized Friday.

"Being recognized by the Reds is a big deal for me," Ohmer said. "Being a big Reds fan and having professional athletes turn and say that they look up to me and they appreciate me and the things that I've done, it really means a lot to me."

Ohmer was stopped many times by fans who wanted to shake his hand and offer their thanks. Several young fans even asked to have their photos taken with Ohmer and his father, Dave, who wore his son's miniature Purple Heart pin on his cap.

"When there is true appreciation for another human being, a person feels something deeper than a normal applause from a crowd," McGrath said. "Every game, no matter what the outcome is on the field, there is a standing ovation at the ballpark for the person or persons being recognized on the dugout.

"It brings a sense of pride to our fans to know throughout Reds Country there are these men and women who give the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom."

But the appreciation for veterans isn't confined to Cincinnati.

It'll be on display on baseball's biggest stage, the All-Star Game, at Citi Field this summer.

Major League Baseball is offering a "Tribute for Heroes" program in conjunction with People Magazine. A direct descendent of the "People's All-Stars Among Us" program, which ran from 2009-11, Tribute for Heroes focuses on current or active servicemen and women.

Nominations were accepted from the public on MLB.com, and a panel comprised of retired generals and MLB players alike will narrow down the applications to three per club. The public will vote to select one serviceperson to represent each team in New York City for the Midsummer Classic.

"These men and women have sacrificed their time for our freedoms and to maintain our way of life," Brasuell noted. "We think it's appropriate that any chance we get for us as a league to recognize them, it is the right thing to do. We can't thank them enough for their service."

Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for MLB.com in the fall of '11. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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