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Paying their respects


Any teammate standing near Joe Zelenka during the national anthem prior to kickoff can expect a fist to the chest and shake of the shoulder pads when the F-15s or F-18s buzz Jacksonville Municipal Stadium.

"I always tell them that is the sound of freedom," Zelenka said.

Zelenka and three of his teammates had the chance to pay their respect to the soldiers fighting overseas on Tuesday with a special visit to Washington, D.C. The USO hosted Zelenka, Maurice Williams, Montell Owens and Drew Miller for a full day of visits with the wounded soldiers.

The group arrived in Washington Tuesday morning and was transported to the MATC (Military Advance Training Center) at Walter Reed Army Medical Center before making several additional stops prior to their return.

"It was an eye-opener to what war truly means to families and how it affects lives," Williams said. "We have young kids in there, guys that can't be older than 21, men that will probably never walk normal again another day in their life, people with missing body parts, parts of their skull gone. I have great respect for those men and women and what they do for our country."

Numerous soldiers relived their time overseas with the group, a dialogue encouraged by the doctors when the players arrived. The stories included:

A soldier who has endured 91 surgeries in a little over two years and is preparing for his 92nd operation this month. * The medic who lost a leg and the use of an arm in an explosion, but proudly saved two lives in the process. He put his life in jeopardy as he made sure his fellow soldiers were safe before tending to his own wounds. *

The 23-old man who lost both legs when he was hit by an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) and the look on his face as he talked about his 16-month old child who was in the room with him. * The children running around the medical center, visiting their mother or father, not knowing what the future holds. *

The upbeat Marine corporal who had come in to get a plate placed in his head. This was a success considering doctors weren't sure he would ever walk, talk or even live when he first showed up three years ago after being shot. Now, he's making improvements. * The young soldier who was checking out of the hospital to travel to Tampa for more rehabilitation on his severely burned leg.

The stories of the men who were injured overseas and flown back to the United States within 24 hours. *

"When you see a veteran who is an amputee, you don't think about the traumatic explosion that caused the leg to be gone," Zelenka said. "You don't think about the impact it had on their bodies and families and how much they miss the guys they were with."

Walter Reed Army Medical Center is the largest military treatment facility in the United States and has treated nearly 8,000 service members wounded in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. The MATC opened its doors in 2007 and was designed with the latest computer and video monitoring systems to help enhance amputee and patient care.

The players went room-to-room and spent quality time with each soldier, discussing their experiences and mixing in some football talk.

"They kept saying, 'It's like you guys when you go out and prepare for a game,'" Zelenka said. "I would say, 'no, you don't compare yourself to us. What you do and what we do are not even on the same playing field. It is so much more important.'"

While in the Walter Reed complex the group had lunch at the Mologne House, a hotel that houses the soldiers and their families while they are being treated for their injuries. In addition to treatment, the soldiers are prepared to become active citizens in their community while at the Mologne House. The players visited with the soldiers and their families there, signing autographs and posing for photos. The players learned how important a role the families play in each soldier's recovery. Both Zelenka and Williams are married with two children, so the stories really hit home.

"These guys have to be taught how to reenter society and to be able to walk and function without a limb and with a prosthetic," Zelenka said. "They bring their families for not only the support, emotionally, morally and physically, but also so they can learn how to deal with the loss of the limb. It's hard for a two-or-three-year old boy to understand that my dad doesn't run like other dads. My dad can't pick me up like other dads pick up their kids with two hands. My dad can't give a two-arm hug, but he gives the best one-arm hug in the world."

The group ended their day at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. NNMC is the only Defense Department facility capable of comprehensive complex neurocritical care for wartime traumatic brain injury patients. The players visited the five soldiers currently in the center dealing with brain trauma, while several more remained in intensive care.

Zelenka spoke for the group when he said the goal of the trip was to show support for the wounded soldiers, but it became much more.

"Every single one of us was left in awe and complete admiration for the men and women we had the opportunity to meet," Zelenka said. "We gained more from it than we brought to the table. Everyone we met told us they were doing a job they love to do and don't regret any part of it."

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