Armed Services Night

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PAWTUCKET, R.I. — The images appear regularly at McCoy Stadium; photos of local servicemen and servicewomen, accompanied as they reveal themselves by a soundtrack of “God Bless America.”

One dissolves into the next on the right-center field video board, each part of a momentary break in the roughly three hours of a Pawtucket Red Sox home game.  As names and faces — many as youthful as the players — come and go, it is a time for reflection.

And gratitude.

Seventy-two evenings and afternoons a year, from April through August, the PawSox pause play before the seventh inning to honor our citizen soldiers.  But on one of those dates, each of the last 33 summers, the club has extended its appreciation from the opening of McCoy’s gates to their closing.

Tonight the PawSox are scheduled to host the Toledo Mud Hens, while staging their 34th annual Armed Services Appreciation Night.

“It’s really our honor to take a moment to say, ‘Thank you,’” said team Vice President and General Manager Lou Schwechheimer, who was in on the origins of the idea to pay such tribute.

Following a 1979 appearance by club executives aboard the battleship USS Massachusetts, then Adjutant General of Rhode Island Major General Leonard Holland, suggested the PawSox hold a special night at the ballpark.  Schwechheimer, as well as the club’s president Mike Tamburro and late owner Ben Mondor, absolutely agreed.

In the decades since, as men and women have continued answering the call of their country in new theaters of combat, the special evening has evolved.

“We led (the first) parade with World War I veterans.  It was magic,” Schwechheimer remembers.  “Guys were 90 years old, and the players and fans were blown away.  We’ve seen now, 30-plus years later, having World War II veterans who are older, it’s the same way.  There are so few who can walk out on their own.  It’s (our) incredible honor.

“The real joy is in watching the players and fans pause to reflect.  They have really embraced it.”

According to Jeff Bradley, the PawSox director of community relations, approximately 30 organizations and veterans groups participate annually in the event.  It is solemn, yet also features plenty of patriotic pomp and circumstance.

Last year, per usual, Lt. Col. Gloria Berlanga of the Rhode Island National Guard emceed pre-game ceremonies that included a performance by the 88th Army Band.  Guards of Thunder sounded a cannon salute and the 143rd Airlift Wing of the Rhode Island Air National Guard executed a fly-over.  The Sox made a statement of their own, taking the field in camouflage jerseys.

But the enduring impression was that of a young Marine representing America’s latest ‘Greatest Generation,’ the one waging the War on Terror.

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Corporal Kevin Dubois

A year earlier, Corporal Kevin Dubois of Lincoln, R.I. was on his second deployment as a scout sniper in Afghanistan.  He was trying to clear a helicopter landing zone to enable medics to evacuate an injured comrade, when he went to lower himself into the prone position.

Dubois stepped back with his left foot and detonated an improvised explosive device (IED).  Remarkably, he survived the blast.  Albeit at a severe cost.  He lost both legs at the hip.

On the stadium video screen, a picture showed a younger Dubois lifting his wife Kayla in his arms.  Meanwhile, from a wheelchair on the center of the diamond, a young hero who sacrificed for others delivered a ceremonial first pitch.

It was all the PawSox could do to say thanks.

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