CINCINNATI - It was authentically American right down to the Red, White and Blue M&M's. With a galaxy of heroes -- not the Sunday afternoon types, but the genuine article -- gathered to lend their voices and experiences to enhance the USO's mission.
Saturday's ninth annual USO Tribute-Cincinnati at the Duke Energy Center raised money yes, but more importantly it raised awareness for how fragile and fateful life is for those who live at the point of the spear. And that fragility isn’t always the result of encountering IEDs.
Army Capt. Leslie Smith bears a resemblance to actress Ann Archer, only more striking. She can't quite make out who you resemble anymore, though, as she's lost sight in her left eye and has only a narrow slit of vision in her right. Her left leg was the first casualty of a blood infection, likely related to her work as a nuclear, biological and chemical officer during the Bosnian conflict.
Informed she'd succumb within hours, her family was told to make funeral arrangements. Not knowing that a doctor at Walter Reed Hospital had issued her a direct order: "Don't you die on me!"
Smith obeyed, as she always had.
Accompanied by her service dog Isaac, she is now knocking audiences dead with her story of spiritual growth amidst physical deterioration.
"I wouldn't change a thing. This was God's design for me,” Smith said. “The comfort, aid, hope and direction I've been able to impart to others, makes me happier than I've ever been."
That sentiment, boys and girls, is what makes a hero, not making a buzzer-beating shot to win a basketball game.
Nearly 600 people, most with direct military ties, including Gold Star families who've lost loved ones in the Iraq and Afghan conflicts, were rapt in the emotional goings on at the event.
There were no annoying cell phone rings. There was no back of the hall chatter. There was nothing but focus on the stories of Saturday's five honorees, shared at the urging of Jack Cassidy, the President and CEO of Cincinnati Bell. Cassidy moderated the segment with sensitivity, tempered with a light touch that kept it from lapsing into a maudlin "woe is us" exercise.
Sgt. 1st Class Aaron Causey had survived eight previous explosions as an EOD demolitions expert. He was the unit leader and took on the heavy lifting, "so no one else would get hurt."
A ninth, "the only one I missed," claimed both his legs and two fingers on his left hand.
His wife, Cat, beamed with pride as he wheeled himself on to the stage to share his powerful story. First, though, Jack confided that owing to the smart phone he'd been feverishly consulting, Aaron had bad news to impart: His beloved Alabama Crimson Tide had fallen behind early to LSU. Alabama went on to win that game, as will Aaron, who is working toward a doctorate in physics.
Sgt. Ross Cox is one credit from his Bachelor’s degree in business. He has plans for a Master’s degree, though he concedes it will take time to complete. Thankfully, Aaron will have all the time he needs to complete it.
Good things do. He's taken two swings at marriage, with the same woman. She was by his side as he revealed a souvenir acquired during a visit to the Bengals practice Saturday. He popped off his prosthetic leg to display autographs from Rey Maualuga and other players. Don't be surprised if the Bengals overachieve against the Broncos in part due to meeting Aaron
Ross always wanted to be a solider. Pressed as to why he repeatedly went off to war, he cited his four children at home in Odessa, Texas. He did it "so they don't have to."
The brand of hero honored Saturday doesn't wield a baseball bat or putter.
You couldn't help but notice the stage backdrop at the Duke Energy Center. The "Eyes of Freedom" memorial is the work of artist Anita Miller. It portrays life-size images (punctuated by the combat boots) of the 23 members of Columbus-based Lima Company who perished in Iraq in 2005.
Corporals Mike Strahle and Mike Logue have dedicated their lives to keeping the memory of their friends as alive, vibrant and focused as they appear on canvas.
Admittedly dealing with a level of survivor’s guilt, Strahle and Logue are collaborating with Miller, President and CEO of USO Metropolitan Washington Elaine Rogers and Brigadier General Richard Keene, to help those who still serve or will serve in the future.
Logue started a student organization, Combat Veterans Club, to help make Ohio University a more veteran-friendly campus. He has served as Veterans’ Affairs commissioner for the university’s Student Senate and worked to develop an Office of Veterans’ Services. Mike and Mike's template will hopefully be replicated on campuses nationwide.
Their active duty may have concluded but their mission endures.
The same goes for honoree Sheriff Simon Leis, Jr., who upon being cited for his own military service, quipped that he'd re-up in a heartbeat if he could.
Keni Thomas, a retired Army Ranger, provided a musical interlude that was as on target as it was on key. His rendition