Some Real Heroes Visit The UConn Football Team

STORRS —

Some messages are about resilience. Some are about teamwork. And then there are messages a man like Mike Zacchea can deliver.

"He had a story," UConn senior defensive tackle Ryan Wirth said. "It was a good one."

Coach Paul Pasqualoni gathered his football team after practice Tuesday, and surrounded by two dozen wounded veterans they heard Zacchea talk about the day late in 2004 in Fallujah.

Zacchea earned a Bronze Star for valor during Operation Phantom Fury, a major assault on Sunni insurgents in Iraq. He also received a Purple Heart. In a close-quarters battle, a rocket-propelled grenade went off 10 yards from him, the length of the first-down chains.

"Blew me up," the retired Marine lieutenant colonel said.

The RPG ripped apart his shoulder, speared him with shrapnel.

"The first thing I remember was being flecked in the face with concrete as a sniper was shooting at me while I was lying in a pool of blood," Zacchea said. "Two Marines broke cover under fire to drag me to safety.

"The lesson I learned is we have to learn to pick each other up when we're down. That's what I wanted to talk to the players about: There's always somebody willing to shoot at us when we're down. Let's pick each other up."

That was the message Zacchea had for Chandler Whitmer and Sio Moore, the entire UConn team. You want resilience? You want teamwork? Zacchea's injuries, doctors said, were exacerbated when he refused to be airlifted out and leave the Iraqi soldiers he had trained.

"Stories like that keep you motivated and humble," Wirth said. "They are full of perspective. They're risking their lives for us. It's easy to stop complaining about the little things you realize are irrelevant."

Zacchea didn't tell the players what he told the Christian Science Monitor in 2010. That after arriving home early in 2005, with a traumatic brain injury, he wouldn't talk to anyone for months. That one day he grabbed a clerk at a flower store hard by the neck after they got into an argument and she threw his change at him. That he lit his bathroom door on fire after his wife locked it. Zacchea thought his wife was an insurgent. Yes, Zacchea said Wednesday, those stories are true. Just as the story that eventually, his mind, his heart, his soul would heal are true. Zacchea pursued an MBA from UConn. From there he turned to a goal, noble and necessary.

The character of a nation, it has been said, can be measured by the way it treats its veterans. If we are honest with ourselves, truly honest, we will recognize our nation has not always measured up to our highest character. They put their lives on the line for us and sometimes we don't give them the best health care, sometimes we don't hire them. Statistics show our state is the eighth-worst in veteran employment. The number does not do us proud.

"I feel like I'm in a place in my life now where I can help other people who have been through what I have," Zacchea said.

The UConn School of Business is among eight schools that help disabled veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan start businesses. The intense 10-day program, funded by charities and businesses, is called the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities. Zacchea has been there from the start as its director and recently was appointed by the school to lead career initiatives for veterans. Since the first graduating boot camp class in 2010, 25 veterans have started 27 businesses. The success rate is impressive. There are 17 men and nine women in the current program.

"I grew up in a small business in Connecticut so I know the competition and the passion you need for it," said Pasqualoni, whose family had a vegetable farm in Cheshire. "Anytime you have an opportunity for young people, our players, to be around men of this caliber, I like that. It brings home the awareness of how important they are and how insignificant we are. We're over here playing kids games and they're over there making every sacrifice and putting their lives on the line."

Pasqualoni showed his appreciation by bringing those veterans in for practice and for dinner. Zacchea brought Justin Nash of Cheshire and Doug Yeager of Winsted to meet with the media. Yeager, who was with the Connecticut Army National Guard, wants to start his own aviation business, focusing on modular wings for planes. He is passionate about bringing jobs to the state, especially old mill towns. Nash, a former Army captain who'll complete an MBA next year, wants to start a construction business.

"I want to be in direct competition with Halliburton one day," said Nash, laughing. "My employer [McKenney Mechanical of Newtown] has been so supportive. I intend to pay them back tenfold."

Nash played hockey at Hamden and Canterbury School. He played at West Point, a Division I program, before he blew out his shoulder.

"I walked on as a senior in football," Nash said. "At spring workouts they asked me what I wanted to play. I said kickoffs. I just wanted to be on the field." Eventually he was told him he was a little too slow. He became a cheerleader. At first Nash said, "Don't print that," adding, "it was a great experience."

Not sure if this is written into the Constitution, but it should be. If a man nearly gets blown up protecting our country, he can do all the cheerleading he wants.

Nash said he actually had been far from the military rah-rah guy at West Point. He said he occasionally bucked the system. His life changed one day while training in the Georgia woods.

"They pulled us aside the formation," Nash said, "and said, 'Gentlemen, you're at war. Go back to training.'"

It was Sept. 11, 2001. The infantry captain joined the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan in 2003. There, he said, he found his life mission. Yes, there was fighting, but they also made it safe for building schools and roads.

"Times were a little rough," Nash said. "Some guys didn't get out with everything in the right place. I was fortunate. I just got banged around."

Nash, Zacchea said, is being modest. The Korengal Valley was a brutal place. Nash has undergone 12 operations for injuries. Nine years later, he wears a wrist support to help with nerve damage that runs up his left arm.

"My only regret is they got me," Nash said. "I only wish I could have done more."

At one point, two freshman players, Zacchea identified one as Casey Cochran, approached him to share their family's military stories.

"It was a fantastic day for us," Zacchea said.

"There is no way this country would go in a bad direction by hiring and investing in this group," Nash said. "I don't think any us consider ourselves heroes. We went out to do a job."

And in giving them jobs and investing in them now, we are wise to remember they are heroes.

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