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Veterans honored at halftime

Fran Tolan | Friday, February 13, 2009

At halftime of the Notre Dame men’s basketball game against Louisville Thursday, the team honored four United States soldiers that were injured in combat in Afghanistan.

The four “Wounded Warriors” – Lance Corporal Anthony Villarreal, Staff Sergeant Leroy Petry, Staff Sergeant Dillon Behr and Staff Sergeant Freddie De Los Santos – were greeted at midcourt by a standing ovation from the sellout crowd during intermission of the home team’s win.

“It was a lot to take in, emotionally. I held it in but it is a weird experience,” Lance Corporal Villarreal said immediately after the tribute. “You just think you went over there and did your job and you have all these people appreciate you in that way. It kind of makes you grateful for what you’ve done.”

The halftime presentation was part of “Camo Night” at the Joyce Center, an event Notre Dame coach Mike Brey began last year. Every fan in attendance received a camouflage T-shirt upon entering the game.

In May 2007, Brey traveled to Kuwait as part of “Operation Hardwood,” a four-day basketball tournament in which he coached a team of service members. After returning to the United States, Brey said the trip was one of the top five experiences of his life.

“I think it’s great that as a University, we’ve done this camo night and honored [the troops],” Brey said after Thursday’s game. “This year, though, we actually had some true heroes here.”

The halftime ceremony consisted of a video tribute and an acknowledgment at midcourt of the four soldiers, each of whom was presented with a Notre Dame autographed basketball. After the soldiers received their balls, the crowd broke out in chants of “U-S-A.”

Petry, whose son Landon accompanied him to midcourt, said the crowd’s reaction was emotional for him.

“Having [Landon] here after I’ve been wounded is great,” Petry said. “I want to thank everybody for their support.”

Brey, meanwhile, said he and his team might have owed extra thanks to the troops. Notre Dame was on a seven-game losing streak before blowing out Louisville 90-57.

“Those guys brought me some good karma, I guess,” Brey said. “I spent some time in our reception area with them at 2:00.”

Notre Dame point guard Tory Jackson agreed, saying: “The way they fight for us – it was one of those things – we kind of returned the favor for them, fought for them a little.”

Besides, the 5-foot-11 Jackson joked that he would be afraid of the consequences if the team were to lose.

“I think they were gonna beat us up if we hadn’t won,” he said with a laugh.

Unbeknownst to Jackson, Petry said he was expecting nothing less than a win.

“The team hasn’t been doing very well. We got to meet with the coaches earlier and we told them, ‘Hey, we’re letting you guys know we came here to see you guys win,'” he said.

Captain Joe Kosek, a Notre Dame assistant professor and former Notre Dame ROTC cadet, said Brey was instrumental in organizing the halftime ceremony.

“It’s amazing for me to see that key players at the University like Mike Brey are taking such steps to recognize the soldiers abroad,” Kosek said. “We just want to try to make it as amazing as we can for the Wounded Warriors.”

Kosek said the men’s basketball program contacted the Notre Dame Army ROTC to help plan the event.

“As far as the Wounded Warriors go, we didn’t really have any role except helping contact them,” he said. “They’ve done a great job of bringing them in. We’ve just acted as a consultant for their trip here, and figuring out things they might want to do when they’re here.”

All four soldiers sat courtside for the Irish win. With just over six minutes remaining in the first half of the game, the public address announcer asked all veterans and those currently serving in the military to stand and be recognized.

“It’s awesome. To have Notre Dame fans cheer for you is unreal, really,” Villarreal said.