Two Tennessee Army National Guard helicopters landed almost simultaneously on the MTSU football practice field, stirring up grass, dirt and debris and prompting children to scream with delight and start running excitedly in all directions.
Songwriter Steve Dean of Goodlettsville, Tennessee, performed "Screaming Eagle," a song he co-wrote with the late Blake Pickel, an MTSU alumnus who died in September after survival training exercises, bringing tears to an MTSU Veterans Memorial service audience.
And, with pride, MTSU alumnus Don Witherspoon (Class of 1964) accepted the Dr. Joe Nunley Award.
Hundreds of veterans, their family members and active-duty military turned out for the 38th annual Salute to Veterans and Armed Forces game activities Saturday (Nov. 16) on the MTSU campus. It is an annual tradition capped off by the Band of Blue's halftime performance — playing the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines and Navy fight songs as veterans from the respective branches march across midfield.
The MTSU Blue Raiders lost 31-28 to Rice in the Conference USA football game. A special game ball delivery by the 101st 3rd Brigade Combat Team and Unit B 1-230th Assault Helicopter Battalion/Army Aviation Support Facility No. 3 – Jackson, Tennessee, took place just before kickoff.
Terra Pickel of Cleveland, Tennessee, was moved by the special tribute to her husband, who already had been an Army medic and who graduated in May 2017 from MTSU and commissioned as a second lieutenant. She was joined by daughters Taygen, 9, and Addalyn, 4, and more than 20 other family members at the ceremony.
"It's really great to know his school cared," Terra Pickel said. "The song meant a great deal to me. They did a really great job (with the ceremony)."
1st Lt. Sara Estill, a classmate of Blake Pickel, shared how he was "an outstanding leader with real-world experience. He was a leader to all of us. We were privileged and blessed to serve with him."
Dean said he and Blake Pickel "really didn't know each other" when they sat down to write the Operation Song piece in collaboration. "Two hours later, I felt I knew him. It got emotional in our time together. I'm thankful I was able to come back and do this."
Operation Song is a nonprofit that pairs retired and active-duty veterans and their families with professional songwriters to tell their stories musically. MTSU has hosted sessions on campus since 2016 with support from the College of Media and Entertainment and the Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center.
Witherspoon said he "appreciates the award. A lot of guys and women deserve it more than I do. It's just nice to have that recognition for veterans. … I have a lot of gratitude for Dr. (Sidney A.) McPhee for what you do here — the Veterans Day program and the Daniels Center is one of the best in the nation."
He concluded by saying he was "proud to get the award, proud to be a Blue Raider, proud to be an American and a Marine and proud to be a veteran."
In introducing Witherspoon, 2018 recipient Jeff Davidson said the committee and community "are blessed to have a man of this character." Jeana (Nunley) Goodwin ('76), the daughter of Nunley, presented the award to Witherspoon.
Alumnus Bob Hardison ('67) of Huntsville, Alabama, said "it's nice to be recognized" during the halftime medley of Band of Blue songs. He served in the Army's field artillery. Attending with wife Linda Lou Hardison, he said he enjoyed being at MTSU with Bud Morris and Greg Samuels.
Nashville-based Nightfire, the 129th Army Band with the Tennessee Army, performed a medley of rock 'n' roll tunes during the picnic.
U.S. Marines collected Toys for Tots at various gates at the stadium before the game.
Honorary captains were children from 18 families who are part of A Soldier's Child organization.