Seven veterans who have transitioned into various careers and pursuits that inspire others were honored in “Variety Salute to Service” presented by the History Channel. Marine Corp and Navy veteran Montel Williams hosted this year’s special, which premiered Saturday on the History Channel and was produced by A+E Factual Studios.
Williams explained that the veterans highlighted are those who, “continued to answer the call of duty long after their act of service was done.” He first introduced Jeremy Locke, Sgt. 1st Class, U.S. Army (Ret.). Locke cofounded Aerial Recovery, an international disaster response group focused on rescuing people from natural and manmade disasters. Aerial Recovery has rescued more than 8,000 civilians since its inception.
“Our mission statement is to save lives and stop evil. We find veterans that need healing, and then we retrain, repurpose them and we redeploy them out in natural, manmade disasters and to combat human trafficking,” Locke said.
Aerial Recovery spent most of 2022 assisting in Ukraine, as well as with Hurricane Ian. The team also did anti-human trafficking training with six Indian nonprofits in Mumbai and helped rescue people affected by earthquakes in Turkey.
Christy Gardner, Sgt., U.S. Army (Ret.), was the next veteran to be highlighted. While serving overseas, she lost her legs as a result of an attack on her unit. Thanks to her service dog Moxie, she regained her lease on life after struggling both physically and mentally. “With Moxie, I didn’t kill myself because I didn’t want to let her down. I didn’t want her to feel like she failed her job. And that was really the only reason I stayed,” Gardner said.
Gardner now owns Mission Working Dogs, a nonprofit which matches those in need with a service dog to help them live longer and more independent lives. “I feel like because my career got cut short and I couldn’t continue to serve. This is my way to serve,” she said.
“Meeting with the veterans and even the civilians that we’re helping and telling them that they’ve been accepted, that we have a dog for them, that they’ve got a match … It feels like you told him you have a new kidney for them and just that life saving measure that’s going to make everything so much better for them,” Gardner added.
Nate Boyer, former Staff Sgt., U.S. Army, and Seattle Seahawks player, then shared his story of how he transitioned after both his careers came to an end.
“I didn’t realize I was struggling until I didn’t have that locker room or team, and I didn’t know what to do when I woke up in the morning,” he said “It made me a little bit afraid of who I was gonna become if I didn’t have something to continue to build or fight for, and so luckily, I started MVP.”
Boyer and NFL analyst Jay Glazer formed Merging Vets & Players, a nonprofit uniting veterans and former professional to help them find purpose through training and bonding together. Merging Vets & Players has eight chapters around the country, in addition to virtual options.
“No matter if you are the most famous athlete in history of the world or the most decorated veteran, you start to believe in yourself. When we go through something together like physically challenging, whether that’s basic training or training camp or an MVP session or whatever, you sort of respect those around you a different way,” Boyer said.
When Dana Cummings, former Cpl., U.S. Marine Corps, lost his leg in a car accident, he became determined to learn how to surf with his new prosthetic leg. Cummings is now the founder and president of AmpSurf, a nonprofit aimed to “promote, inspire, educate and rehabilitate people through the power of surfing and other outdoor activities.”
“You guys all know who the best surfer in the water is? It’s the one with the biggest smile, having the most fun,” he says to his class of 24 participants that day.
After his accident, Cummings was told he would likely be unable to surf again, which he said he failed at when he had two legs. “I don’t know if they did that to be real with me, of if they did that to motivate me, but I was just like to heck with you, I’m gonna do it.”
During his third deployment in 2012 in Afghanistan, Cedric King, Master Sgt., U.S. Army (Ret.), stepped on a pressure plate improvised explosive device. When he woke up eight days later, his wife broke the news to him that both his legs had to be amputated. “The next few months after getting this news was probably some of the lowest moments of my life, but also some of the best moments of my life at the same time,” he said.
Despite never having run a marathon before, King was on the start line for the Boston Marathon just 21 months later: “I would have never known if I could do these things unless this bomb took my legs away. It was a gift.” He is now a Gary Sinise Foundation ambassador, motivational speaker, author and athlete.
“You don’t have to have two legs to be free. I now know that I can do things just as good if not better than before,” King said.
Like several other veterans, Elton Hart, former GMM3, U.S. Navy, found it difficult to translate his military experience to the civilian work force. However, he now works as Optimum’s vice president and general manager for the mid-Atlantic region. Hart is part of a team that helps veterans and military families make their transition better.
“When I transitioned from the service in ’96, there weren’t a lot of opportunity for somebody who was working on a guided missile system in the civilian space. Luckily, companies like Optimum provide services that allow that transition to happen easier,” Hart said.
PT Bratton, former Staff Sgt., U.S. Air Force, was the last veteran to be highlighted in the broadcast. Through the comedy bootcamp program with the Armed Services Arts Partnership, Bratton found a new way to help others after his service. “As a veteran, there’s a lot of things that we’ve experienced that are kind of hard to deal with, and laughter is a good way to process that pain,” he said.
The Armed Services Arts Partnership is a nonprofit organization designed to help veterans reintegrate into civilian society, offering courses such as storytelling, creative writing and the comedy boot camp program, which Bratton now helps teach.
“It’s so rewarding to see your students get up there and make a room full of people laugh. It’s so fulfilling. They’re excited. They’re thankful for you helping them. Even if they never get on stage again to tell another joke in their life, that’s an accomplishment,” Bratton said.
Williams concluded the broadcast by thanking the audience for joining to hear these veterans’ stories.
“Their commitment should be a matter of national pride. So on this Veterans Day, I salute the men and women we’ve honored tonight and also the millions of veterans who served and continue to serve in the armed services. Happy Veterans Day,” Williams said, closing out the special.
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