From the parking lots and concourses to the field and skies, FedExField was a sight to behold on Nov. 19 as the Commanders put a focus on celebrating the military community in its many forms.
"I can't tell you how great it is to be standing up here on behalf of my family, my fellow owners and the Washington Commanders organization to be able to host and give back to all of you when you do so much for all of us every day," said Managing Partner Josh Harris to dozens of military members in the USO Club tent before the Week 11 game.
Showing appreciation for the military community is a priority for the Commanders throughout the year, but the Salute to Service game in particular provides an important opportunity to give this tenet extra attention. As the stadium sits in an area with such a rich military community and so many military institutions, the Commanders' Salute game is always a powerful occasion, marked by hundreds of uniformed service members and recognitions paying tribute to active-duty members, veterans, military families and a number of service organizations.
This year, the Salute to Service game presented by Verizon delivered on that tradition. Highlights included an Air Force flyover, a halftime tribute featuring 180 service members representing each branch, Vietnam Medal of Honor recipients as honorary captains and so much more.
The mission of the NFL's Salute to Service initiative is to honor, empower and connect military members, and those values were at the forefront early on gameday. Activations for fans, which included a Salute to Service flag gate giveaway and photo opportunities with a US Army Blackhawk helicopter, centered the larger purpose of the game.
On the concourse, Verizon's new 5G-powered interactive wall, which featured a Salute theme and photobooth where fans could showcase personalized cards with words of encouragement to service members and veterans, was a big hit.
"To be honest, I don't feel like we really give the troops enough respect," said 17-year-old Marcus Ollogunga Jr., who wrote a note at the wall. "They put their lives on the line to keep us safe, and we're just sitting here relaxed, doing stuff that they would never do."
For service members, veterans and their families, pregame festivities such as a VIP tailgate hosted by USAA were all about showering the guests of honor with admiration and offering a space for them to connect with one another.
"It feels great to be a part of and we feel appreciated…especially with the Commanders, it's in the name, it's got a bit of a military background, and it feels more special," said Second Class Petty Officer Davin Deuel of the US Coast Guard.
A similar sentiment was shared over in the USO Club tent where Vietnam Medal of Honor recipients, leaders of the military, Commanders' ownership and others gathered.
"We love spending a crisp autumn afternoon doing something where we can share each other's company with liberty and the freedom that this service helps us protect," said General David Allvin, the chief of staff of the Air Force.
While eyes turned to football once 1 p.m. rolled around, various moments in the game were taken to spotlight the military community. One of the more somber and emotional recognitions of the afternoon took place in the first half when members of four families who've lost military loved ones assembled on the field.
At the game in partnership with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), these families were lifted by gestures that acknowledged their loved ones. In addition to the on-field moment spotlighting their stories, Commanders players wore the initials of the fallen heroes on their helmets during the game.
"It feels like it helps keep them alive," said Rickie Pruden, father of the late Staff Sergeant Craig Pruden who died in 2021.
Later on, a surprise-and-delight brought one veteran family to tears. The McKinney family, which includes former Marine mom Tiffany and dad Dwight as well as their four kids, thought they were just being recognized on-field for their service but, instead, were gifted a new car by KIA.
"It was amazing…but I was kinda mad because I don't like people seeing me cry," Dwight McKinney said with a laugh.
Every moment during Salute to Service – whether it was this quick surprise, a brief speech or the couple-minute national anthem – was heavy with a sense that no amount of "thank yous" will ever be enough. This game, more than anything, is a reminder of the gratitude that should be given all the time.
"We have liberty, we have freedom, we have the ability to take care of our families and without all of you guaranteeing that, we would be in trouble," said Josh Harris. "I know what you do is hard, but we really appreciate it, and we're thinking about you every day."