When UM players visit VA hospital, thanks go both ways

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — They went room to room, visiting military veterans and hearing their stories. They shook hands, thanked them for their service and gave them a large Michigan coin as a small token of their appreciation.

One Army vet told them how he lost his ability to laugh while serving in Vietnam, a World War II veteran nearing 90 began to cry and dabbed his eyes with tissues while he spoke, and another Army veteran who faces open-heart surgery in a day peppered them with questions about the football team and their new coach.

A group of 17 Michigan football players, organized by teammates Ryan Glasgow and Brian Cleary, visited the VA Hospital on Thursday afternoon, spending an hour with patients. It was only the third time since last year the players have done this — it has grown from a group of 10 — but it is something they hope to do monthly.

The VA Hospital is affiliated with the U-M hospital system, and about 65,000 veterans were treated there last year. The hospital serves veterans from Michigan, Indiana and Ohio.

"For me, personally, it means everything, because we should be the ones showing undying gratitude to them while they're showing gratitude toward us," Glasgow said. "They're the ones tearing up at our presence, but they're the people who put their lives on the line and now they're in the in-patient part of the hospital because of it.

"They spend years of their lives serving our country, while we're spending years of our life playing a game we love. It's not on par with what they're sacrificing. So it does mean a lot to us when they show their gratitude or tear up when we enter a room when it should be the opposite."

Cleary, who is a weekly visitor with Michigan athletes at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, said after the first VA Hospital visit, it was obvious this was something he and Glasgow wanted to make permanent.

"It was originally a one-time visit," Cleary said. "We got home afterwards and texted each other — some of these guys are grown men, and they're tearing up when we walk into the room. Knowing we had that kind of opportunity to come back, it was only right we came back."

Truman White moved with his family from London, Ontario, to Detroit in 1943. He joined the Marines in 1963 and was medically discharged in 1967.

White, a diminutive man wearing a hat recognizing the fact he is a Native American veteran, was sitting in the hospital when the Michigan players stopped to chat with him.

"They're all very big guys. I'm little, but us Marines come in small packages," White said with a laugh.

He said the player visit was meaningful for one specific reason.

"That we're not forgotten," White said softly. "There are still a lot of people out there that will stop what they're doing and come and see you, the veterans. It's appreciated."

Each player shook White's hand and thanked him for his service to the country, something they did many more times as they visited with a number of veterans, and posed for a photo with him.

Many of the players moved to the sixth floor, where they visited Army veteran Jesus Garcia, who will have open-heart surgery on Saturday. He told the players he was sorry for the season they endured last fall and hoped it turns around. Garcia asked them about new coach Jim Harbaugh.

After the visit, Garcia said he felt uplifted.

"I'm sure they're doing it as a favor to most of the veterans," Garcia said. "Some of us are down on our luck right now, we're going to be going through some medical procedures, and it's nice to have somebody put a smile on your face."

Shane Morris, a Michigan quarterback, a regular for Mott hospital visits, made his first trip to the VA Hospital on Thursday. He plans to continue.

"I loved it," Morris said. "I go to Mott every Thursday night and get to talk to the kids and their families. This is a totally different experience for me. You talk to guys who have so much more experience in the world than you. You're able to talk to them about their life stories, and they're able to tell you about things they've done and experiences they had that you couldn't even imagine being a part of."

Like Glasgow and Cleary, Morris said it's strange to see the reaction they get from the veterans when the players are the ones who are in awe.

"We come here because we appreciate what they have done for this country, what they have done for us," Morris said. "To see how they respond to us, they're happy to see us. I'm looking up to them."

Cleary and Glasgow said it is important to make time to visit the veterans.

"We hear a lot of nurses say this makes their week, their month," Cleary said. "As a person, it's cool to make their day, let alone the fact they're veterans and served our country."