WESTCLIFFE, Colo., -- Denver Broncos cornerback
Two plane rides and a two-hour trek through the Rockies later, Florence rode into the Eagles Summit Ranch recovery facility in Westcliffe, Colo., for a another celebration.
This time the honorees were members of the Wounded Warriors program, which helps veterans of the war who were injured in duty adjust to life back on the soil they risk their lives to protect.
Florence has been involved with the Wounded Warriors program for the past five years. As part of his involvement with the organization, he sponsors 10-15 veterans at each home game. He said he treasures the time he is able to spend with the men and women he admires.
“It was a very humbling experience to meet these warriors,” Florence said. “To come out and hear their stories is an awesome experience. Hopefully I can come back and do it again. Growing up around the military, I just got a different appreciation of it.”
Florence’s grandfather was a veteran of the Korean War and his father served 20 years in the Army. His sister, Lakisha Mercer, is a captain and has been enlisted in the Army for 15 years.
“Those are the true heroes that really don’t get the respect that they deserve,” Florence said of the men and women of the armed services.
Florence enjoyed the celebratory dinner Friday night with the family members of the recovering soldiers, signing footballs for each of the honorees.
“It gets emotional because you have these guys that I look up to on a day-to-day basis,” Florence said. “For me to put a smile on their face is the least I can do.”
In addition to the signed pigskins, each of the graduates received orange Broncos hats and white Broncos t-shirts. Honorary quilts were also handmade for each of the graduates of the program.
It was an emotional evening for the men and women involved as they discussed some of the most traumatic moments of their lives, all the while smiling through the pain as their friends and family members listened intently.
“It was a great night,” graduate Tim Melech said. “It was great having all these people out here, especially the Broncos coming out here, and getting some recognition.”
“It was very hard,” Melech said of delivering such a personal message to such a large crowd. “That was the first time I had ever told anybody, especially a bunch of strangers.”
In addition to Florence, U.S. Olympic medalist Joe Jacobi, who teamed up with Scott Strausbaugh to bring home the United States’ first ever Olympic Gold Medal in the Whitewater Canoe Slalom in Barcelona in 1992, was also on hand to encourage the soldiers. He let each of the graduates touch his medal, and emphasized all the work that went into his success.
“You don’t win a medal once every four years,” he said. “We win them every day. We win them every day with the choices that we make.”
Jacobi, who now works in Oklahoma City, went on to describe the admiration he feels for soldiers every morning during his commute to work, when he passes by the monument to the lives lost in the infamous bombing that occurred in 1995.
Eagles Summit Ranch was established in 2004. It sits on 300 acres in Westcliffe, a scenic locale where veterans of the United States armed forces receive therapy from fellow veterans and trained counselors and enjoy the beauty of the outdoors. The Ranch welcomes in veterans who have nearly given up on life, according to its founder, Dave Roever.
Roever, a proud veteran of the Vietnam War who still bears scars sustained from a grenade explosion, spoke of the pride he takes in the strides his soldiers make with the help of his guidance.
“There’s a feeling among the warriors when they come here that there’s no real hope for the future,” Roever said. “Because they have struggled, some of them for four years… Some come with no legs, some with no arms. They come here and most of them feel like there’s no hope. That’s the first day.”
“The second day, they start thinking, ‘Oh, this will be fun, even if there’s no hope,’” Roever continued. “The third day, they’re thinking, ‘Maybe there’s hope, but I’m having fun, too.’ By the fourth day, there’s hope written all over them. The reason is they are integrated into a support group of guys that have been down the same road.
“Suddenly they realize those negative thoughts are shared by others, and when they see that their instructors are people who have gone down that same road, they are operating on all eight cylinders. And Eagles Summit Ranch has just knocked another homerun.”
The Wounded Warriors Alliance has been successful by every measure possible. And yet no matter how many lives Roever and the WWA improve, he remains determined to get better every day.
“Every day I remind myself, ‘You’re not successful yet,’” Roever said. “I just have to reach them all. I don’t intend to go out quiet. I believe with all my heart that to the last breath I breathe, I have a mission to accomplish. I want to slide through the pearly gates with my hair on fire and blisters on my feet because I went through hell to get there.”