Good, old-fashioned American patriotism was on full display at THE PLAYERS Championship last week, when the PGA Tour and country music star Toby Keith paid tribute to the nation’s military men and women at the tournament’s annual Military Appreciation Day.
Held May 10 at the Stadium Course’s legendary 17th hole, the event attracted thousands of residents and visitors, who cheered as military men and women marched onto the green to the strains of “God Bless America.” As a giant American flag was slowly unfurled across the green, the crowd fell reverently silent as Byron Rowe, U.S. Navy retired, sang the National Anthem – only to break into cheers at the conclusion as the 125th fighter wing of the Florida Air National Guard roared overhead in a flyover salute.
U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh summed up the mood of the enthusiastic crowd.
“We have warriors, golf and Toby Keith,” Welsh said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Welsh, the event’s keynote speaker, recognized his wife, Betty, who was sitting in the audience along with numerous military service men and women and their families.
“She represents thousands of spouses who are the foundation of what the military does,” Welsh said. “Thank you for the life of service, sacrifice and support you give us.”
Welsh said one of the best parts of his job as Air Force Chief of Staff is the opportunity to meet America’s military men and women, particularly those who are serving in harm’s way.
“They’re out there doing their nation’s business and they are proud to be there,” he said. “They are the greatest people on earth.”
Those sentiments were echoed by PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem.
“I grew up in a military family – my dad was a career Marine for 30 years,” Finchem said. “From him, I learned about honor, I learned about respect and I learned about service and sacrifice.”
He stressed, moreover, that appreciating America’s military shouldn’t be something relegated to a few holidays or ceremonies each year. “We should show our support and admiration for those who fought to defend our freedom not just today, but every day.”
A highlight of the Military Appreciation Day ceremonies came when K9s for Warriors Director of Operations Jason Snodgrass dropped to one knee and proposed to his girlfriend – and ex-wife – U.S. Army Specialist Rachael Maguire, who accepted as the crowd cheered.
A former sergeant in the U.S. Army, Snodgrass endured a difficult transition back to civilian life, carrying both significant physical and psychological scars from his many combat search-and-rescue missions in Iraq.
“It is hard to describe PTS to someone,” Snodgrass told attendees. “It is hard to describe the feeling of isolation, of uncontrollable anxiety or the anger that just overtakes you. It’s hard to describe to someone that you’re afraid to go to sleep, afraid to drive a car, afraid to leave your home or walk into your own home for fear of being ambushed.”
In 2012, Snodgrass began volunteering for K9s for Warriors, an activity he found both rewarding and therapeutic. He soon joined the staff as director of warrior operations.
“There are so many things I credit for helping to give me my life back – my family, K9s for Warriors, and of course, Rachael,” he said. “If you’re a soldier or veteran dealing with post-traumatic stress, please know that there is help and hope. You are not alone. I got help and you can, too.”
After a brief intermission, the crowd was ready for the evening’s entertainment.
“This is a man who knows the meaning of military appreciation,” the announcer said. “Raise your red solo cup for a great American – Toby Keith!”
Keith, who has performed more than 230 shows for America’s military, took to the stage and launched into “American Ride,” “I Love this Bar” and countless other hits to an all-ages crowd that was ready to party.
Cyd and David Ferris were first-time attendees at THE PLAYERS, having just moved to Del Webb Ponte Vedra from San Francisco.
“We think it’s great!” David Ferris said. “We’ve been here all afternoon!”
For students Claire Gibney, Halie Rash, Tanner Cormier and Dexter Carter Jr., though, THE PLAYERS is an annual event.
“We come every year,” Gibney said. “We’re all in college now, so this is like a reunion for us.”