The Chiefs kicked off a prime time game last Monday night. They played against a very good Washington Redskins team and came from behind to win. Being in the stands for a game is a great experience for all fans. On this Monday night Operation Warrior Wishes had made it a very special for two veterans of the U.S. military.
Operation Warrior Wishes has a very different beginning than most would expect. In February of 2012 Craig and Matt Steichen decided that one of the things they wanted to do as a bucket list item was to attend a game at all 32 stadiums around the U.S. At first it was a decision to just do it in their lifetime. Matt then asked his father Craig if it would be possible to do in a year. After finally getting the NFL schedule in April the two spent a night figuring out a way to make it happen.
Setting aside the money it would cost for travel the father and son decided that something was missing. They wanted a way to make this trip more special and that is how this journey became a mission. The idea they came up with was bigger than either of them understood at that moment but they were going to invite wounded warriors to attend each game with them.
Craig and Matt officially started their mission on September 5, 2012 in New York City. After helping two warriors attend the game that day their lives changed forever. Over the course of the next 4 months they visited all 32 stadiums in just over 103 days. They honored 65 wounded warriors by taking one or two to each game they attended. After being able to help so many prior service members they continued their mission throughout the playoffs. Because of help they received from Mercedes Benz, Craig and Matt were able to take 4 wounded warriors to the Superbowl. In all, they took 75 wounded warriors to games throughout the 2012 NFL season.
On Veterans day of that same year, ESPN shared the father and son’s mission with the world. This opened up multiple opportunities and helped them decide to create a non-profit, they named Operations Warrior Wishes, to continue their fantastic work. Former Bears head coach Mike Ditka donated Operation Warrior Wishes enough to pay for their entire trip throughout the 2012 season. In 2013 New Era sponsored their mission, allowing them to double the warriors that they took to football games.
Over the past five years Operation Warrior Wishes has helped just under 3,300 warriors to attend games and events. They have expanded to include baseball, basketball, hockey, NASCAR, and Other Entertainment Events. Today their goal is still the same as when they started. They strive to honor as many warriors as they can. Over 95% of the contributions they receive goes directly to making this possible.
I was invited to meet with Craig and the warriors that were attending this game in Kansas City. Since they have been doing this for five years now they have alumni of their service in every city that hosts games or events. Over the past couple of years these events have grown to include an alumni dinner, a lunch before the game and for NFL games a tailgate as well. I had the honor of being able to attend all three gatherings and met the current warriors and the alumni as well.
Craig was unable to attend the alumni dinner that was being held at the Buffalo Wild Wings in Independence, Missouri. I found out on Monday the reason he couldn’t be there was that he was in Denver, Colorado Saturday night for the Rockies game with warriors. On Sunday he was still in Denver for the Broncos game with a couple of other warriors. He would later tell me that he had held thirteen events in the past twelve days. His mission keeps him on the road most of the year at this point.
(From left to right: Lakin Huckabey, Forrest Huckabey, Marty Burnett, Tracy Burnett, Chris Clark, Craig Steichen, Abraham Kyle, Lorraine Kyle)
Luckily for Craig he has volunteers like Marty and Tracy Burnett who help take care of planning events in local cities. Marty set up the dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings, a lunch at Kansas City Joe’s the next day and the hotel rooms at Stoney Creek Hotels. He and his wife also drive the warriors to the game and to the tailgate at Arrowhead. Marty found out about Operation Warrior Wishes when they were featured on ESPN in 2012 and he has helped ever since that second year.
One of the things that Craig likes to do if possible is surprise the warriors. This is done as they are nominated by a friend or family member and then he communicates with that family member to set up a meeting with the warrior. Surprising these warriors might sound like an easy task but it takes a lot of communication and people working together to make it work out.
Buffalo Wild Wings doesn’t accept reservations but makes an exception for Operation Warrior Wishes across the United States. They also take care of the food for the party which in this case was about 20 people.
Abe was the warrior that was surprised on Sunday night. His wife had been in touch with Marty and was able to get them to the restaurant by 5. Abe was sitting with his family about 15 feet from the Warrior Wishes alumni. Andy Butterworth and the other alumni went up to his table and introduced himself. He asked if Abe and his family would like to join them for dinner. Abe would later tell me that if they weren’t veterans he wouldn’t have agreed to moving to their table.
After about 15 to 20 minutes of the alumni and Marty talking to Abe, Marty stood up and told Abe he had something to tell him. Marty told him about Operation Warrior Wishes. He let him know that he had been selected to attend the Chiefs game at Arrowhead with his wife. You could tell Abe was surprised by the news. He was very grateful for the chance to go to the Chiefs game the next day.
After watching Abe find out he was going to the Chiefs game I had a chance to catch up with a couple of the other alumni in attendance. Andy was one of the alumni from the second season Craig had gone to Arrowhead. The Chiefs had set up time for him to go on the field and he received a jersey as well. Andy had been an Airborne service member. We spent at least 15 minutes talking about his skydiving experiences when he was in the military. I would also find out later that Andy was responsible for connecting Operation Warrior Wishes with Don Munce for tailgaiting at Arrowhead.
Another alumni that was there went by the nickname “Extra Crispy”. His real name was James Wilson but when people talk to him it was always Crispy. He told me that his accident that left him burned over 80 percent of his body had happened almost 13 years before at the end of September. At this point in his life he had embraced who he was and was very comfortable with joking about his sacrifice for his country.
Before I left that night I also got a chance to talk to Laura the General Manager of that Buffalo Wild Wings location. She wasn’t responsible for setting the dinners originally but she was happy to help moving forward. She made sure the group had anything they needed and took great care of them. It was very apparent that it was something she was proud of. She was happy to help serve these former service members and their families.
On Monday I headed to the original Kansas City Joe’s location which is a gas station. For anyone unfamiliar with Joe’s BBQ, you need to go if you are ever in the Kansas City area. I’ve been over fifteen times in the past five years and each time I go the line is out the door. It’s a great BBQ restaurant and they were happy to help Operation Warrior Wishes as well.
Marty had told me the night before to go up to the to-go area and let them know I was there to meet with him and the warriors. I walked up to the counter and told them who I was and then was escorted back to their conference room area. One of the best parts of going to this small conference room was the long path to get there. We went down through the heart of the restaurant and the smell of all the BBQ was amazing.
I walked into the conference room and was introduced to Craig Steichen. Abe and his wife were there and there was still another warrior that was being surprised at Joe’s around one. Over the next 30 minutes we sat there and talked about multiple different subjects. Abe and his wife Lorraine have seven kids. She had had trouble communicating with Marty via text message to set up the surprise. She is always with Abe and there were always a couple young kids around asking questions. Abe laughed and said he had been curious who it was but his wife has a business so he figured it had something to do with that.
A little before one the conversation shifted to talking about the warrior that was about to show up. I found out that he was living in Winfield, KS which is only about 45 minutes from where I live. It was close to a 4 hour drive for them to get to Kansas City. During that drive his wife, Lakin, had her hands full trying to keep the secret. Forrest was a little uneasy walking through the back of the restaurant. He would jokingly tell me later that “after the 3 miles of walking he thought he might be playing poker with the mafia”. Soon after he sat down Marty told him that he was going to the Chiefs game that night and he was excited.
The Warriors Get to Tailgate at Arrowhead
I met up with the Operation Warrior Wishes group again at Arrowhead for tail-gaiting. They were hosted by Don Munce at his tailgate. Don has had a group tailgaiting since 1989. Every game Don cooks something that has to do with the opposing team. This game Don had prepared a hind quarter of a hog for the tailgate party. He had a Chiefs truck that had a picture of Derrick Thomas on one side of it and he wore his jersey as well.
This was the opportunity to really get a chance to talk to Abe, Forrest and their wives. His wife put in his application a couple of months before the game after her friends told her about it. Abe began his service in 1985 and served through 2009. In August of 2006 he was in Afghanistan and on a patrol when he heard a ping in the back of the truck. He got out to investigate and the truck was hit with an RPG on the driver’s side of his truck. Abe would lose his leg that day but his life was saved when another serviceman used a turnicate on his leg to help stop the bleeding as he was unconscious.
Abe’s message about the experience he was having was of gratitude. He was gracious for the opportunity to attend the game. However, he was even more gracious about his hosts and what they do daily. He told me “I’m glad there are organizations like this. There are a lot more servicemen that feel like their being left out in the dark. They don’t know about these organizations but there are these types of organizations that do want to help soldiers and take them to these types of events.” He said he was bewildered when he was originally told that he was going to the game on Monday. It was obvious from talking to him that it meant a lot for people to show how much they care.
Forrest’s wife Lakin is a member of COWW (Caregivers Of Wounded Warriors). COWW is how she found out about Operation Warrior Wishes. Lakin convinced him to come to Kansas City to get away for a day. When I asked him about how he felt when Marty had told him he was going to the Chiefs game he said he was star struck. His second platoon leader was Alejandro Villanueva who is now the starting left tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He was wounded on his first deployment and then wounded again on his second deployment. Forrest was then medically retired after serving for six years. His message about the experience was a lot like Abe’s. He was very thankful for the opportunity to go to the game and was amazed by the generosity of his hosts.
Abe and Forrest got a chance to be thanked in a way many veterans haven’t. It may only have been a couple of meals and a football game. However, for those two days both those men were served by those just thankful for their service. They both got a chance to attend a great game and watch their Chiefs come from behind and win. The excitement of the game was nothing compared to the experience that these men were given.
Operation Warrior Wishes is about giving back to those that have served our country. They have sacrificed more than most of us will ever understand. It started with just a father and son wanting to go to a bunch of football games. It’s turned into a life changing mission for them that has touched thousands of lives in just five short years.