Retired Lieutenant Colonel Ty Edwards was given a grim prognosis of ever standing or walking again after he was severely wounded in combat in Afghanistan in 2008. But on Wednesday the 20-year Marine veteran did just that, as he was cheered on by a crowd of more than 17,000 fans at Tampa Bay’s Amalie Arena during the national anthem before Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Proudly donning his Lightning jersey, 51-year-old Edwards stood as the U.S. Air Force 6th Air Mobility Wing Honor Guard presented the nation’s colors, telling Fox News in a phone interview that it was “just phenomenal.”
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“The Lightning organization and [owner] Mr. [Jeffrey] Vinik, and the NHL overall, are such first-class organizations. It was great to be there with my entire family,” Edwards said.
Edwards first joined the military in 1992. He served as an infantry officer in the 1st Battalion 7th Marines. Edwards told Fox News that he went on three-unit deployments to Okinawa, Japan, and following the 9/11 attacks, he was deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan where he was wounded in combat.
Edwards was shot in the head during an ambush in Afghanistan’s Kunar province on Oct. 18, 2008. His interpreter Hakimi Quadratullah, who was just 20-years-old at the time, was the first to reach him. He and other Marines withstood enemy fire as Edwards was treated in the field for his wounds.
They were eventually taken to Bagram Airfield before being flown to Germany, where Edwards would meet his wife Anna and was later transported to Maryland’s Bethesda Naval Hospital.
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“Every day he goes through an hour of rehabilitation on his own to make himself better,” Mark Van Trees, the director of Support the Troops, told Fox News of Edwards. “They told him the prognosis to ever stand up or walk again was not very good… His spirit and his humbleness are just unmatched.”
The national anthem debate has taken center stage over the years but for Edwards, he says that while he might not agree, he doesn’t “fault” anyone for their decision not to take part.
“I just want to pay tribute to all those that have lost their lives and made sacrifices that the average American doesn’t see but I don’t fault anybody. It’s a free country.”
“I don’t agree with it but it’s their choice,” he added.
Edwards called the pregame ceremonies on Wednesday a “powerful” moment, adding that he was just “honored to be there.”
“I wasn’t really thinking about anything but making it through the anthem at the time.”
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Van Trees works with the Lightning organization to select guests to be honored during the national anthem, a program that began over eight years ago. Van Trees told Fox News that this program is one of many the Lightning run as a part of their long-standing relationship with the military community in Tampa Bay.
“It dates back to when Mr. Vinik bought the Lightning. He has a commitment to the veterans — his father served — and when he bought the Lightning, he quickly became aware that Tampa is the home of two combat commands (MacDill Air Force Base and the United States Central Command) … and we have one of the highest concentrations of veterans.”
According to the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs, there are 1,525,400 veterans in the state of Florida as of 2017. The state has the third-largest veteran population in the nation, behind California and Texas.
“(Vinik’s) commitment to support the military is not something new. It’s something he’s been passionate about for years,” Van Trees added.
The Lightning have two major events a year honoring servicemen and women, including Military Appreciation Night. Van Trees told Fox News that the Lightning also runs a program called Seats for Service, in which season ticket-holders who are not going to use their tickets can offer them up to military members.
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He said in the five years the program has been running, almost 18,000 tickets have been given to service members.
The Lightning also launched the Community Hero Program in 2011, where a local hero is picked at every home game and a $50,000 donation is made to a nonprofit charity of their choice. During the finals, the donation was upped to $100,000.
Edwards is a proud Lightning fan who recognizes the organization’s continued support of the veteran community. And he has a bold prediction as Tampa heads into Game 3 of the series against the Montreal Canadiens on Friday night: “They’ll win in four,” he said.