VETERANS ON ICE … Night of skating shows support to veterans and their families

MEMBERS OF “NO HERO LEFT BEHIND,” an organization that assists veterans and those veterans who are homeless, at the ice skating rink, Downtown, Jan. 9. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

by Rob Taylor Jr., Courier Staff Writer

Rodney Turner had been to Iraq, fighting for the United States as a member of the Army.

But the 36-year-old had never gone ice skating—until last Thursday, Jan. 9.

And he did it with his fellow veterans.

Call it a “Veterans’ Night Out,” or “Veterans on Ice,” or simply a family-oriented event sponsored by local organization No Hero Left Behind, where those who have served in the Armed Forces and their relatives were able to ice skate—free of charge—at the MassMutual Pittsburgh Ice Rink at PPG Place, Downtown.

No Hero Left Behind was started by a local Black veteran, Eric Howze, who spent 10 years (2001-2011) in the Army, much of the time spent in Iraq. His wife, Christina, is an Army veteran as well, serving from 2007-2011. The organization holds quarterly events to bring veterans together for fun, food and, well, more fun.

Howze’s organization assists all veterans, but African American veterans in particular. Most of the veterans answered Howze’s challenge to think outside the box, lace up the ice skates and take to the Downtown rink. Or as Howze put it, “Helping people to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, so whether it’s an ice-skating event, a rock-climbing event, a camping trip that we’re going to be doing in April, we’re really just trying to show people that anything is possible.”

As of 2016, there were 20.4 million veterans in the U.S., according to data from the Department of Veterans Affairs. According to the Pew Research Center, Blacks accounted for 12 percent of all U.S. veterans in 2016; Whites accounted for 77 percent; Hispanics composed 7 percent; Asians held 2 percent. By 2045, it’s projected that Blacks will account for 16 percent of all U.S. veterans, Whites at 64 percent.

Howze previously told the Courier in a 2018 story about his stints of homelessness after returning to Pittsburgh from Iraq. But the story isn’t uncommon—according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 43 percent of veterans who experienced homelessness in 2018 were people of color, of which 33 percent were African Americans.

Howze’s organization places a major focus on homeless veterans in Pittsburgh, regularly providing homeless vets with clothing, toiletries and direction on how to rise out of their current situation.

Back at the rink, among those donning the ice skates were Beth Burton and her two daughters, Olivia and Olonnah. Burton volunteers with No Hero Left Behind, and is a proud supporter of veterans—her father, Geary Thomas Burton, was a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps.

“There are people that have put their lives on the line who now need our help,” Beth Burton told the Courier. “When we needed their help, they selflessly gave of themselves, and now it’s our time to support them.”

Kelly Ferri was another veteran who took part in the outdoor ice-skating festivities. She served in the Army from 2000-04, with tours in Kuwait and Iraq. “We protect the country,” she told the Courier. “We signed up voluntarily and selflessly served this country and everybody in it regardless of age, sex, race, religion—we protect you.

“Outside forces don’t like America,” Ferri added. “It’s crazy to me, but I like knowing that my kids can grow up in a free country because of the military that was before me…no matter what kind of training you get in the military, it never prepares you for what you see going to war. Nobody tells you your friends are going to die. Nobody tells you what it’s like. It’s hard. We’re humans. We come back different. Even though I’m a happy person, I’m a little bit broken from that…I now know how good this country is, after being somewhere else.”

And as for Turner, he told the Courier that he wouldn’t have been anywhere near an ice-skating rink had it not been for the Jan. 9 event sponsored by No Hero Left Behind. But it gave him a chance to show off his skating skills—even he wasn’t sure he had them on ice skates, no less—to his girlfriend, Josette Bankston, and her 7-year-old son, Elijah.

Turner was in Iraq from parts of 2003-2005. He not only supports veterans, but believes everyone should. “It’s a huge sacrifice, man,” he told the Courier before he took the ice. “And when you go to war, nobody comes home the same. To have support and to know that it was appreciated, it makes it feel more worthwhile.”

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