Thousands of people were already on their feet cheering at Amalie Arena, but when the flag bearer for Team Navy waved that banner with big, sweeping strokes, then exaggeratedly leaned over and cupped a hand to one ear in a Hulk Hogan-esque, “I can’t hear you” gesture, the crowd went wild. And it was all set to the sounds of Metallica’s Don’t Tread on Me.
Energy was high at the opening ceremonies for the Department of Defense Warrior Games on Saturday night. Even so, when a cadre marched on stage in full dress uniforms for the presentation of colors, the arena went silent enough that you could hear their footsteps. It was a heavily military crowd, after all.
Some in the audience came wearing head to toe stars and stripes, while others wore hats identifying them as Vietnam veterans, or stitched with unit patches, or noting the names of ships they’d served on. Many brought children.
Hundreds of Warrior Games athletes, men and women, veterans and active-duty service members from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, paraded through the arena at the start of the night. They were joined by teams from the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Canada, Denmark and Australia, as well as a group of competitors representing SOCOM, the Special Operating Command housed at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base.
Some made their way in wheelchairs or on prosthetic limbs. Others had suffered wounds that weren’t immediately visible, but all of them “refuse to be defined by their worst day,” said comedian Jon Stewart, who served as emcee and urged people to fill the stands during this week’s games to witness tenacity, intense competition and family.
Then he joked that the athletes were also learning what it was like “to compete in a city that was built inside a humidifier.”
The Paralympic-style games are already underway at venues across the Tampa area. They run through June 30, as athletes who’ve survived the loss of limbs, brain injuries, visual impairments, PTSD and other illnesses compete in 14 sports, including basketball, volleyball, rugby, archery and swimming. The games are free for spectators, and a full schedule is at dodwarriorgames.com/schedule.
On hand for a night of honor, pride and celebration at the opening ceremonies were Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the second-highest-ranking officer in the U.S. military. There were also several other top-ranking officers from the various branches.
“They’re here because they realize how important these games are to the Department of Defense, and they honor you warriors and your families,” SOCOM commander Army Gen. Richard D. Clarke said. “You are showing the American public that we will never quit.”
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor took the stage told the competitors she wanted them to know how grateful “this patriotic community” was to them. Tampa mayor Jane Castor told them that this week, “the city is yours.”
Mayor Castor added that she expected the “home team” of SOCOM to earn the most gold medals.
Stewart was introduced in a cameo-filled video that started with a faux newscast in which News Channel 8 anchors Keith Cate and Jennifer Leigh reported the Warrior Games torch had gone missing, spurring Clarke to launch “Operation Jon in the Box,” a special force made up of Jane Castor, WWE wrestler Titus O’Neill, Tampa councilman Luis Viera and Stewart, who searched for the torch via fighter jet, electric scooter and Tampa streetcar.
The video ended with the team interrogating two suspects, Lightning mascot ThunderBug, and former mayor Bob Buckhorn, who were each tied up in the Lightning locker room and eventually confessed the torch was inside the arena. Then Stewart walked out on stage in real life, to huge cheers.
After a succession of Warrior Games athletes relayed a smaller torch through the arena, Jane Castor, Clarke and O’Neill together lit a larger ceremonial torch, officially marking the opening of the games.
Stewart, who obviously knew his audience, told jokes about the differences between being a passenger on a C-17 and a C-130 aircraft, (he compared the C-130 to riding in an empty can of black olives), and experiencing his first, frightening, “combat landing” while visiting troops in Afghanistan.
“My beard was brown before that,” he joked, “and my underwear were white.”
After an intermission, country musician Hunter Hayes played a full concert, telling the crowd, which was mostly Warrior Games competitors on the floor in front of the stage, it was a “privilege” to play for them.
Outside the arena, Jamie Gomez, a Tampa resident who came with a friend, bought a Warrior Games t-shirt with a pirate ship on it. Her father had been in the Air Force, but Gomez said she didn’t know any of the Warrior Games competitors personally. She just wanted to support the military in general.
“It’s really inspiring,” she said. “They can do things that I can’t do as an able-bodied person.”
Marine veteran Paul Rosenbloom found tickets through Vet Tix, which gives away event tickets to veterans and active-duty service personnel. He was there with his wife Debbie, and their children Samantha, Sarah, Zachary and Seth.
“We know a lot about wounded warriors, but we didn’t know about the Warrior Games until now,” Rosenbloom said. “It was great. It gives my kids a good sense of what these people do, and what they sacrifice.”
Contact Christopher Spata at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @spatatimes.