Vet to be honored at Series Game 1
James Sperry is a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan, like the tens of thousands who will pack Busch Stadium for Game 1 of the World Series tonight. But when he steps onto the field with his 5-year-old daughter Hannah, minutes before the first pitch, he will represent so much more.
As a retired United States Marine Corps lance corporal, he’s here for the servicemen and servicewomen with whom he served in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
As a loyal friend to 20 soldiers who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, he’s here to honor their memories.
As a mentor with the Wounded Warrior Regiment and Midwest Marines Foundation, he’s here as living proof of the challenges and triumphs that come with readjusting to civilian life.
And for every American watching in the ballpark and at home, he has a message.
“When you see a veteran, never hesitate to thank them for what they’re doing,” Sperry said in an interview this afternoon. “In both of these conflicts, our military families are the ones that make sacrifices. Our veterans are the ones who come back with physical injuries and mental illnesses.
“So, don’t be afraid to shake their hands and tell them, ‘Thank you.’ It makes you feel recognized, and that’s a really big thing. Freedom is not free.”
Sperry, who grew up in nearby Belleville, Ill., was chosen to participate in tonight’s pregame ceremony with first lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, as part of Major League Baseball’s Welcome Back Veterans program and the First Lady’s Joining Forces initiative.
Sperry was a squad automatic machine gunner on the front line during Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah — the largest battle of the Iraq War — when he was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Shrapnel struck him in the skull and chest, resulting in four brain bleeds, multiple skull fractures, an open head wound, four broken ribs, and a broken sternum. Years after sustaining the injuries, Sperry still suffers from PTSD, chronic pain, migraines, memory and concentration problems, and balance issues.
It was also in Fallujah that Sperry lost his best friend, Fernando Hannon, to a car bomb attack — not long after Hannon took over for Sperry at a guard post.
Sperry honored Hannon by naming Hannah after him.
Since learning that he would be honored at Game 1, Sperry has taken time to notify families of his fallen friends that he will be thinking of their loved ones on the field Wednesday night.
And once the pregame ceremony is over, James and Hannah will watch the game with the first lady.
“Hannah had Rock Star Day at school, and I told her that she is going to be a rock star all day because she’s going to get the chance to meet the first lady and walk on the field,” Sperry said. “She said, ‘You mean President Obama’s wife?’ I told her yes, and she got really excited. She was jumping up and down.”
Sperry said he plans to thank the first lady for her work to raise awareness about the sacrifices made by military families. He knows he’s going to take pictures during the game, so Hannah can gain a deeper appreciation of the occasion during the years to come.
“Absolutely,” he said. “She’s only 5, so she doesn’t totally understand everything that’s happening. But we’re going to take a lot of photos, so we can have something for her to hold onto and be proud of.”