Sports and the military collided in a big way at FedEx Field Friday morning.
That’s when the Washington Redskins hosted the most recent leg of Rolling Remembrance, a 9,000-mile cross-country journey of one American flag that began in Seattle in April and will end at Yankees Stadium in New York City on Memorial Day.
Rolling Remembrance has been a tradition since 2015 and is a joint effort between PepsiCo’s military-outreach group VALOR and the Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation, a nonprofit providing scholarships and other educational opportunities to kids who have lost a parent in the line of duty.
“It feels like it’s something I can give back to the veteran community and for the children,” said Shayne Martin, an Army veteran who will be driving the American flag from FedEx Field to its next stop in Indianapolis.
The flag arrived in Landover, Md., Friday morning from Fort Bragg, N.C., as one of the 52 stops it will make before it reaches its destination. The goal is to raise as much money as possible for Fallen Patriots and its mission.
Since it was founded in 2002, Fallen Patriots has provided financial assistance worth $29.2 million for more than 1,400 children of slain service members across the country, according to data highlighted during a presentation at the Rolling Remembrance event.
Kylie Willis knows firsthand how Fallen Patriots can change a child’s life. She was 15 when her father, Army Staff Sgt. Kirk Owen, was killed in action. Thanks to a combination of her father’s GI Bill benefits and extra financial help from Fallen Patriots, she was able to graduate from Oklahoma State University with a degree in health education for free.
Fallen Patriots didn’t stop there, as they also hired Willis right out of college. She currently serves as their enrollment coordinator, making sure as many military children as possible are in Fallen Patriots’ system so it can be there for them if the worst happens.
“I get to make sure their college is paid for, I get to mentor them and I get to make sure that they know that there is life for them after their tragedy,” she said. “And that’s really the best part for me.”
Willis said that her 20-year-old sister is also in the process of getting an anthropology degree from the University of Oklahoma with the aid of a Fallen Patriots scholarship.
“[My father] loved his family and he loved his little girls, and I’m so proud to be his daughter,” she said. “I miss him a lot, but I’m carrying on his mission so he didn’t die in vain.”
In addition to working with Pepsi and the Redskins, Fallen Patriots has also teamed up for a National Military Appreciation Month promotion with IHOP. Throughout the month of May, IHOP patrons can buy $5 wall stickers or donate in-restaurant directly on their checks to support Fallen Patriots. The company is trying to raise $1 million.
Stephanie Peterson, IHOP’s head of communications, said that two of the major focuses of the restaurant chain’s community outreach efforts are education and health/wellness.
“Children of the Fallen patriots hits that sweet spot because it’s about ensuring that these kids have a bright future,” Patterson said.
Another big believer in Fallen Patriots is Richard “Doc” Walker, an ex-Redskins tight end who won a Super Bowl with the franchise in 1983. He has done a lot of work with the military through the Redskins and their partnerships with both Fallen Patriots and fellow veteran charity Yellow Ribbons United, and was on hand Friday during Rolling Remembrance’s stop at FedEx Field.
Walker’s father was a Marine; in fact, Walker was born at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., and lived there for nine years. That formative experience showed him how, like the NFL, the military is a “fraternity” full of folks willing to risk their lives for their country.
“I really think that the country has taken for granted what a lot of humans are sacrificing, and a lot of people aren’t putting much in,” he said. “These guys and gals are going all in.”
Walker is currently a sideline reporter for the Redskins. He said that during the second quarter of most games, the franchise brings out military members to honor on the field. Walker also said he is always “in awe” of them and “the courage these people have exhibited.”
That also sums up the general philosophy of Fallen Patriots. As Willis put it, if military members are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, the least Fallen Patriots can do is give their children the means to work toward a prosperous life and career.
“I didn’t have a choice,” she said. “Your parents raised you to be who you are, and life doesn’t stop. You have to keep going.”