Category: Cool Stuff for Military Families

The Los Angeles Kings Northrop Grumman Hero of the Game

Several months ago I wrote about the Los Angeles Dodgers and the great support they show for our military. Today I want to tell you about another professional sports organization that supports our military—the National Hockey League’s Los Angeles Kings! At each home game, the Kings honor one local member of the military as the Northrop Grumman Hero of the Game. The honoree and his or her guests (up to three guests for regular-season games and one for playoff games) receive amazing seats in the 100 level of STAPLES Center, as well as dinner at the exclusive Lexus Club before the game. The servicemember is honored at center ice during the National Anthem and on the big screen at his or her seat later in the game.

My husband, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Keith Walters, had the honor of being the Hero of the Game for game 1 of the 2014 Stanley Cup Finals between the Kings and my beloved team, the New York Rangers. It was a truly memorable experience, and we are so thankful to the Kings and their fans for their hospitality and kindness. I want to say a special “thank you” to Jonathan Anderson, the Kings’ Community and Alumni Relations Assistant, for coordinating the Hero of the Game program and for welcoming us so warmly!

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The Kings’ Hero of the Game—and my everyday hero—near the Wayne Gretzky statue in front of STAPLES Center!

Jonathan had us meet him outside STAPLES Center near the Wayne Gretzky statue. (For a hockey fan, that alone was super cool!) He escorted us into the Lexus Club, where we were welcomed just as warmly as the celebrities probably are. We enjoyed a delicious buffet-style spread of seafood, sushi, meats, salads, desserts, and more.

Since Keith was already wearing his dress blues, several regular club members came over to chat with us and to offer to buy us drinks. It was very kind of them, but a bummer when you’re 6 months pregnant! Keith also did not want to drink while representing the Army in uniform, so we had to politely decline.

The best part of our Lexus Club experience was when former hockey great and longtime Kings player Luc Robitaille—now the president of business operations for the Kings—came over to introduce himself and to thank Keith for his service. He told us proudly that he is now a U.S. citizen and that he really appreciates the military. What a classy and sweet guy, and a huge honor for us to meet him!

Jonathan met us about an hour later and took us down to the concourse from which Keith would enter the ice. I got to hang out there for a great view of the ice during the National Anthem. The announcer welcomed Keith and thanked him for his service, and he got to stand next to The Tenors and salute the flag as they sang the National Anthem. On his way off the ice, he got to shake Wayne Gretzky’s hand. (Gretzky dropped the ceremonial first puck of the game.)

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Keith as Hero of the Game!

The best part? Keith’s introduction and the anthem were actually televised on NBC, so all of our friends and family got to see it! Our nanny had the twins watch it and videotaped their reactions, which were priceless. The boys have since had me play it for them about 300 times. Matt likes to pretend he is the announcer by using his mini hockey stick as a microphone and saying, “Introducing … DADDY! The greatest hero in the world!” What a great reminder that for all the sacrifices military kids make, they are so lucky because they get to have real heroes as their daddies and/or mommies.

We then got settled into our seats, which were incredible—12 rows from the ice! We sat in the same section as Larry David and Gretzky himself. Will Ferrell was in the section next to us. Most of the fans surrounding us were season-ticket holders who all knew each other, but they were happy to chat with us throughout the game and really made us feel at home.

Kings game

Keith was honored on the big screen about 15 minutes into the first period. Nearly everyone in the arena stood up to applaud him. In fact, it was so loud in there we could barely hear the announcer reading Keith’s bio. What an incredible feeling! I stood beside Keith and made it to onto the screen myself, much to my six-months-pregnant dismay. They also put us on the kiss cam in the second period. I totally didn’t see that coming, although I certainly should have!

And let’s not forget the game itself: It was a really exciting one, with both teams playing hard. The game went into overtime, and the Kings won 3 to 2 only a few minutes into it. But despite the loss for my Rangers, it was such a fun and extremely memorable evening. I was so proud to see all the fans stopping to talk to Keith, to thank him for his service, and even to take a photo with him. I know so many great servicemembers who deserve to be honored, but I think Keith truly represents them and the U.S. Army well.

So, thank you again to the Los Angeles Kings for being such a classy organization that truly supports our men and women in uniform. It means so much to military families!

To nominate a servicemember to be the Northrop Grumman Hero of the Game at a 2014-15 Kings game, click here!

The Los Angeles Dodgers Support our Military!

For the maybe three of you who don’t already know this, Keith was honored on the field at Dodger Stadium on October 7 as the Veteran of the Game. At every home game, the Los Angeles Dodgers honor an active duty or retired military member with an on-field ceremony and free seats for his or her family. Keith’s friend Steve Cole, himself an amazing Army officer, nominated him for this honor. (Thank you, Steve!) It was an incredibly memorable evening for us, capped off by a Dodgers win against the Atlanta Braves to clinch the National League division title and advance to the National League Championship Series!

I want to apologize to my Facebook friends for the onslaught of photos and status updates about that evening. I blame every one of them on my being an extremely proud wife! But my pride is not the reason for this post. This post is to acknowledge the incredible amount of support the Dodgers organization and its fans show for our military. Keith and I were humbled by the onslaught of cheers, handshakes, and kind words he received that evening.

Let me point out that the Dodgers could not have asked for a better Veteran of the Game. Anyone who knows Keith knows that he pretty much eats, sleeps, and breathes baseball. I can also think of few people who love LA—Keith’s hometown—as much as he does. So simply setting foot on the field of Dodger Stadium was a dream come true for him.

The Dodgers’ Veteran of the Game program is run by the wonderful Laura Levinson, the team’s Manager of Community Programs. She told us to arrive at the ballpark an hour ahead of time, which we managed to do despite the infamous LA traffic. Laura escorted Keith down to the field, where he thought he was simply going to chat with her until the national anthem began. But it just so happened that his all-time favorite baseball player, Steve Garvey, was there to throw out the first pitch. Laura arranged for them to meet, a cameraman filmed them talking, and then Keith was interviewed about it on the big screen. He also had a chance to give Don Mattingly his 2-14 CAV pin for good luck before standing on the first base line and saluting the flag for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” (The pin proved lucky that night; not so much for the NLCS thus far!)

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Here’s a photo of Keith chatting with Steve Garvey on the field before the game. They are just to the right of the fan in the blue Dodgers hat!
Interview
Here’s a shot of Keith being interviewed on the big screen before the game. The black at the top of the photo is the overhang I was standing under.

The actual ceremony honoring Keith took place in the middle of the third inning. He stood on the field just next to the Dodgers’ dugout, looking sharp in his dress blues, as the announcer said a few words about his career and then asked the crowd to give him “a warm Dodger Stadium welcome.” Everyone cheered loudly. Many stood up. It was an incredible moment.

But for me, it wasn’t the highlight of the evening. For me, the best part came after the ceremony. As Keith passed the dugout on his way back to the seats, several Dodgers players hurried over to shake his hand or to pat him on the back. Then, as he made his way up the aisle toward me, so many fans rushed over to thank him for his service. It was breathtaking for me to watch. 

But it didn’t end there. We still had to make our way back to the Dodgers office so that Keith could change out of his uniform. As we did, fans kept stopping him to shake his hand and to thank him for his service. Every time we’d start to move again, more people would surround him. And it wasn’t because he was a famous ballplayer or a celebrity. It was simply because they wanted to thank and show respect for a veteran. What an unbelievable feeling for both of us!

Big-city folks sometimes get a bad rap for seemingly being out of touch with the military. Dodgers fans also often get a bad rap for supposedly being bullies. But I didn’t see any of that in these fans, so many of whom went out of their way to simply thank a member of the military. (Even later in the game, when a rowdy man in a Braves jersey stumbled into our section looking for trouble, everyone just heckled him good-naturedly until he left. I saw no indication of Dodgers fans being jerks!)

Every MLB team supports our troops by holding at least one Military Appreciation Day per season. Many (including the Dodgers) give free or discounted tickets to military members.  But what the Dodgers do—taking a few minutes out of every single game to honor a veteran—is truly incredibly.

I did some research and found that several other MLB teams, including the Washington Nationals and the Houston Astros—also go above and beyond for the military. In a future post, I will highlight what some of those teams do. But for now, I want to send a huge thank-you to the Dodgers players and staff (especially Laura Levinson) for supporting our nation’s veterans. You are all part of an organization that is truly a class act, and for that, you will always be winners in my book!

As I write this, the Dodgers are down three games to one against the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS, and are less than two hours away from taking the field for game five. We need a big rally! Let’s Go Dodgers!!!

Our Stay at the YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center

Keith, the boys, and I spent the weekend of April 26 in Estes Park, Colorado. We were thrilled to have gorgeous weather!

Friends had told us great things about the YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center, a rustic, family-friendly resort right outside Rocky Mountain National Park. So when the YMCA offered to have us stay there for free so that I could write about it, we jumped at the chance!

Estes Park Center has a great military special for active-duty military and their families. It includes a two-night stay in a lodge room, with all meals and most activities included, for $149. (The special is also available at the YMCA’s Snow Mountain Ranch in Winter Park, Colorado.) We were given the military package for free.

We arrived at the resort early Friday evening and checked in to our room in the Emerald Mountain Lodge, which would typically cost $99 per night during springtime without meals included. It was a pretty bare-bones room with two queen beds and a small bathroom. There was no TV, but I guess you’re supposed to be too busy having fun to watch TV! The resort also provided us with two rollaway cribs for the boys. There was no mini fridge, so Keith called the front desk and was told that fridges are typically reserved for people with medical needs. He told them we only needed it for the twins’ milk, but they were kind enough to send us one anyway. Our room also had a pretty sweet view:

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Now, here are the pros and cons of the YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center:

PROS:

Location:

It took us under 10 minutes to drive to Rocky Mountain National Park, which is breathtaking. We were able to get an annual national parks pass for free because Keith is active-duty military. Score! At the park, we went on two very different, but equally gorgeous, hikes.

On Saturday, we hiked around Bear Lake. Even though it was about 60 degrees outside, the lake was still frozen. The snow around it was so deep, we could have snowshoed it! But it was worth braving the snow to take in the beauty of Bear Lake and the mountains surrounding it.

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On Sunday, we hiked to the Alluvial Fan. Because it is at a lower altitude, there was hardly any snow there. This waterfall was one of the prettiest things I’ve ever seen, though the photos don’t come close to doing it justice:

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Activities:

There are a ton of activities to do at Estes Park Center, which is why it’s such a popular place for family reunions and retreats. There’s an indoor pool, a library, a game room, a rock-climbing wall, a zip line, and a miniature golf course. There are all sorts of sports, including basketball, volleyball, and even archery. There’s horseback riding, fishing, roller skating, and ice skating. And there is lots more, including weekly programs for adults and kids that offer Bingo, scavenger hunts, classes, and more.

Unfortunately, most of those activities are geared toward older kids, not toddlers. I think if Matt and Nate were a few years older, we would have taken advantage of more of them. We did, however, visit the Craft and Design Center, which is really cool! You can make jewelry, paint ceramics and wood objects, tie-dye shirts, and more. You do have to pay to do the projects, and the costs vary.

Matt picked out a wooden fire engine to paint, and Nate picked out a wooden airplane. They cost $5 each. It was the first time the twins painted something other than paper, and though it took them a while to get the hang of it, they had a blast! They were so proud of their creations. I almost don’t want to let them play with them so I can keep them forever!

Estes Art Projects

The boys also had fun playing at a quirky little playground outside the Craft and Design Center, where they met this guy:

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Views:

When you stay at Estes Park Center, you’re surrounded by the Rocky Mountains. Really, it doesn’t get much prettier than that!

CONS:

Food:

On our first evening, we headed to the Aspen Dining Room with our meal card for our free dinner. I have to say—the food is definitely not one of the highlights of staying at the YMCA. It was served cafeteria-style: You grab a tray, get in line, help yourself, and find an available table. The food also tasted like cafeteria food. We managed to scrape together a meal, but decided to skip our free dinner the next night and go to a restaurant in downtown Estes Park. (There are some great restaurants there!) If we had paid the regular price for the meals—$14 for adults—we would not have been happy.

Breakfast the next morning was actually good, though! It was nothing fancy, but exactly what you’d expect—scrambled eggs, sausage links, bagels, muffins, an assortment of fruit, etc. We wouldn’t have even minded paying the usual price of $8 per adult. I can’t comment on the lunch offerings because we ate lunch in our room.

Note: Estes Park Center does have a fine-dining restaurant called the Pine Room, as well as a cafe that serves to-go meals. So, there are other on-site food options.

The Lodge Rooms:

Our room was small and very basic, the beds weren’t very comfortable, and the thermostat didn’t seem to be working: It was sweltering in there and we couldn’t  cool it down. That being said, you don’t go to Estes Park Center to spend much time in your room. Also, at such low prices, we weren’t expecting a luxurious room. Instead, we sort of felt like we were away at sleepaway camp—and it was a fun feeling!

All in all, we had a wonderful family weekend in Estes Park, and the twins had just as much fun as Keith and I did. The best part? Other than the $10 we spent on the boys’ art projects and our inexpensive dinner out on Saturday evening, we did not spend a dime the whole weekend. Even if we hadn’t been given the military package for free, we still would have spent only about $200 for the trip.

So if you’re looking for a low-cost family resort with lots of activities, the YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center is a great option. And if you’re part of an active-duty military family, it’s also an incredible deal! You may just want to make a pit stop at the local Safeway for some non-perishable food. 😉