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By Todd Vinyard, Special to CatamountSports.com
Service to others is more than something Western Carolina football coach Mark Speir talks about with his team. Speir demonstrates it with his involvement in a variety of efforts.
Speir recently spent 17 days in some of the wildest parts of Alaska with his son Zeb, a quarterback on the Appalachian State football team, working with a group called Operation Heal Our Patriots. The ministry project of Samaritan's Purse focuses on bringing spiritual and marriage enrichment to wounded and injured U.S. military service members and their spouses.
"Ever since I found out about this ministry and what it does for veterans and their spouses who have given so much to us, it has been on my heart to help," Speir said. "And then to get to go with my son Zeb was very special. He has three semesters left at App State, and then he is going to have his own life. It was eye opening for us to see these veterans and the work this program does. Like most volunteer situations, we got more out of it than the people we served. It was an awesome week."
Speir began working with Operation Heal Our Patriots while he was an assistant coach at Appalachian State (2003-2011). His wife Paige used to work for the Samaritan Purse organization, and they both helped during the creation of the Samaritan Lodge Alaska, which is in the southwestern part of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. This time, Speir and his son spent time doing maintenance work to the property and getting to know the veterans and their spouses.
"It is impressive to see how the program has grown," Speir said. "They bring in 10 couples and all expenses are paid. They have time to do things together and reconnect. The unique thing about this program is that it helps spouses, male and female, too. The spouses often are the primary caregivers, and there is a high divorce rate with the difficulties and challenges of the relationship once these brave soldiers come home. This program gives couples ways to cope, and when they leave helps them find local churches and ministers to keep getting support. There is fantastic follow up with this program that makes a difference in the lives of these couples.”
He added, “When you meet them, you are blown away with what they have done for all of us in our country. I am a patriotic guy with several family members who have and are now serving in the military, so this was something I wanted to support."
Speir regularly supports Operation Heal Our Patriots with a motorcycle ride event that raised more than $16,000 for the group this year. The money helped send three couples to Alaska.
This summer’s trip included everything from sanding to laying down carpet by the two Speirs, who after the work was done took advantage of the extra summer daylight in Alaska. The duo did some king salmon fishing and hiked the close to 4,000-foot elevation of Tanalian Mountain in Port Alsworth, Alaska, which is 175 miles west-southwest of Anchorage. Coach Speir enjoyed some rare time away from his cell phone with the lack of service and some quality father and son time.
"Seeing these veterans and thinking about what their service means for our country was really powerful," Zeb Speir said. "Dad talks about service being important and enjoying it, and I did. Also to have 17 days where we were together every day was very special. It was a great time with my dad."
Before leaving on the trip, Coach Speir left a video message for the Catamount team that he has directed since 2011. Along with leading the Catamounts to back-to-back seven-win seasons in both 2014 and 2015, including the first winning record in a decade, Speir puts a high importance on players serving the community they play and go to school in.
"I missed our first team meeting, so I did a video where I told the players that we preach family; and this is me living those talks. It may be the last time I can do this with Zeb," Speir said. "I'm going to go out and do this with my son. To be able to do this for these fantastic veterans and do it with my son was a super opportunity for me to serve."
The Catamount football team knows about service. Last year they did close to 300 community service hours with everything from helping at a food bank, walking kids to school, reading to elementary classrooms and helping in the annual “Tuck River Cleanup” in Jackson County. Over the past two years, two Catamounts – Tyson Dickson last year and rising senior Keion Crossen this year – were nominated for the Allstate Good Works team.
"Our players have bought in about the need to give back to the community," Speir said. "It is a good life lesson for them, and I believe it why more fans have been in the stands every year. Now business people, students, and teachers know our players. They are not just going to watch Catamount football. They are going to watch Keion or Corey Holloway. They know our players. They've met them. That interaction is so valuable both ways. We always tell our players that you have a platform as a student-athlete. That platform can be positive or negative. You can't have all the perks without the responsibility. People see and know what you do."
Speir works to set a high example himself. The coach has also worked with Samaritan's Purse to raise more than $100,000 to help rebuild the Memorial Christian Hospital in Bangladesh. He traveled to Bangladesh in 2009 to help provide medical supplies to the hospital.
This latest effort with wounded veterans was another reminder for Speir of the value of giving back. "To hear the veterans and spouses talk about what this is doing in their lives was tremendous," Speir said. "The spouses talked about how before they came, the felt like they were by themselves and now they had nine other people they could talk to about shared experiences. These people gave so much for our country. I'm happy to have the chance to give back."
The connections made while giving back included an idea of honoring these veterans by having them come to Cullowhee and help the Cats enter the field by carrying the American flag as the team enters – a tradition Speir brought to Cullowhee in his first season. Speir also will bring in some veterans to speak to players during upcoming practice before the 2017 season to pass along some life lessons.
"In the grind of preseason, it’ll be good to hear from someone who has done so much," Speir said. "It will be great for players to be around some of these fantastic vets and see people who were willing to give their all and be part of something bigger than themselves. I sincerely appreciate their service, and I'm so glad to have been able to serve them."
For More Information:
For more information about Operation Heal Our Patriots visit - https://www.samaritanspurse.org/what-we-do/about-operation-heal-our-patriots/