UW-L Alum receives Purple Heart from father during halftime

Published On: Nov 10 2012 07:17:25 PM CST   Updated On: Nov 10 2012 11:02:34 PM CST

UW-La Crosse's Veterans Memorial Stadium lived up to its name Saturday.

Before the school's football game Saturday and during halftime, more than 3,000 people paid tribute to our nation's veterans.

It started with a special recognition of Marine Cpl. Gauge Griffin.

The 2009 graduate of G.E.T High School was severely injured last year while serving in Afghanistan.

His recognition was followed by a 21-gun salute, "Taps" and a moment of silence before the teams entered the field.

The Eagle Battalion ROTC then presented the colors before the national anthem.
The lead-up to the start of the game was an emotional one for Gauge's family.

“Every time you talk about it, you know, it opens that wound again,” said Don and Kim Ziegler, Griffin’s parents. “[You] kind of relive the experience. It's a celebration. It's happy tears that he's home."

A planned flyover before the game had to be cancelled because of bad weather conditions in Minneapolis.

Another special event took place during halftime when a UW-L graduate and service member was awarded the Purple Heart.

“I couldn't imagine what I was going to feel like,” said Army 2nd Lt. Jason Church.

Heading out to the football field at half time Church said it’s a familiar but different experience.

“It was my favorite sport I loved playing it,” said Church, the former Eagle’s football player. “I loved the game and to play it in college, and I look at the university and how it's embraced me as not only a student athlete, but also as an alumni and a veteran.”

He joined the army in May and soon headed to serve in Afghanistan.

Months later, while on patrol, an IED exploded taking both of his legs below the knee.

It was something that changed his life forever.

“Just physically looking at the loss of my legs, I learned right there what I valued most, and you think about your family and you think about those that are close to you,” said Church.

He's undergone 18 surgeries and months of rehabilitation.

Church wanted to come back to his Alma Mater to receive his purple heart in front of friends and family who cared for him most.

That includes his father, Col. David Church of the U.S. Army reserves who presented him with the honor.

“As parents, and certainly as an officer in the army, it was something I never wanted to do was to present my own son with a Purple Heart because he was injured in war, and I guess it just kind of catches up with you a little bit, and you appreciate the sacrifices he's made plus the sacrifices all the other veterans have made,” said Col. David Church.

The emotions both father and son felt on the field were nothing they could have expected.

“I'm usually pretty decent at public speaking, but this has been pretty hard for me so I would again just like to say thank you,” Church said to the audience.
“I just kind of lost it there,” Church said later. “It was kind of tough there on the P.A. system.”

While the road to recovery is still a long one, Church said he's thankful for such a strong support system cheering him on.

“I'm just glad that the community that embraced me as a student athlete and a football player, could embrace me again as a veteran, and that they could show their appreciation in a setting like this and that's something that I'm obviously always going to remember,” said Church.

Church is heading back to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the Washington, D.C., area where he'll continue intense rehabilitation.

Doctors said he should be up and walking with the use of a cane by the end of December and walking on his own with just prosthetics in a few months.

There will be a free Veteran's Breakfast Sunday.

Doors open at UW-L's Mitchell Hall at 8 a.m. with a special ceremony at 9 a.m. and breakfast at 10.