FORT WORTH — For fans who arrived early at the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl, there was plenty of chances to get a look at military hardware.In what is normally Frog Alley for TCU football games, three helicopters were parked on the grass outside Amon G. Carter Stadium.Nearby, in what would normally be a popular tailgating spot, military hardware, including a small drone, also known as a tactical unmanned aircraft and a Commando Select Vehicle were among the items on display.“It’s really nice to have this bowl here and great to have a chance to see Navy in person,” said David Riley, who was in the Navy from 1982-90. Riley, who normally follows the Midshipmen’s games on his computer, was enjoying a rare chance to see his team in person with a quick day trip from his home in Tyler.The bowl, as expected, included plenty of patriotism. There was a flyover and a parachute jump. And Roger Staubach, a former Navy Heisman Trophy winner, better known locally as the legendary former Dallas Cowboys quarterback, was also on hand. It didn’t hurt that Navy won, beating Middle Tennessee 24-6.But the game also represents a recruiting opportunity, with all of the service branches on hand, as well as a chance for vets to meet face-to-face with organizations such as the Department of Veterans Affairs. For Cleburne resident Jeffrey Spittler, bringing both veterans and would-be recruits together is one of the best aspects of the bowl game.Spittler, who was a member of the United States Marine Corps during Operation Desert Storm, viewed the bowl game as a chance to see fellow veterans and give those thinking about enlisting a chance to learn more than they would at a recruiting office.“It has the kinship to bring brothers — and sisters — together and speak about their stories, watch a good game and get to talk to the next generation that has questions about being in the military,” Spittler said. “I just think it’s a great opportunity to bring people together.”A time to bondSpittler was hopeful that veterans who have been in Iraq and Afghanistan would attend the game to see they are part of larger military community. He is worried that many come back and have difficulty adjusting to society.“They can get hurt and be on their living room couch in 36 to 72 hours,” Spittler said. “They don’t know what hit them. And they can have a real hard time coming back to civilian life.”Spittler, who was in the . Marine Corps from 1987 to 1991, said it was difficult for him when he left the military but it became easier after he joined various groups, including a local Masonic Lodge.It was Spittler‘s first Armed Forces Bowl but he vowed to come back.“I plan to attend every year,” he said. “It’s bigger — there’s more stuff out here — than I thought there would be. And it’s great chance to root for the service academies. I’ll come back and cheer for Army or Air Force even thought I’m a Marine.”For Navy fan Lonnie Palelei, the Armed Forces Bowl was more of a traditional bowl experience. His son, Evan Palelei, is a senior defensive end for Navy.But Lonnie Palelei, a former NFL offensive lineman, was extolling the virtues of Fort Worth.“Other than the cold, it’s been awesome,” said Palelei who arrived on Saturday from his home in Las Vegas. “There’s a lot of culture here. This is my first time in Fort Worth and it’s been wonderful.”His favorite attraction in Fort Worth — Billy Bob’s Texas.“That place is like Disneyland for drinkers,” Palelei said laughing.Even though he is a former professional athlete, Palelei said he didn’t have much aptitude for two-stepping.“I tried but I really couldn’t get the hang of it,” Palelei said.
Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698 Twitter: @fwhanna