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Who's A 'Real' Vet?

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Published 5 years ago
The families of the three men all endured fear, anxiety, and heartache while their loved ones were in the service.

On Veterans Day, America will recognize those who lost their lives after answering their country's call to duty in the armed services.

Many people, including some who were in the military, have a problem deciding what constitutes a “real” vet. It isn't a simple designation. Various combinations of length, nature, and dates of service are often among the prime considerations. For while there are certain elements common to everyone who has been in the service, there is no typical veteran. But anyone who ever served in this nation's armed forces has faced, along with their family, a unique situation.

The stories of three former football players illustrate that point. Billy Masters played for Louisiana State back in the mid-sixties. In that bygone era, two years of ROTC was still compulsory for all male students. There was, however, a “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” exception made for football players and other athletes. But instead of dodging the drills and classes, Masters just grinned and put in his time. After playing out his eligibility, the Buffalo Bills of the National Football League drafted him.

After his rookie season with the Bills, he was drafted again, this time by Uncle Sam. The Army sent the former LSU Tiger to North Fort Polk, aka, TigerLand, "Home of Combat Infantrymen for Vietnam," where he trained to fire mortars. While waiting on his orders for Vietnam, (everyone in Tigerland got orders for the 'Nam), his father suffered a severe heart attack. Billy Masters, now the sole support of his family, received a hardship discharge. Nine years later, after stops at Buffalo, Denver, and Kansas City, he retired from the NFL.

Most pro football fans have heard the dramatic story of former Pittsburgh Steelers running-back Rocky Bleier in Vietnam. Up to a point, it’s similar to that of Billy Masters'. After his first season in pro football, Bleier was drafted and eventually sent to Vietnam. During a firefight near DaNang, both legs were severely wounded. He would spend months recovering from his wounds and rehabilitating his body. This link is to a Sports Illustrated excerpt from Bleier’s story.

The third vet is Trey Prather. Each year, Woodlawn High School in Shreveport honors its graduates who have died fighting for America, one of those graduates is Trey Prather. He was a quarterback, a very, very good quarterback. How good? According to former University of Arkansas and Buffalo Bills quarterback Joe Ferguson, there were four first-rate quarterbacks in the north Louisiana area during his high school days: Bert Jones (La State, Baltimore Colts), Terry Bradshaw (La Tech, Pittsburgh Steelers), Joe Ferguson and Trey Prather. Of the four, Ferguson said he felt Prather was the best. Terry Bradshaw described Prather as, “…the best quarterback I ever played with.” 

Bradshaw isn’t just being modest. While Trey Prather was the starting quarterback at Woodlawn High School, he kept the future Super Bowl MVP and Hall-of-Fame member sitting on the bench.

Prather went to LSU and became starting quarterback on the freshmen football team. After the season ended, he left school and joined the Marines. A few months later, while on patrol in Vietnam, he was killed by a land mine explosion.

The Navy has a term called, In Harm's Way. In the case of Masters and Bleier, they chose to face the challenge of being in Harm's Way. Masters' left only after his father had a heart attack, while Bleier left only by Medivac helicopter. Both played by the rules and both were ready to take their lumps.

When Prather joined the Marines, he intentionally thrust himself into Harm’s Way. It’s doubtful if Prather would have considered himself a hero. For one thing, being killed by a booby trap or land mine isn't very heroic. But more importantly, his death occurred while doing what he volunteered to do, what he wanted to do, serve his country.

Prather, Bleier and Masters, which one is the “real” vet?

Although he spent months in the military, Billy Masters would not be considered a veteran by most definitions used by the United States Department of Veterans’ Affairs. It is doubtful if he will ever receive recognition for his willingness to serve or his months of service.

Like Masters, Rocky Bleier had also gone when called. After recovering from his combat wounds, he was able to return to his civilian job. Through that job, an NFL fullback, is far from typical, he was a typical citizen-soldier.

The average American serviceman in Vietnam was 19 and a volunteer. Trey Prather was a volunteer and 19 at the time of his death.

Prather, Bleier and Masters had three things in common. All three played football. All three served their country. Most significantly, the families of the three men all endured fear, anxiety, and heartache while they were in the service. In the end, perhaps that’s the truest definition of what constitutes a “real” vet, "One whose family also suffered and sacrificed for our country."

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