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Program makes Auburn football accessible to soldiers

Few things are closer to Jana Tarleton’s heart than wounded warriors and War Eagles.

Born of Tarleton’s urge to thank the troops by sharing with them her passion for Auburn football, Game Day for Heroes fuses Fort Benning with the college gridiron.

It all started in September when Tarleton, the president of the Columbus-Phenix City Auburn Club, received a phone call from Bryan Newman. Newman and Tarleton are members of St. Luke United Methodist Church in Columbus.

“He called me up one day and said, ‘If you ever have any extra tickets, I have some soldiers in the transition battalion that would love to go to an Auburn game,’” Tarleton said.

Newman’s request inspired Tarleton to act. The timing was perfect, too, as the alumni association chapter was under pressure to establish a community service project in the Columbus-Phenix City area.

After speaking with Newman, she called her husband, Mike Tarleton, and said, “I think we just found our community service project.”

The project, dubbed “Tigers for Heroes,” kicked off three weeks before football season began with the purchase of six season tickets valued at $2,400. These tickets are reserved for the U.S. Army Wounded Warrior Program whose members have been injured in combat or have fallen ill as a result of their recent military service.

Once word got out about Tigers for Heroes, the feedback was overwhelming, Tarleton said. She recalled a phone call from a Miami Hurricanes season ticket holder who wanted to make a generous donation to the project.

“It was the first time I’ve ever been speechless,” Tarleton said with tears in her eyes.

Donations roll in

Thanks to continuing donations of tickets and money, coming mostly from Auburn alumni across the nation, it wasn’t long before the program had the resources it needed to include active duty military under its umbrella of services. In early September, Tigers for Heroes provided 21 Fort Benning soldiers with tickets to see Auburn trounce Louisiana Tech in the season opener. As of this week, 175 active duty military members have had the opportunity to tailgate with Tarleton’s club, experience Tiger Walk and see Auburn play.

Command Sgt. Maj. Sean Burns of Fort Benning’s 1-29th Infantry Regiment, 197th Infantry Brigade was chosen early on by Tarleton to distribute the tickets to the soldiers.

“I thought it was great. I was very excited about the program,” Burns said. “I thought it was great to actually see someone not involved in military service to do this and thank us for what we do. The soldiers love it.”

Ticket distribution is random, Burns said. Typically, he extends the opportunity to one company within the brigade at a time on a first-come, first-served basis. Each week, Burns rotates which company is given first refusal. Leftover tickets are a rarity, Burns said. But if there is a surplus, he takes into consideration special circumstances — such as an upcoming deployment or a soldier’s collegiate allegiance — when deciding who will pocket them.

“I’ll solicit a soldier if he’s from Kentucky and Kentucky is playing Auburn,” Burns explained.

Late last month, Mike and Jana Tarleton filed paperwork that would change the program’s name to Game Day for Heroes and establish it as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Jana Tarleton’s goal is to eventually offer troops tickets to other Auburn sporting events such as basketball and baseball games as well as implement Game Day for Heroes in colleges across the country.

“This in not about Auburn football or Auburn sports,” Tarleton said. “It’s about providing an opportunity for the soldiers who are fighting for my freedom so that I can sit in the football stadium and watch my passion for college football and my team safely. And you know that’s what this is about.”

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