Chris Dempsey and Matt Kenseth (Photo courtesy of Crown Royal)
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. _ In the few years I have been covering the sport of NASCAR, I have had a number of humbling moments that stick out in my memory. Interviewing some of my childhood heroes, attending events I never could have imagined possible
and talking with fans from all over the country have left a lasting impression on me. Last week at the rain-soaked Daytona International Speedway, another of those humbling experiences took place, but this one had little to do with racing.
Representatives from Crown Royal and Richmond International Raceway held a press conference to announce the winner of the Crown Royal Your Name Here 400 on May 1, 2010. While the tradition of naming the Sprint Cup Series race has taken place since 2007, this year’s contest held special meaning. Honoring the selflessness and sacrifice of the U.S. military, Crown Royal and RIR decided to make this year’s deal open to military members only.
The five candidates nominated – Heath Calhoun, Georgia Powell, Chris Dempsey, Brian Speach and Rick Hudson – each had amazing and selfless stories that friends, family and former comrades felt were worth giving recognition for.
As Matt Kenseth helped unveil the winner, Heath Calhoun’s name was on the hood.
From Clarksville, Tenn., Calhoun lost both of his legs above the knee when a rocket propelled grenade hit the truck he was riding in on Nov. 7, 2003. A member of the 101st Airborne, Calhoun admitted it was a struggle to adapt to his life-changing injury. Yet today, Calhoun has not only mastered walking on his prosthetics, but also competes in the Alpine Skiing event in the Paralympics.
While Calhoun had the honor of winning and the majority of attention focused on him, the most touching and humbling experience of the rainy day in Daytona went to 44-year-old Chris Dempsey.
During the press conference, Dempsey emotionally described the brotherhood that exists between the members of the armed forces. Everyone in the room was touched by the moment as this seasoned war veteran struggled to get his words out behind the tears.
“America is going through a hard time right now,” he said. “At the end of a firefight one time, we had fought all day, we were tired, shot up and some of us were bleeding. I looked around at some of my soldiers and thought, ‘Man, this is one of those moments when Patton or Eisenhower is supposed to say something cool. So, I stole some verses from different things. – America is going through hard times. Fifteen million Americans are out of work. Dads are trying to feed their families, single moms trying to make ends meet. God bless man, I’m just proud to have a job. – I told my soldiers this, and I wanted to tell America this, the story I told them was, 'For those who shed their blood with me today, I shall call friend forever. And when the clouds of misery descend upon you and darkness fills your thoughts, fear not, for the light that separates Heaven and Earth will guide you home. Worry not because on this day we stood together as one on this day, this time and this place.’"
“I want to tell you guys that when Louisiana was drowning, we were there. When California was burning to the ground, we were there. When the Mississippi flooded its banks, we were there. If you don’t think we’re not there, ask the people of Haiti who the first ones were at their shores when thousands of their people died. So, if you’re having a hard time out there and things aren’t right, you’re not alone and you don’t stand alone because we’re there.”
Now a National Guard recruiter in Yuma, Ariz., Dempsey nervously asked Kenseth for autographs on hats, photos and his souvenir program. As the crowd dissipated, Dempsey grabbed something from his bag, but this was not for Kenseth to sign.
As the defending Daytona 500 champion opened the rectangular box, Dempsey explained this was a Bronze Star – the fourth highest medal awarded by the U.S. military. Calling the Roush Fenway Racing driver ‘sir’ without hesitation, Dempsey told Kenseth he could stick the medal in a drawer or something, he just wanted him to have it.
“What good does it do on a shelf somewhere?” Dempsey said afterwards. “I’m so blessed that I have a job, I’ve got my wife, I’ve got my family. I’ve only had two (Bronze Stars) and they were given to me. That’s why I don’t wear medals, because they were given to me. The first one I gave to my mom and I thought I want to give [Kenseth] something that he could put up there and say I remember those guys. You know, sometimes you never remember the names, but you remember the time and the place. I thought what good is doing in my house? Years from now, when he’s looking at of his stuff – and that man’s got a lot of accomplishments – maybe he’ll pull it out of a drawer and say, ‘I remember that day.’ It meant more for me to give it to him than for me to keep it.”
The more I talked with this war veteran, the more I realized he was truly a humble and inspiring American. He spent a year fighting in Afghanistan and a tour in the first Gulf War in the 1990s. Dempsey went on to call today’s generation of young men and women the greatest generation of all. Pointing out during World War II, Korea and Vietnam all saw drafts implemented, he stressed the importance of the all volunteer force fighting today.
“Imagine this, we’ve been fighting in Afghanistan since 2001,” he explained. “You take at a guy who enlists in the military today; he was ten years old when this war started. His country has been at war half his life…Today you have soldiers, men and women alike, that are fighting in a military force that is 100% volunteer…You’re talking about men and women that step up for God and country. This is the greatest generation. Their moms and dads are losing their jobs and their houses and they still walk into a recruiting office.”
Too often, we get caught up in the mundane setbacks and problems in our lives and lose perspective on the larger issues in the world. Meeting the four finalists (Georgia Powell was delayed by weather) on Friday was truly an inspiring and humbling experience that I will carry with me for years to come.
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