Military Appreciation Tailgate: Serving those who have served

Lauren Ingram
October 24, 2018

Penn State has a longstanding and proud tradition of serving the men and women of our military through education benefits, resources, support and more. This year's Military Appreciation Week at the University begins with a Penn State football game at the University Park campus on Oct. 27, with other planned events leading up to a Veterans Day ceremony on Old Main’s steps on Nov. 12. This year's theme recognizes 100 years of women officially serving in the U.S. armed forces with special events and activities. For additional information, visit militaryappreciation.psu.edu.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Before the sun rises on game day — hours before the Penn State Nittany Lions ever take the field against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Beaver Stadium on Oct. 27 — Michael del Rosario, a U.S. Army veteran and Penn State alumnus, will arrive across the street at the Bryce Jordan Center with his team to begin their morning shift volunteering at Penn State’s sixth annual Military Appreciation Tailgate.

Del Rosario, along with nearly 500 volunteers, will make sure the grills are hot and the coffee is brewing before up to 10,000 veterans, service members and their families begin funneling in for the noon festivities.

Together, the annual tailgate and football game — which kick off Penn State’s Military Appreciation Week recognizing the service and sacrifice of past and current service members and their families — are the largest military appreciation celebrations in the Big Ten.

Along with free food, entertainment and a resource fair at the tailgate, Penn State supporters this year funded more than 6,300 football tickets through the Seats for Servicemembers program, enabling active and retired military members to attend the Oct. 27 game at no cost.

“This is one way at Penn State that we put ‘thank you for your service’ into action by doing everything we can to serve those who have served,” said Eugene McFeely, senior director for veterans affairs and services at the University. “The tailgate is a huge effort, and the generosity of our volunteers and community partners enable us to deliver a military appreciation event of this scale. It’s a great source of pride.” 

For the past six years, Penn State has partnered with del Rosario and his employer, Walmart, to host the tailgate. The retailer has become the lead donor of food and supplies, while the University provides facilities, seating and event support for the pregame festivities.  

Del Rosario, a former captain in the U.S Army and general transportation manager for Walmart’s distribution center in Woodland, Pennsylvania, said the tailgate is one of his favorite days of the year.

“I’m a proud Penn State and Army ROTC graduate, veteran, and Walmart associate, and I get to combine the most important and influential parts of my life together into one really touching day," del Rosario said. "You don’t often get that kind of feeling where everybody is there for the right reasons to show up for military families. Walmart and Penn State are trying to do some good things for the community, and it’s amazing to see what’s happened when our people joined forces.”

Since feeding 10,000 hungry people is no easy feat, planning for the event starts almost a year in advance and has become a second job for del Rosario and his team, who take a lead role in organizing volunteers, ordering food and equipment, and planning day-of logistics. This year, they helped secure donations from more than 40 Walmart and Sam’s Club stores, distribution centers, and transportation offices in the region.

On game day, hundreds of volunteers will arrive at the Bryce Jordan Center on the University Park campus in waves beginning at 6 a.m. They’ll be tasked with everything from greeting attendees at the door and assisting Wounded Warriors to grilling burgers and staffing 12 food lines set up in the arena. Food — including 24,000 hamburgers, hot dogs, brats and pieces of chicken; 8,000 cookies; several thousand bags of chips; and pallets of bottled water and soda — are delivered on two 53-foot-long tractor trailers.

“It’s controlled chaos, but it’s the most rewarding day,” del Rosario said. “Everyone here is a volunteer who cares about giving back and thanking the troops. Many are veterans themselves, and some are here to honor their own family members to keep their memories alive. It’s a humbling experience, and I’m just proud to be part of this team.”

In addition to musical entertainment from the 28th Infantry Division band, the U.S. Army Drill Team will perform, and one deserving military family will be the recipient of a new home thanks to Operation Homefront, a national organization that supports military families around the country. Attendees also can visit a Veterans Resource Fair featuring University and local resources like the Veterans Multi-Service Center, DuBois Vet Center, and the American Red Cross.

“Any issues I have melt away when I talk to vets at the tailgate and read the letters that come in later,” said McFeely, who is a retired colonel in the U.S. Air Force. “As a service member, I’ve been the beneficiary many times of acts of kindness. This is my way of giving back and making sure these families have the same kindness available to them.”

Though for veterans like Stan Aungst, emeritus senior lecturer of information sciences and technology at Penn State — who was drafted into the Vietnam War in 1966 at the age of 19 — this type of generosity wasn’t something he experienced when he came home from the war.

Aungst has made it his mission to improve the homecoming experiences of post-9/11 veterans.

In 2012, Penn State initiated its first Military Appreciation Day — giving away 100 tickets to a football game that year. Aungst and Todd Bacastow, a fellow Vietnam-era veteran and teaching professor in the Department of Geography, appreciated the significance of the event. In 2013, under Bacastow’s leadership and with Aungst’s drive to “get it done,” the pair collaborated with Penn State Athletics to increase the number of football ticket donations and in-stadium events and to organize the first Military Appreciation Tailgate at Pegula Ice Arena for 1,200 military personnel.

“The rest is history, but we certainly wouldn’t have been able to make that first tailgate happen without tremendous support from active and veteran service members, our community, the National Guard, Walmart, and staff at Penn State,” said Bacastow. “The military families who attend each year appreciate that Penn State cares about them and the community. It’s more than a tailgate.”

Both Aungst and Bacastow, who have been colleagues and friends for nearly 25 years, said Military Appreciation Day is part of their legacies.  

“I feel good for weeks after the tailgate because I’m with my brothers and my sisters. It’s been part of my healing process,” said Aungst. “Our motto is ‘let no soldier go unloved,’ and I’m still fighting for my fellow soldiers.”

Today, military appreciation is a year-round commitment at Penn State, and the University strives to meet the unique needs of military students and families, according to McFeely.

The University provides active-duty, veteran and ROTC students with a range of academic and support resources, including an Office of Veterans Programs, GI Bill benefit support, peer counseling, a Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic, and more.

“Our vision is that Penn State will be widely recognized and emulated as the example of what higher education can do to support and address the needs of our nation’s armed forces, veterans and their families,” McFeely said. “From welcoming military folks to our campus for a Saturday-afternoon tailgate to providing special resources for adult veteran students, it’s our responsibility to do everything we can to serve those who have served.” 

Doors to the Military Appreciation Tailgate open at noon, and military members and veterans with military IDs are welcome. A schedule of other Military Appreciation Week events is available on Penn State News.    

Last Updated November 13, 2018