Thirty minutes before kickoff on the night of the much-hyped Monday Night Football game between the Denver Broncos and the Oakland Raiders, the concrete pavilion outside Invesco Field at Mile High was invaded by tens of thousands of football fans in uniform. Mixed in with the middle-aged, open-beer-can-carrying, potbellied rival clans of orange and blue and silver and black were dozens of sober, fit, crewcut young men wearing desert camouflage.
Fresh from Iraq, these Fort Carson troops were due for a pre-game, on-field ceremony in their honor as part of Operation Tribute to Freedom, a new Department of Defense-sponsored initiative to counteract anti-war sentiment with mass displays of patriotism.
According to its mission statement, Operation Tribute to Freedom "Encourages Americans to demonstrate their support for the troops who are returning from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who continue to fight in the ongoing effort toward victory in the Global War on Terror. And recognize that while freedom is the birthright of every American, freedom is not free. Like our fathers and forefathers before them, this generation of Americans has answered Freedom's call, preserving the light of liberty here at home and casting it's [sic] glow on millions of others all across the globe."
Standing at the terminus of Dick Connor Avenue was a man who claimed to be a member of the last generation of Americans who answered freedom's call, having taken a load of shrapnel in his left shoulder while casting the glow of liberty on Vietnam. Dressed in a black Broncos shirt, green shorts and a baseball cap, the gray-bearded man held his driver's license in one hand, his Veteran's Administration card in the other and shouted over and over, "Who's got an extra ticket for a disabled vet? Who's got a ticket for a disabled vet who fought for your freedom?"
One hundred yards uphill, at the intersection of Dick Connor and Federal Boulevard, the hot zone for Broncos ticket scalpers, nosebleed seats for the sold-out game were going for $300 a pair. The self-professed Vietnam vet was getting no love at those prices. His fellow Americans ignored him in droves. As game time drew near, he became increasingly unhinged. "Who's got a ticket for a disabled vet who fought for this country and who's getting really angry?" Anyone who stopped to question him was met with a barrage of invective, like: "Where did I fight? Who the hell are you to ask me that question?" or "What, you want to see my wounds? Give me a ticket and I'll tell you war stories, asshole!"
Inside the stadium, the announcer called for "a moment of silence to remember the men and women who dedicated their lives to our country and died protecting our great nation." Outside in the parking lot, where a local AM radio station had set up an open mike, inviting anyone to "say whatever you want," a man who had just brazenly swilled from a pint of whiskey vociferously exercised his First Amendment rights.
"Fuck the Raiders!" he bellowed over the amplifiers. "Yeah! Whooo! Get drunk!"
The screaming horn lines of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy's rendition of "God Bless America" radiated from within Invesco field, followed by the national anthem. And then, timed precisely to coincide with the last ringing note of "Braaaaaave..." four F-16s streaked out of the blue and roared over the stadium, afterburners glowing hellish red, devouring 3,500 pounds of jet fuel per minute. The awesome sound of their engines trailed the fighters by two full seconds. It was the sound of death from above, of the God of War howling, of pure sex with 100,000 pounds of thrust.
In faraway places like Iraq and Afghanistan, enemy combatants and innocent civilians alike cower and pray at the roar of F-16s. In Denver, on the night of the big game, it was cause to cheer and high-five. For one glorious moment, Broncos and Raiders fans were united. The surly Vietnam vet even cracked a smile and gave a thumbs-up.
"You gotta love that!" he said.
The F-16s were from the 120th Fighter Squadron at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora. The $20 million planes made the round trip specifically at the request of the home team.
"The Broncos are huge supporters of the military, and the flyover just adds to the excitement and the whole experience building up to this huge event," says Lynn Rosen, the team's Coordinator of Special Events and Entertainment, whose boyfriend, as it happens, is a fighter pilot stationed at Buckley. "Before the game, we had guys on the field who fought in the war, and the guys in the jets actually fought in the war, too, so it was perfect."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
But freedom isn't free, and neither is jet fuel. Federal taxpayers -- not the Broncos or the National Football League -- picked up the $20,000 check for the flyover. (Air Force estimates put the cost per flying hour for F-16s at $5,000 to $8,000 per plane, per hour, including fuel, maintenance and pilot time.)
The Broncos flyover was just one of 278 special guest appearances by fighter jets already scheduled through November for events ranging from "The Shock-N-Awe Homecoming Celebration Parade" in Berlin, Wisconsin, to "The City of Slater 125th Centennial and POW/MIA Ceremony" in Slater, Missouri, to "John Boy and Billy's NASCAR Craftsman Truck 250 at Big Daddy's Speedway," in South Boston, Virginia.
The Air Force's stated criterion for "Aerial Event Support" is that to qualify for fighter jets, the event "must be one in which an Air Force flyover contributes immeasurable meaning," such as the officially titled "NFL Kickoff Live 2003 From the National Mall Presented by Pepsi Vanilla." At that nationally televised September 4 concert, which took place immediately preceding the first NFL game of the season, pop singer Britney Spears performed to a crowd of 25,000 military personnel who were ordered to show up in uniform for the benefit of the cameras. The day before, Spears had told a CNN interviewer who asked her whether she supported the war in Iraq, "Honestly, I just think we should trust our president in every decision he makes and should just support that, you know, and be faithful in what happens."
Five minutes into the Broncos game, the Vietnam vet lost faith in begging for a free ticket and gathered up his coat and the half a hot dog he had stashed beneath it. As he walked away, the Broncos scored their first touchdown, and fireworks exploded in the darkening sky.