A 2008 Virginia Tech graduate, Ben Kiernan was a 1371 combat engineer serving in Afghanistan with the U.S. Marine Corps when he suffered several severe injuries to the right side of his body on Sept. 16, 2010, as part of an ambush.
Two months of hospital stays in Bethesda, Md., and Richmond, Va., eventually gave way to Kiernan walking with a cane, which eventually gave way to him walking "relatively normal" on his own.
The Wounded Warrior Project and Kiernan's alma mater have helped in his recovery, with the highlight of the period coming March 30 in Blacksburg, where Kiernan gave a speech to the Virginia Tech football team and revealed to the players the special camouflage helmets they will be wearing for their Sept. 22 game against Bowling Green, which will be played on Military Appreciation Day at Lane Stadium.
"I came up there with the understanding that I was just gonna shadow coach [Frank] Beamer during practice, and when I got up I didn't realize how big it was and didn't know anything about this military appreciation helmet or anything," Kiernan said. "And then coach Beamer and other coaches asked if I'd be willing to show the team the helmet and say a couple words to them, something I could've never imagined I'd be doing."
Kiernan, a Pittsburgh native who played fullback and linebacker at Mt. Lebanon High School, fell in love with Virginia Tech when an older cousin of his enrolled there during the Michael Vick era (1998-2000). By his sophomore year, Kiernan already knew where wanted to go to college.
He said he went to every home game and as many bowl games as his college budget would allow while he was in school.
The 26-year-old called meeting Beamer "surreal," and when the longest-tenured FBS coach asked him to deliver a speech to the Hokies, Kiernan had to improvise a bit, expressing what the football program meant to him when he was roughly 7,000 miles from home.
"I remember I told them one story of how when we were over there, we were real far out there, but we would get the football scores radioed in, and I remember being up one night really late just to have my buddy, who was also a big Virginia Tech fan, wake me up and get on the radio just to tell me the scores of the Virginia Tech game, so it was awesome," Kiernan said. "I basically told them how Virginia Tech football kind of gives you that piece of home and gives you something to look forward to when you get back and something to think about while you're in that kind of a situation.
"It's good to take your mind off and focus on something, and for me Virginia Tech football was absolutely one of those things, so I talked to them about that and showed them the helmet and also told them a quick story about first getting out of the hospital -- doctors told me to take it easy for a week, and a couple days later I had friends drive me down to Blacksburg and we went to the UVa game, the last game of the season. I told them to think about what they'll be playing for on the day they're celebrating Military Appreciation Day."
This is the school's second year doing Military Appreciation Day, and it is selling $8 camouflage hats on campus and online in hopes of raising $25,000 for the Wounded Warrior Project. (The "25" marks Beamer's jersey number from his playing days as a Hokie.)
Several players approached Kiernan after he spoke to thank him for his sacrifice and words of motivation.
"I'll say this: He had their attention," Beamer said. "I think where he'd been, who he was of course, being a Virginia Tech graduate just talking about the school. It didn't take long, but he had their attention, and I think the players were very much appreciative of him being here and him talking to them and what he had done for our country."