Salute Your Troops Gala guests hear tales of bravery

| Sunday, April 20, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

A crowd that had doubled in attendance in just a year was on hand at the Omni William Penn on the evening of April 16, ready to raise a glass and salute some seriously amazing heroes during the third annual Salute Your Troops Gala.

“It's an honor to be here,” said Sgt. Todd Fritz.

Hosted by the Pittsburgh Social Exchange and benefiting the Wounded Warriors Project, the evening held special meaning for prez Ethan Nicholas, whose buddy, Sgt. Thomas Vandling of Bellevue, was killed by an IED while fighting in Iraq in 2007. “He inspired me to keep doing this every year,” Nicholas said.

More than 250 guests were privileged to hear firsthand the tales of bravery that were nothing short of awe-inspiring and, in some cases, unexpected.

“I went over there a hawk, which is what they used to call people gung-ho about the war, and I came home a well-armed dove,” said former Steelers linebacker Andy Russell, who was shot at by a sniper in Vietnam while on an NFL USO Tour in 1968 with five teammates.

Elsewhere, Sgt. Jeremy Jackson was humbly shrugging off a serious set of hardware adorning his chest, including a Purple Heart. Now medically retired from the Army after serving eight years, he survived being shot by a sniper while in Iraq. The bullet produced an exit wound the size of a softball.

“I miss it, the military life and the action,” Jackson said. “I can take a licking and keep on ticking.”

Among the VIPs were Stephanie Oliver (co-coordinator of the gala with Nicholas), Staff Sgt.Russell Haley, Congressman and U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Tim Murphy, Mrs. PennsylvaniaMary Brennan, Miss Pennsylvania Annie Rosellini, U.S. Army Iraq War vet and professional welterweight boxer Sammy Vasquez Jr., Brian Tedeschi and Ben Del Prince.

Kate Benz is the social columnist for Trib Total Media and can be reached at,412-380-8515 or via Twitter @KateBenzTRIB.

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