Retired Air Force Staff Sergeant Jeffrey Szczubelek was the recipient of the jersey off the back at Saturday’s Military Appreciation Night match against Colorado Rapids. Midfielder Alejandro Bedoya gave his jersey to Szczubelek, making his night a special one he’ll always remember.
Szczubelek said receiving Bedoya’s jersey was not only for him, but for all military members who serve this country proudly.
“I don’t think teams, sponsors and those involved know how much something like this falls in line with military tradition,” Szczubelek said. “These are the things that remind us we are together even when things are good, and to hold onto when things go bad.”
Szczubelek joined the Air Force in 1996 as a way to see the world and earn money for college.
In September 2001, things changed forever. While on leave from his enlistment in Japan, Szczubelek was home with his wife Linda, then girlfriend, walking around New York City days before the deadly 9/11 attacks. The two were supposed to see a free concert at the World Trade Center but decided to skip.
On September 10, he was en route to return to his base in Japan, but was rerouted to South Korea after a large typhoon swept over the area.
“I was watching when the second plane hit the World Trade Center, and life changed real fast,” Szczubelek said.
Knowing how short life can be, Szczubelek asked Linda to marry him. A few months after the wedding, Szczubelek contracted viral encephalitis after a traumatic brain injury. He lost use of the left side of his brain, his memory and ability to find words.
He was broken and angered that he medically retired from a job that became so much more to him.
“I felt like I was letting down my men by not being able to deploy when needed," Szczubelek said. “I was letting down my new bride who was thinking she was going to join me on adventures around the world, but quickly had to help me do even basic things.”
Simple things like leaving the house became a struggle for Szczubelek, as he would suffer from panic attacks and seizures. His wife knew that he would not stay in this dark place forever, and in 2008 they adopted their first son Sam.
“Bringing Sam to the park or for a walk got me out of my shell little by little in a way nothing else ever could,” Szczubelek said.
In 2012, a friend from his church had invited him to a Union game. At first, he was afraid to step out of his comfort zone and be around a large crowd of people. Finally, he decided to go.
“I made it through the entire game. This was a big deal,” Szczubelek said. “The thing about soccer is there are few breaks, and few breaks gives my mind less time to wonder, and that was good for me.”
Shortly after, Szczubelek went to a few games a year. He found himself feeling less anxious after each game and decided to buy season tickets to bring his son Sam.
“My wife wanted me to commit to season tickets and make going out to an event this size more normal for me,” Sazcubelek said.
This past January, Szczubelek and his family were victims of a house fire, a horrible event that he thought would prevent him from attending this season's Union games.
“I almost canceled my season tickets thinking it was the right thing to do financially,” Szczubelek said. “But my wife talked me out of it because Union games are one of the very few reasons I leave the house, and she knew I would need the stress breaker.”
Through hard times, Szczubelek remained hopeful. Attending Union matches, what he called “DOOP” nights, were something he looked forward to most.
The Union have remained a part of Szubelek’s recovery. From just getting out of the house, to getting him to feel accepted by a group in ways others had not. It continues to provide him with a sense of belonging, a place he can call a second home.
Szczubelek often forgets important things that have taken place in his life because of his traumatic brain injury, but receiving Bedoya's jersey is one memory that will remain forever.
“To shake hands with the players, and be on the field after such an emotional night is something I will never forget,” Szczubelek said.