Fans cheer on Nittany Lions, service members at Penn State’s Military Appreciation Day

Dressed in Army fatigues, the Penn State Nittany Lion crowd surfs through the student section during Military Appreciation Day at the Saturday, November 15, 2014, Penn State game at Beaver Stadium. The Nittany Lions won, 30-13 to become bowl eligible.
Dressed in Army fatigues, the Penn State Nittany Lion crowd surfs through the student section during Military Appreciation Day at the Saturday, November 15, 2014, Penn State game at Beaver Stadium. The Nittany Lions won, 30-13 to become bowl eligible. CDT photo

It was just windy enough Saturday morning for an American flag to fly in unison with a Penn State one over David Conroy’s SUV.

The Army veteran from Clearfield hosted a tailgate party with family and friends for the game against Temple that kicked off at noon.

But the game gave Conroy and other Nittany Lion fans more to celebrate than just the 30-13 win against the Temple Owls that made Penn State, whose NCAA sanctions were lifted in September, eligible for a bowl game for the first time in three years.

Penn State’s Military Appreciation Day honored military personnel and veterans, and brought a patriotic presence to Beaver Stadium.

“It’s nice because we get some old buddies together who I served with, every year during the veterans game,” Conroy said. “I was just an armored car mechanic really — some of these guys actually saw combat on the front lines of it (Iraq). They’re the guys worth celebrating.”

According to Penn State, fans were encouraged to purchase tickets to be donated to soldiers and their families through the Seats for Soldiers program.

ROTC students, active duty personnel, Wounded Warriors members and veterans also were honored for their service with on-field ceremonies during timeouts or between quarters. Periodically, fans were asked to stand when their military unit was announced.

Penn State students even turned the “S Zone” in the student section of Beaver Stadium into the “USA Zone.”

The section by the end zone where an “S” is usually formed in blue and white by students was accompanied by two other sections on each side that formed a red and white “U” and “A” to spell USA.

For the coin toss, a “one-of-a kind” coin was used to honor Penn State graduate and U.S. Navy Lt. Michael Murphy, who died in 2005 in Afghanistan.

He was the first Penn State alumnus to receive a Medal of Honor, according to Penn State. Veterans Plaza, located near the northeast corner of Old Main on campus, was a gift from the class of 2011 that honors all Penn State students who served in the armed forces, and the plaza curved wall is named in memory of Murphy.

An 80-year-old Army veteran from Silver Spring, Md., said Saturday’s tribute to Murphy was the reason he attended the game with an Army sweatshirt under his coat and special headwear.

“I probably wouldn’t have bothered to wear this if Michael Murphy wasn’t being honored,” said Al Shanefelter about a hat he wore that said “Korean War Veteran.”

Shanefelter was a Korean linguist for more than two years during the 1950-53 war.

He said it took him 13 months to learn the language before he was shipped off for duty.

Shanefelter couldn’t recount specifics of his work with the Army but said learning Korean was one of the hardest things he ever had to do.

“They say it’s the hardest language to learn,” Shanefelter said. “And boy was it tough.”

Shanefelter has made it to nearly every Penn State home football game for 23 years with his wife, Judy Howe-Shanefelter, a Penn State graduate originally from York.

Their daughter, Kristen Shanefelter-Llanes, and most of his wife’s family are also Penn State graduates.

“We’re big supporters,” he said.

But Military Appreciation Day is his favorite game to attend. He said “military appreciation has changed” since his time in Korea.

“Things have turned,” Shanefelter said. “I’d call it unsettling back then. Other than my family, there was no recognition for our efforts. It wasn’t like World War II where men were away for two or three years. In Korea, the average was about 12 months, and we were nearly ignored when we came home. … Now we’re finding ‘thanks’ everywhere we go.”

About eight years ago, he helped spearhead an annual reunion with about 15 men with whom he served.

“It’s just nice to see those guys again,” Shanefelter said.

For Penn State junior Alex Sullivan, the game was an enjoyable trifecta. He said the victory secured a bowl eligibility spot, and it was a chance to honor those who serve the country.

“We’re having a slow year in terms of being on the brink of a really respectable season under (coach James) Franklin, especially with (quarterback Christian) Hackenberg not getting the protection he needs, but a win gives us a chance to probably go to a bowl game,” Sullivan said. “That’s just another step in the right direction to bring this program back to what it used to be.”

Sullivan added that his father Paul Sullivan and grandfather Joe Sullivan also were Penn State graduates, both serving in the Air Force.

“It would have been nice to spend the day with them,” Sullivan said. “But when the university makes a point to honor all service members, it’s just time to think of them and thank them for fighting for our freedom and rights.”