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VIDEO: Military family united for first time in 18 months at Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth

97 AMW Attends Armed Forces Bowl (Air Force/Released)

The Armed Forces Bowl turned into a Blanco family reunion Saturday.

Fort Worth’s bowl game, which honors the military, surprised a Dallas family by bringing their parents home from overseas.

Army Pfc. Justin Blanco and his wife, Master Sgt. Monica Blanco, are both stationed in Germany. They were flown home to surprise their children during the game, courtesy of the American Red Cross and American Airlines.

The Blancos have five children, ranging in age from 3 to 20. The two youngest — ages 3 and 4 — live with Justin and Monica in Germany, while the three oldest — 9, 11 and 20 — live in Texas.

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Along with the children, Justin and Monica’s parents were also on hand, as the family had everyone together for the first time in 18 months.

“It was very emotional,” Monica Blanco said. “There’s truly no words to express the gratitude.”

Added Justin Blanco: “It was just an overwhelming feeling of emotion. Knowing the moment was about to happen, I started crying before I even got out there. I could do nothing but hold on to everybody. We have an insane amount of gratitude.”

It was an emotional scene on the field as the Amon G. Carter Stadium announcer first introduced Monica Blanco, who came out of the south end zone tunnel. A few seconds later, Justin Blanco emerged out of the northwest end zone tunnel.

That moment highlighted a number of military tributes throughout the game.

“To see this kind of support means the world to us,” Justin Blanco said. “It makes the sacrifices worth it.”

Tulane coach Willie Fritz mentioned the moment in his postgame news conference after his team rallied for a 30-13 victory.

“The kids that got reunited with their folks,” Fritz said, “was a pretty neat deal.”

The military theme is something that both Southern Miss and Tulane embraced throughout the week. Each program wore military-themed helmets during the game.

Southern Miss had stars and stripes on its eagle, while Tulane’s Green Wave logo wore camouflage. Additionally, Southern Miss had former quarterback Jeffrey Hammond on hand for the game. Hammond served in the Army after his playing days.

Both head coaches came from military families, too.

“Hattiesburg is a military town. Camp Shelby is there,” Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson said. “My dad served, I think, 18 years at Camp Shelby.

“The military has been a big part of what our community is, and we are honored and truly blessed.”

Said Fritz: “When we found out we were playing in this bowl game, I had the guys stand up that have parents or family that had served, and nearly the whole room was standing up. We are honored to be here. My father is a World War II vet, and it is big for us.”

That carried to the players as well. All were eager and excited to be a part of the Armed Forces Bowl.

Afterward, Tulane senior quarterback Justin McMillan mentioned the influence of his parents serving in the Army. The same was true for senior safety P.J. Hall, whose mother served in the military before he was born.

“What those men and women do for us, they put their life on the line for us just to be free and live our everyday life,” Hall said. “I try to put myself in their position. Not everyone is willing to go do that. I appreciate them a lot.”

Southern Miss senior defensive lineman Demarrio Smith wants to pursue a career in law enforcement and sees similarities between the two fields.

“It feels special to me to honor those who made it possible for us to be able to play football,” Smith said. “Those people who put their lives on the line, so we have the freedom to play this game.”

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© 2020 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram