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Medal of Honor recipients highlight Army-Navy Game’s importance

Pictured, from left, are Michael Thornton and Ryan Pitts. Both Thornton and Pitts are Medal of Honor recipients. (Timothy Frudd/American Military News)
December 09, 2023

Two Medal of Honor recipients shared their perspectives on the Army-Navy Game with American Military News on Friday. The two distinguished military veterans shared that while the game features an intense rivalry between the Army and Navy military academies, the players are ultimately “on the same team.”

Ryan Pits, a former Army Staff Sergeant who received the Medal of Honor for his actions in defending a U.S. post in Afghanistan from insurgents, told American Military News that the Army-Navy Game is ultimately “about service.”

“We’ve got young men and women in the service academies coming out, and they’re playing against each other,” he said. “They’re competing today, but actually, at the end of the day, they’re all on the same team. For some of them, next year, there’ll be putting on the uniform to fight for everybody that’s watching the game on Saturday.”

Michael Thornton, a former Navy SEAL who received the Medal of Honor for saving the life of a fellow Navy SEAL in Vietnam, described the Army-Navy game as the “greatest football game in the world.” He emphasized the sacrifice of the “young men and women” who were not forced into service through a draft but volunteered to serve the United States and keep Americans “safe and free.” “Freedom is written in blood,” he said.

As a recipient of the Medal of Honor, Pitts described the award as a “heavyweight.” He explained that while many people view the award as an individual award, he views the Medal of Honor as “an individual award for a collective effort.” He added that being a Medal of Honor recipient allows him to highlight both the sacrifice and service of the individuals who serve in the U.S. military.

“I think wearing the medal is heavier than receiving the medal,” Thornton said. “We have a responsibility that we need to move forward and keep the honor of the medal.”

Like Pitts, Thornton said the award is not merely about individuals; instead, he said the Medal of Honor represents the whole team of the “great nation of Americans.”

Both Pitts and Thornton offered advice to the next generation of U.S. service members. “Keep challenging yourself,” Pitts said. “Stay true to your value, and that’s one of the things that brings us here this weekend.”

Thornton emphasized the importance of patriotism and integrity, warning that both values are not taught “anymore in school.” “You can see where it’s taking our students down today,” he added. “Now, what we have to do is bring our nation back up and bring our children up.”

Thornton explained that he wants his great-grandchildren to have the same opportunities he had throughout his life. “That’s what this is all about,” he said. “This Army-Navy game is showing everybody getting together and saying ‘Hey, love this nation.’ It’s the best nation in the world, a little messed up, but still the best nation in the world.”

Media Row Guests Share What Army-Navy Game Means to Them

Former NFL Center Matt Birk, who played for 15 years and was a Super Bowl champion, told American Military News that the Amy-Navy Game means “a lot” because he is a “proud American” and his father is a military veteran. Birk said he has “great respect” for all service members.

From a “football standpoint,” Birk said he makes his children watch the gave every year because the Army and Navy players are “great men” and are “more than football players.”

“It’s also like the last 100% pure college football game that’s left. It’s just about these men, and they’re playing it for the love of the game, and they’ve obviously got a bigger career and bigger purpose than football in front of them,” Birk stated. “It’s just awesome, and I just love the fact that it’s the last game of the year. It deserves to be the center of the football universe for one day.”

Joe Andruzzi, a former NFL offensive guard who won three Super Bowls with the New England Patriots, told American Military News he has both love and respect for the Army and Navy football players. He emphasized his respect for veterans, as well as individuals who are currently serving in the military. He stressed the importance of helping service members “pay it forward” while they defend the nation and enable each American to “live a great, free life.”

Keenan Reynolds, a former Navy quarterback and an NFL wide receiver, described the Army-Navy Game as the “culmination” of all the work that both military academies put in.

“As a Mid when I was playing, like that was the thing,” he said. “It’s one of the reasons why I came to the Navy, and so now, as a graduate, every year, it’s like an opportunity to link back up with people that I played with, catch up with coaches, check out the new teams if I haven’t been able to see them.”

Keenan told American Military News that the Army-Navy Game is a “really good time” and an “opportunity” for the “whole world” to focus on the game.

Lt. Col. Alex Moore, who played for the Army Football Team before serving in his current position as brigade executive officer under Army Material Command, said the experience of the game is “almost surreal.”

“Being able to play in it over and over again and just having that experience being there, and then going off and graduating with other teammates who are football players and looking back on it and having that ability to connect over that common experience is absolutely amazing,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter if you’re one year removed or 20 years removed; you still get those butterflies, still get that anticipation because this is your rival.”

Moore said the Army-Navy Game is not only a football game that each military academy wants to win but that it is an “amazing experience” that the players can enjoy and take with them as they move beyond football.

Lieutenant General Steve Gilland, who serves as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy of West Point, told American Military News that the game is very important to him, especially after serving in the Army for over 33 years.

Gillard explained that the Army-Navy game brings the Army Corps of Cadets and the Navy Brigade of Midshipmen together in a special way. He noted that the Cadets and Midshipmen represented at the game could potentially be future presidents, senators, and leaders in both the Army and Navy.

“I think that is the power of the game when you think about it, and the representation that our cadets have, they’re representing the United States Army, and the Mids are representing the United States Navy,” he said.

Gillard added that while the two academies come together for an intense rivalry and competition every year for the Army-Navy game, the rest of the year, they are “brothers and sisters in arms, prepared to defend our nation.”