“He spent time in Iraq and I was asking him about some of the things that go on there, specifically the IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that you face with roadside stuff,” said Dunleavy of Kludac. “He told me he survived 18 IED attacks, which pretty much blew my mind. Those things seem like they are unsurvivable."
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Dunleavy, Paxson honor vets at Wounded Warriors event

By Adam Fluck | 11.12.2014

As Paul Kludac and Mike Dunleavy spoke for the first time, it was understandable that one was in awe of the other.

It makes sense, as Dunleavy is an accomplished NBA veteran of 12 seasons, someone who won a national championship at Duke and has scored over 10,000 points as a pro.

However, it wasn’t Kludac, a former Marine with some unimaginable experiences, who was enthralled every word Dunleavy spoke, though he did admit he enjoyed speaking with the Bulls forward. It was the other way around.

Once Kludac shared with Dunleavy how many times he escaped death while serving, well, he had the Bulls forward’s attention.

“He spent time in Iraq and I was asking him about some of the things that go on there, specifically the IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that you face with roadside stuff,” said Dunleavy of Kludac. “He told me he survived 18 IED attacks, which pretty much blew my mind. Those things seem like they are unsurvivable.

“I’m happy that he’s home,” continued Dunleavy. “It’s pretty cool talking to someone like that. You get a greater appreciation for all that goes on.”

Kludac, who now serves as CEO of Detail Kings in Downers Grove, was one of roughly 160 veterans on hand Tuesday as the Bulls teamed up with the Wounded Warrior Project and the Chicago Bears to host a Veterans Day bowling event at Lucky Strike in Chicago.

Kludac began his service with Marines in November of 1999. He spent time in Iraq from 2004 to 2005 part of a mobile strike team that took on missions after receiving intelligence about the location of known insurgents in an area known as the Triangle of Death.

“It was probably one of the worst jobs in Iraq,” Kludac recalled. “Being a mobile target, those IEDs were right underneath my butt and that’s where they exploded. A lot of my vehicles, if you saw before and after pictures, you’d be pretty blown away. Needless to say, I feel like I’m a cat. I’ve got a lot of lives.”

Dunleavy, like many Americans, has multiple connections to those who have served or are serving. His grandfather served in World War II and his uncle was in Vietnam. So when he was asked about his interest in joining the Wounded Warriors for an evening, the decision was an easy one.

“This kind of event is always something that has meant a lot to me because it’s about giving back to those who have helped our country,” said Dunleavy. “You just want to get down on your hands and knees and say thank you. That’s what it comes down to and there is nothing more that needs to be said.”

John Paxson, Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Bulls, was also on hand to meet with the various veterans, and stories like Kludac’s hit home with him. That’s because Paxson’s son, Ryan, has served with the Marines for six and a half years, having spent time in Afghanistan and Japan.

The younger Paxson is now stationed in Quantico, Virginia for Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1), which serves as a security battalion for Marine One and transports the President in conjunction with the Secret Service.

“The most amazing thing to me with Ryan is that when he decided to enlist, he never felt a sense of entitlement for anything. His exact words to us were, ‘I’m going to go out and earn something on my own.’ I’ll always remember that,” recalled Paxson. “For me, it kind of defined not only him, but what it means for the young men and women who choose to enlist. It’s not glamorous and they do it for a lot of reasons. But it’s always about their country and them serving it.

“The thing that always gets me when coming to a Wounded Warriors event is that all of these people have sacrificed, but when you sacrifice something of the physical or mental nature, a tangible part of you, that’s the ultimate sacrifice,” added Paxson. “It’s so impressive what the Wounded Warrior Project does and it’s a group that is always thinking about what’s down the road, what’s next. In this day and age, we’re all more tuned in to what the people who serve our country go through. So we respect them and appreciate them more, and those are good things.”

Whereas Dunleavy now takes the floor at the United Center before capacity crowds of more than 21,000 and Paxson enjoyed a prominent role with the Bulls’ first three championship teams, they understand why society often puts sports figures on a pedestal. Both are quick to acknowledge, however, that the real heroes are veterans like Kludac and the countless others who have served and are serving.

“It’s incomparable when you look at what they do and what we do,” said Dunleavy. “Our faces are out there and we’re on ESPN and we’re a little more accessible to the public day in and day out. But these guys are the true heroes that look after us. You have to be appreciative of what they do. In my case, I’m so humbled and astonished when thinking about what veterans have been able to give to our country. So any time you get a chance to give back, you do it in a heartbeat.”

Paxson agreed as he explained that the ability for pro athletes to do what they do is only possible because of those who have provided and continue to provide us with our freedom.

“You do glorify the athlete, but life is all about perspective,” noted Paxson. “If you could stick all professional athletes in a room with people like those in attendance tonight, even if it were just for a short period of time, they’d have to think about how fortunate they are and how other people have given for this country.”

While Veterans Day honors those who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, the veterans themselves have a lifetime to reflect on their experiences. That’s not always easy, but the gratitude they feel on nights like Tuesday is certainly appreciated.

“It’s great the Bulls are a part of this event and it’s great to be recognized as a veteran,” said Kludac. “A lot of service members in the past, particularly during the Vietnam era, weren’t always properly recognized. So it means a lot that the Wounded Warrior Project hosts an event like this. It’s an honor to celebrate with the Bulls and everyone else here tonight.”

As Kludac spoke, he pointed out a bracelet that he wears to remember three fellow soldiers from his battalion who were killed in action. Ten others lost their lives, but those three were close friends.

“We’re a brotherhood and we remember our fallen,” said Kludac. “We go to their gravesites every year. They’ll never be forgotten.”

Not by Kludac, and not by a grateful nation.

NBA Cares and “Hoops for Troops”

Aside from the Tuesday’s event with the Wounded Warriors Project, the Bulls honored local veterans and their families in a variety of ways this week as part of the “Hoops for Troops” initiative.

On Monday, the Bulls and AT&T teamed up to welcome 25 active members of the military from USO of Illinois to shoot on the United Center floor prior to Chicago’s game against the Detroit Pistons. Guests were on hand for that as well as dinner and the game itself. The same night, 100 veterans and active members of the military participated in a special pregame flag ceremony while veteran Rick Schroedar performed a special rendition of the National Anthem.

After the game, Bulls center Joakim Noah participated in a meet and greet with members of the YMCA Urban Warriors Program, a group that connects veterans with at-risk youth with a focus on violence prevention.

Lastly, on Thursday, sponsored by PlayStation, the Bulls and military veterans from the YMCA’s Urban Warriors program will host 30 youth at the United Center for a circle discussion and career session. The group will also enjoy lunch, hear from Bulls Ambassador Sidney Green and take a behind-the-scenes tour of the stadium.

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