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After hiatus, Mavs' Seats for Soldiers event returned this year -- bringing hope and normalcy with it

WFAA makes the journey with soldiers from San Antonio to Dallas for the return of a Mavericks tradition that honors America's servicemen and women.

DALLAS — A beloved Dallas Mavericks tradition returned early last week, coming back after a two-year break during COVID and narrowly arriving before Dallas-Fort Worth's most recent ice storm -- and more than 100 service members from San Antonio and North Texas alike are glad that it did.

American Airlines, the Dallas Mavericks, the Neal and Jamie Hawks Foundation and Nick & Sam's Steakhouse partnered this year for the 16th annual Seats for Soldiers event. As part of the occasion, American Airlines offered a free chartered flight for veterans and soldiers to Dallas from San Antonio, where service members are being treated for service-related and other injuries at Brooke Army Medical Center.

"Long story short, [I] was hit by a drunk driver," said Army soldier Jake Rodgers, who lost his right leg to a vehicle-pedestrian accident while serving in the Pacific Northwest.

Marine Joseph Quintanilla, pointing to a patch over his left eye that covers one of several injuries he suffered in a serious fall, shared his suffering, too.

"No, it's still in there, it just doesn't work at all," Quintanilla said.

The two were among the active duty and veteran service members who gathered early last Monday morning at San Antonio International Airport's Gate B-2, which was decorated with red, white, and blue balloons for their arrival 

"[It's] a crazy opportunity," said Rodgers. "They treat us so well. [It's] so well-organized. And the generosity is unbelievable. I know everyone in this room appreciates it very much."

"It's definitely appreciated," said Army soldier Leliani Ericksen of Lockhart, Texas, as the plane departed San Antonio for Dallas.

When the American Airlines flight arrived at DFW Airport, the soldiers were greeted by a gauntlet of cheering and flag-waving airport workers and volunteers.

"I think it's very embracing -- just kind of like walking into open arms," said Marine Dylan Ruiz of Mesquite, who is being treated at Brooke Armey Medical Center for a gunshot wound. "It's very welcoming, to say the least."

But the night was just getting started.

From the airport, the soldiers and veterans were taken by bus to The Network Bar in Dallas where they, along with members of the Texas Army National Guard, were treated to a four-course dinner provided by Nick & Sam's Steakhouse. 

The menu, created by Nick & Sam's corporate chef and partner Samir Dhurandhar, featured an Allen Brother filet mignon and 'Salt n Pepper' Scottish Salmon main dish option with sides, plus a Dallas Mavericks-themed seven-layer cake and Sweet House vanilla ice cream. 

The Nick & Sam's staff volunteered their time to host the group, and the service was provided free of charge to the service members.

"We are honored to partner with American Airlines and the Dallas Mavericks to thank our service members and veterans for their dedication to our country," said Dhurandhar. 

During that dinner, a young soldier named Kederick Brooks Jr. agreed to tell his story.

"For months, I was in a very dark place," he said.

A car crash in El Paso ended with the death of his passenger and his own narrow survival, which came after suffering extensive burns over his entire body. Brooks also lost his right arm and right leg, as well as the fingers on his left hand. But he agreed to make this trip alongside his father -- one of their first trips out since the crash -- because so many people wanted to thank Brooks for his service.

"I'm gonna get out and just... just try to be happy," Brooks said. "[I'm gonna try to] live the rest of my life and be happy."

Dallas Mavericks CEO Cynt Marshall said she's thankful to be able to help Brooks and others achieve such goals.

"I often think about the sacrifices these men and women make for our country every day," Marshall said. "We give them something, but we get more in return. We get to say thank you."

As is the now 16-year tradition, the thank you continued with front-row courtside seats as the Mavericks hosted the Detroit Pistons that night at the American Airlines Center.

Seats for Soldiers originated with Dallas Mavericks season ticket holders Neal and Jamie Hawks. Along with other front-row season ticket holders, they've donated their seats year after year to host the wounded service members. 

And, after the game, the soldiers get to attend a meet-and-greet session with Mavericks players and entertainers.

Brooks said he needs goals to keep moving forward in his life. Nights like that Monday in Dallas, he said, definitely help.

"I've been through so much on this journey, and nothing has killed me." he said. "So, at this point, I just think it's not my time to go."

Oh, and by the way: Heading into that Monday night game, the Mavs held a 13-2 all-time record on Seats for Soldiers nights at the AAC. After the most recent game, in which Luka Doncic poured in 53 points, the Mavs are now 14-2 on Seats for Soldiers Nights.

"After a two-season hiatus, we are honored to bring back Seats for Soldiers as a token of our appreciation to the brave men and women in uniform," said Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. "The game of basketball, and sports in general, would not be possible without the sacrifice of these service members, and this night is our way to recognize them."

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