For Eagles Cheerleader Ally, the Eagles Salute to Service game this past Sunday against Denver was one that was most special to her.
Her younger brother, William, was deployed to Afghanistan in the fall of 2016. But Ally hasn't seen him often since he graduated from high school. William joined the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) program at Vanderbilt and was deployed only months after earning his degree which was tough for Ally and her family.
"It was shocking but it was kind of like, 'Here we go, we knew this was going to happen,'" says Ally. "It was time to get prepared and deal with it and take it one day at a time and that's really what it was. It was a challenging long nine months for my family."
Early on, Ally could see her brother's fondness for the armed forces. Since William was little, he dressed up in army gear for Halloween and had intentions of joining the ROTC program at a young age. William graduated from Vanderbilt and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 101st Airborne Division (also known as the Screaming Eagles). He was given his own platoon to lead during his tour in Afghanistan. It was stunning for Ally to believe that her 23-year-old brother was responsible for the lives of his own group of soldiers. His duties gave her newfound admiration for him.
"I feel like my brother has two sides to him. He has this serious military side whereas the other side of him he's very creative and musical. He plays the guitar and he's fantastic at that, so it's like he kind of had two choices for a career path and he took the serious route," Ally says.
"I almost feel like he's taken on the older brother role by going through this experience. He's grown up in such a short amount of time. It's kind of like role reversal now where I'm the one looking up to him."
While William was in Afghanistan, Ally and her family would sometimes go two weeks at a time without hearing from him. They anxiously waited for the days William had service to send a text message.
Back in June, Ally and the Eagles Cheerleaders decided to send a care package to her brother and his fellow troops with signed trading cards, calendars, and T-shirts of the cheerleaders. The gift not only uplifted William but the rest of his platoon as well.
When he got the chance, William responded with a heartwarming email to Ally and the squad.
"Thank you all so much for the cards and messages for my soldiers," he wrote. "After nine months in Afghanistan, working on missions against ISIS, little pick-me-ups like those you sent go a long way. We'll be home just in time for football season, and I'm pretty sure there's some new Eagles fans thanks to you all. Thanks again and let's go Birds!!"
William returned home a month later in July and the family threw a homecoming barbecue at their home. For the family, it was the sought-after relief to have William back on American soil. But it wouldn't be long before her younger brother was on the move again.
He is currently stationed at the Army base in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Nowadays, he only has time to come home for the occasional holiday but Ally stays in frequent contact with her brother via Facetime.
William saw his sister perform during the preseason home opener against the Buffalo Bills in August. Ideally, Ally wants to see her brother return to watch her perform during this year's game on Christmas against the Oakland Raiders. But for now, the Salute to Service game reminded Ally just how appreciative she is of William and individuals serving in the armed forces.
"I love seeing all that we did for the Salute to Service game and how we have all the men and women in the armed forces there holding the flag at the beginning of the game. It's just really special way to honor them," Ally says.
"It's great to do at a football game in front of such a large audience for people in the stands to see and kind of get a feel of what the families go through on an everyday basis. I love this game, it just means a lot."