March 25, 2017 | By Jonathan Winslow
MISSION VIEJO — Hundreds gathered at Saddleback College on Saturday, March 25, for the third annual Veterans Resource Fair, which offered both typical and unexpected services for veterans.
The fair included all the usual groups: Patriots and Paws, Veterans of Foreign Wars – who were serving up barbecue to long lines – and more offering help with everything from PTSD to real estate.
One of this year’s standouts was a new group, Battlefields to Ballfields, which sets veterans up with jobs as sports officials and referees at local schools. It pays their costs for the first several years and providing them mentors to sharpen their skills. The program was started by former NFL referee Mike Pereira.
Battlefields to Ballfields Vice President Jeff Roberts, who established the group in Orange County two months ago, said the world of sports offers a great way to reintegrate veterans into their communities.
Roberts said veterans make a natural fit for referees and other sports officials, thanks to their familiarity with the structure the job calls for: putting on your uniform, keeping things fair and orderly, and owning your every decision.
“Officiating is nerve-wracking. You’ve got coaches yelling at you and parents yelling at you,” Roberts said. “Our veterans who are officials compartmentalize very well. They understand you’re going to have this chaos, but the focus is on what’s in front of you.”
La Habra resident Tony Bryant, 54, is a mentor with Battlefields to Ballfields. Bryant, a retired Marine, has been officiating local football games for 15 years and is also a campus safety officer at Orange Coast College.
“It’s so natural, because in the military you have expectations, responsibilities and you want to be prepared,” Bryant said. “If you want to get into officiating, the transition is so easy, because that’s the same mindset you need. You don’t just go out there and say ‘Oh, I’m going to blow my whistle, I think that was something.’ No. You really have to take a look at it and own it to be a part of it. And if you’re a part of it, it’s the same kind of brotherhood as the Marine Corps is.”
Bryant said starting off with officiating freshman games at high schools is similar to starting as a private, giving veterans the familiar feeling of climbing the ranks. His Marine Corps-honed mind for preparedness earned him a jump straight to officiating a varsity game in his first year. Now, he mentors others who are in the same position he was.
Furthering the connection between sports and veterans, the day’s fair ended with a softball game between the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team and the Orange County All-Stars, a team made up of state legislators and veterans.
Vietnam veteran Mike Black, 67 of Lake Forest, struck a firm salute as the national anthem was sung at the game and watched from the third base line as the Wounded Warriors played.
“To me, they’re an inspiration,” Black said. “Some of these guys have no legs, they’re out here on two prosthetics playing softball – and playing it good. How can that not be an inspiration to people like me and little kids?”