AUBURN, Ala. - Returning wounded from Iraq in January of 2010, Capt. Todd Bennett avoided crowds.
"I didn't want to go anywhere," Bennett said. "I wanted to hunker down and stay in my house. I felt comfortable in that bubble."
That changed during Auburn's national championship run that fall, when Bennett, a 1992 Auburn University graduate, attended a football game as a guest of Gameday for Heroes.
"Getting out and going to a game really made things change for me where I took a different approach," said Bennett, who medically retired from the Army in 2013 and began volunteering with Gameday for Heroes, helping with tickets and tailgating.
"After hanging out with other veterans, all of a sudden you're in a stadium with 87,000 people, that really makes a huge difference," Bennett said.
"And then to see someone honored on the field, it's a validation to every veteran that what we did matters and that the community that we care about in Auburn cares about us as well. That's a pretty neat opportunity for any military person to have."
Founded by the Columbus-Phenix City Auburn Club in 2009, Gameday for Heroes provides experiences at collegiate sporting events for wounded, active duty and retired military, along with distinguished veterans.
Beyond honoring veterans, Gameday for Heroes focuses on restoring families and providing a healing atmosphere by hosting a tailgate in Ag Heritage Park that averages 500.
"This is a tested and proven recipe for helping people who have post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries because they have the opportunity to be around people they feel safe with, socialize with them, get to know each other before they go into a large packed stadium in a huge crowd of people," he said.
Bennett, who became Gameday's CEO this year with an emphasis on raising funds to continue its mission, frequently sees other military families transformed during a Saturday on campus.
"Not always the military members, but so many times the spouses come up and hug me with tears in their eyes," he said. "The first thing they'll say is, `I couldn't even get my husband to go out of the house to go to the drug store or go to a local movie. This has changed our lives.'
"It seems like a simple thing. It gives an opportunity to really change how a service member or a veteran approaches their life. It's transformative because you have the opportunity not only to see that Auburn cares about the veterans and cares about the struggles you've been through. But you also have a chance to meet a lot of military people who you can feel safe with and safe being around."
After the first quarter of Saturday's 11 a.m. game against Ole Miss, Auburn will continue its tradition of honoring a Ford Game Day Hero , Lt. Col. John Capdepon, a 31-year USMC veteran, one of many events planned for Military Appreciation Day.
"Gameday for Heroes is an incredible program," said Jay Jacobs, Auburn's Director of Athletics. "This is the least we can do for these men and women who have sacrificed so much so that we can enjoy the blessings of freedom."