Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh’s Paul Martin meets with family of fallen soldier whose name was sewn into his Olympic hockey gear

By Jim Diamond

As you drive west on Highway 96 in Franklin just past Pinkerton Park headed toward the city’s historic downtown square, you will cross a small bridge near the Harpeth River. A small green sign alerts passers by that the bridge is the James W “Tre” Ponder III Memorial Bridge, named in honor of Army Master Sgt. James W. Ponder III.

Sergeant Ponder grew up in Franklin and was a graduate of Battle Ground Academy. He was stationed at Fort Campbell, KY as a member of the elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, also known as the Night Stalkers.

Sgt. Ponder was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2005 when his Chinook helicopter was shot down while on a mission to rescue four Navy SEALs who were engaged in a mission against Taliban fighters. The mission was known as Operation Red Wing, and was profiled in the Lone Survivor book and movie.

While not widely publicized during the recently completed Olympics, members of the United States hockey team had the names of fallen members of the military stitched on a patch sewn into their shoulder pads.

“About two months before the Olympics, the Special Operations Warrior Foundation contacted us and said that the U.S. Hockey team wanted to honor fallen Special Operations soldiers, and randomly, my husband was chosen,” Sgt. Ponder’s widow Leslie said Tuesday night prior to the start of the Nashville Predators-Pittsburgh Penguins game at Bridgestone Arena. “They asked if we would accept that honor. We, of course, said, Yes.’”

Leslie, the daughter of former Franklin mayor Tom Miller, still lives in the city. She is a sixth grade English teacher at Christ Presbyterian Academy.

“We didn’t hear anything for two months, and about a week before the Olympics began, we were informed that Paul Martin from the Penguins was chosen to have Tre’s name underneath his uniform,” Leslie said.

Representing the U.S. in international competition is an honor for players, but to do so with the name of a fallen soldier stitched underneath their uniform meant so much more to Martin.

“As far as perspective goes, us as players definitely appreciate the opportunity to represent our country and what an honor it is,” he said. “But when you get to meet the true heroes, the men and women that defend our country and give us that freedom that you try not to take for granted, to have them lost in battle and be able to meet their family and the sacrifice they made, it is special to appreciate that.”

Following the Olympics, Leslie checked the Predators’ schedule and noticed that the Penguins were going to be in Nashville Tuesday night.

“I just sent a random email to the Penguins organization asking would it be possible to just thank him in person for the honor that he gave our family,” Leslie said. “We just feel blessed that the U.S. Hockey team chose to do a quiet tribute to these quiet professionals.”

Martin sustained a broken right hand in the Olympics, an injury that will keep him out of Pittsburgh’s lineup for four to six weeks. Injured players do not usually travel on road trips, but a special exception was made in this case.

“When I found out that Leslie had emailed our organization, I asked coach (Dan Bylsma) and our GM Ray (Shero) if there was a possibility that I could go and they said yes right away,” Martin said. “I’m definitely excited to meet them and thank them for sending out that email.”

Leslie and her two daughters Samantha and Elizabeth met with Martin outside Pittsburgh’s locker room prior to Tuesday night’s game. They posed for pictures, including one Martin insisted be taken with his phone. Leslie presented Martin with a Night Stalkers commemorative coin as well.

“I will cherish it and keep it close my entire life,” Martin said.

After meeting with Martin and speaking with the media, Predators Communications and Interactive Media Coordinator Jimi Russell, who is a Navy veteran, escorted Leslie and her two daughters to their seats. While waiting for an elevator on Bridgestone Arena’s event level, Russell shared his connection to the military. In addition to his service, Russell’s brother, Army Captain Drew Russell, made the ultimate sacrifice for his country when he was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2011.

Leslie said that the family was cheering for Team USA, and especially Martin, in the Olympics. Even though she is a fan of the Predators, she will continue to cheer for Martin to do well.