WWE superstars bring joy to those serving overseas
Paul R. Wight Jr. said he works 290 days a year. His vacation? Well, like some, he spends them overseas. Unlike most he goes to war zones.
Paul Wight is better known as “Big Show”, who is a 7-foot tall and 440 pound wrestler with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), America’s ubiquitous wrestling organization based in Stamford, Conn.
When he takes trips overseas to visit soldiers with the USO in Iraq and Afghanistan, it boosts his personal morale.
Seeing young men and women in uniform – “heroes”, he said – is an inspiration. He goes overseas to bring joy to service members, and when he comes back he arrives with a glint in his eye.
That’s his vacation time.
This is something people don’t see when they tune in to WWE programming. WWE superstars perform in the ring for all to see, but their performances outside of the ring are less celebrated.
WWE has a strong pedigree of working with U.S. service members. It airs special episodes that pay tribute to the armed forces, it’s partnered with the USO, it provides free tickets for service members, it’s a strong supporter of the National Guard Youth Foundation, and it works closely with Hire Heroes, an organization that helps find employment for veterans.
WWE wrestler Kofi Sarkodie-Mensah (aka Kofi Kingston) said he’s wanted to enter the ring since he was a kid. After an unsatisfying career in the corporate world, he pursued his dream and became a 10 time champion. But he soon found out being a WWE superstar meant more than just pinning contenders to the canvas.
“I had no idea. Like I said, I grew up and I just wanted to be Ricky Steamboat and be in the ring and have matches,” Sarkodie-Mensah said. “By the time I got to WWE, I quickly found out that we do a lot more than just in the ring. In fact it’s the out of ring things that make our company that much more special.”
That dream to enter the ring meant Sarkodie-Mensah would one day fly around Afghanistan from base to base in Black Hawk helicopters, bringing a slice of much needed Americana to the troops with him.
To one servicewoman, Sarkodie-Mensah’s visit was a slice of home.
“She broke down into tears. She said that WWE is one of the main ways that she connects with her son,” Sarkodie-Mensah said. “She’s a single mom raising her son, and it’s one of the ways that she’s able to connect with her son.”
“And she knew how happy he was going to be when he saw the pictures we took with her and all the things we signed to give to him. She was just overwhelmed,” Sarkodie-Mensah said.
He said doing work like this is the right thing to do. WWE is the longest running episodic television program in history and with that comes an obligation to the public, the wrestler said.
“It’s our social responsibility to use our celebrity and our influence for the betterment of society,” Sarkodie-Mensah.
Sometimes, when WWE superstars visit military bases, the troops like to give a little something back. When Wight visited Iraq, he was put up in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces. He said a group of soldiers built him something special to say thanks.
Wight is called Big Show for a good reason — he’s a big guy. When he goes from hotel to hotel he often break beds simply by sitting on them.
In preparation for his visit to Iraq, a group of soldiers decided to make a bed fit for Big Show. It was 12 feet wide and five feet high. He said it was the sturdiest piece of furniture he’s ever had the pleasure of resting in.
But, of course, going to a warzone is not all fun and games. Wight said seeing American soldiers in dangerous, high stress situations, often young kids away from home for the first time, is humbling.
“I get to meet singers and actors and stuff, but to me it’s nothing like shaking the hand of a soldier,” Wight said.
Sarkodie-Mensah said his visits to Afghanistan put the sacrifices of American soldiers into perspective.
“It’s one thing to watch what’s going on TV from your own living room, but another to actually be there and breath in that same air on base, and then seeing people running out and going to who knows what mission,” Sarkodie-Mensah said.
Both Wight and Sarkodie-Mensah have also seen the unfortunate consequences of those missions.
When Sarkodie-Mensah visited Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, he said he didn’t really know how to react at first, seeing wounded Americans.
“It was hard to walk in. I almost wanted to just be sad, but at the same time most of the veterans there are in such high spirits. It’s just an amazing thing because I’m literally looking at somebody who has lost a limb or worse and they’re in high spirits still … It’s breathtaking,” Sarkodie-Mensah said.
“And you realize how brave these soldiers are for going over there in the first place, but also how mentally strong you have to be afterwards. That’s a crazy amount of mental strength, and just admirable.”
But the WWE does more than send its superstars to visit soldiers. Its close partnership with Hire Heroes, a national non-profit that helps prep veterans returning to civilian life for careers in the corporate world, goes above and beyond every day outreach.
Hire Heroes CEO Brian Stann said the partnership, which began in 2012, has been transformative for his company. The first gesture WWE made to Hire Heroes was a $100,000 donation.
But, more importantly, Stann said the WWE uses its very loud voice, both on television and in the realm of social media, to raise awareness about Hire Heroes.
Stann, a former Marine himself, said the WWE often features his organization during programing.
Stann said WWE “walks the walk” too. It employees 25 veterans, and even places vets in leadership positions.
Stann said his goal is to put himself out of a job. But that may be a long way off. With an unemployment rate of 24 percent among 18-24 year old vets, Stann has his work cut out for him.
“At least in a small way I’m trying to contribute towards (veterans) success when they return home,” Stann said. “These are men and women who have written a blank check to the United States of America.”