Serving in the military and giving one’s life for one’s country is the ultimate sacrifice. Since the United States of America was founded in 1776, well over 1 million Americans have lost their lives in the nation’s wars and ongoing conflicts. This country does not fail to recognize and honor those who have lost their lives, but unfortunately for their families that are left behind, they have to live with their memories but without their treasured sons, daughters, brother, sisters, fathers, or mothers.
Since 2016, the Atlanta Falcons have partnered with Tragedy Assistance for Survivors (TAPS) to not only preserve the memories of the fallen heroes, but also to continuously remind those families that their sacrifices have not and will not be forgotten. The annual event allows TAPS Families to visit Flowery Branch, attend a Falcons practice, and each Falcons player is assigned to a family he then plays for in that weekend’s Salute To Service game.
Senior Airman Robert Dean was one such hero. In 2011, Dean was deployed to Incirlik Air Base in Adana, Turkey, where he assisted with Aircrew Flight Equipment needs to support the efforts of Operation Enduring Freedom in the Middle East. He would return again in 2012 and be awarded the Air Force Commendation Medal with Valor for saving the Aircrew Flight Equipment and Armory building during a fire late in the night. He returned home but unfortunately battled PTSD. Those struggles would eventually claim his life.
In 2017, Robert’s wife Katie Dean and their three-year-old son Cooper were invited to the Falcons’ headquarters to take part in the TAPS event. Katie and Cooper were assigned to offensive guard Ben Garland, who is one of the few current NFL players to have served in the military. The family received a replica of Garland’s helmet that included her husband Robert’s initials and an Air Force sticker on it. Cooper got it signed by every Falcons player he could find. What made the bond between the Dean family and Garland unique, was Garland and Robert both played the same position at different levels of football, and both served their country, as Garland was stationed at Scott Air Force Base as a Public Affairs Officer from 2010 to 2012 while assigned to the Denver Broncos Military Reserve players list. An instant bond that continues to this day was cemented at that moment.
The following month in December, Garland was selected as the Falcons’ Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year 2017. The award itself honors a player’s volunteer and charity work, as well as his excellence on the field. Garland messaged Katie, inviting her and Cooper to the Falcons’ Community Honors dinner where he would receive the prestigious award. Katie dressed up in cocktail attire, and even Cooper came with a little bow tie. Garland received his award and began to read his speech:
At the conclusion of Garland’s powerful acceptance speech, he generously invited Katie and Cooper to join him on stage, where he then presented them with two tickets to the upcoming Super Bowl LII. A few months later, the Deans would travel to Minnesota to attend Super Bowl LII and watch the Philadelphia Eagles take on the New England Patriots. “It was very cold,” Katie said, but overall a great experience for them.
In April of 2018, Katie was invited and attended the Gold Star Wives event. The Falcons treated Gold Star Wives to a special evening in Atlanta in appreciation of their family’s sacrifice. The evening included pampering at a nail salon and dinner with Falcons players. Katie made a connection with Keanu Neal after trash-talking him about the Florida Gators, as she’s a big Georgia Bulldogs fan.
Two months later, Katie was asked to present the Community Spirit Award to Garland at the 2018 Atlanta Sports Awards in June. She and Cooper attended the awards ceremony and spoke about how they met Garland previously and everything he’s done for their family. They went on to attend training camp and Falcons games as Garland’s guests. They got to know Garland’s family very well. Cooper even had a Ben Garland-themed birthday party, and Garland called and wished him a “Happy Birthday” while on the USO Tour. Three years later, they still remain in contact with Garland and they’re essentially family now. Garland signed with the San Francisco 49ers in 2019, where he remains on the team to this day.
“What’s sad for me is my husband would’ve said ‘No way, get out of here,’” Katie said. “Knowing we got the Super Bowl tickets, knowing everything; I just know he’s cheering from the rooftops.”
In October of that year, former Falcons kicker Matt Bryant took TAPS Families out to the zoo for a special day. They split up in groups, but Bryant joined Katie and Cooper’s group where they fed giraffes and walked around playfully talking. They then ate dinner by the elephants in a separate catered area.
“This is a man with seven kids himself, he just wants to show his appreciation and support for us,” Katie said. “This wasn’t a media thing, he wasn’t doing it for attention — he really just cares. It was fabulous, just a wonderful experience as well.”
The Falcons organization is committed to honoring the military and their families. For three consecutive seasons, members of the organization were awarded the NFL’s prestigious Salute To Service Award: Dan Quinn (2016), Andre Roberts (2017) and Ben Garland (2018). TAPS continues to partner with the NFL and the Falcons organization in hosting a special weekend for TAPS families to enjoy a week of football activities, and in Katie and Cooper’s experience, a lifelong bond with the Falcons organization and it’s current and former players.
Senior Airman Robert Dean was an outdoorsman through and through. He loved kayaking, hiking, long-distance running, camping and fishing. He was able to visit his “bucket list” location, Antarctica, in 2014. He loved his family, his country, and thanks to TAPS and the Falcons organization, will always be honored for the ultimate sacrifice he gave to this country. Katie and her son Cooper, now six years old, continue to reside in Georgia, cheering on the Falcons every chance they get.
Katie says that Cooper “has a room of memorabilia that would make any Falcons fan jealous.” Katie is a prime example of a mother who, although faced with unimaginable tragedy, continues to do what’s best for her son.
This is just one story. Sadly, there’s many more just like it. Their ultimate fear is having their fallen heroes forgotten as time passes by. Players such as Garland, Bryant and Neal have gone the extra mile to show their appreciation of families like the Dean’s. They’re not doing it for recognition or publicity; they want these families to know that they’re not alone. As Americans who have benefitted everyday from the selflessness of fallen heroes such as Robert Dean, we can’t allow them to be forgotten. Not ever.
For more information on TAPS and the impact it has on our communities, click here.