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Air Force Vet Don Clark Tells the Story of USAA and the NFL's Salute to Service

If you're watching NFL games this season, you've seen a lot of spots promoting the league  and USAA's Salute to Service program. Each year, the NFL and the financial services company award a Salute to Service Award that recognizes NFL players, coaches, personnel and alumni who demonstrate an exemplary commitment to honoring and supporting the military community.

The sixth annual award nominees have been announced (one from each team) and you can check out the complete list at the end of this post. Finalists for the Salute to Service Award presented by USAA will be announced in January, and the recipient will be recognized at the NFL Honors awards show in Houston, TX on FOX on Saturday, Feb. 4, the night before Super Bowl LI.

Past recipients of the award include Vincent Jackson (2015), Jared Allen (2014), John Harbaugh (2013), Charles Tillman (2012), and the late Tennessee Titans owner, K.S. “Bud” Adams, a WWII veteran (2011). 

We talked to USAA's AVP of Marketing Don Clark about the program. He's also an Air Force veteran and former running back for the Air Force Academy Falcons. Don gave us some background on his transition from the military to corporate America, filled us in on the Salute to Service program and its goals and talked about the strong connections between the military and the NFL.

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Don Clark

Tell our readers about your own military background.

I'm an Air Force veteran myself, a graduate of the Air Force Academy. I played football at Air Force and I've been at USAA for about ten years in marketing.

How did you transition from the Air Force to USAA?

Well, that’s a great question and that time is always one of uncertainty. I just tried to lean in to all the resources that are available. I ended up working with a company that helps officers transition, so I had the opportunity to interview with a lot of different companies from a lot of different industries. USAA really, really stood out to me and I had the fortunate opportunity to interview here at USAA and meet some other veterans and to really learn more about the mission of this company.

It was a very easy decision for me. It actually reminded me of the decision that I made when I chose to go to the Air Force Academy to get that education, to play football there and to become an officer. USAA has that kind of aura about it, where we have a very, very strong business, but at the same time our mission is a higher calling.

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Tell us about USAA’s Salute to Service program.

There's really a great back story with Salute to Service. In the middle of 2010, we approached the NFL and asked the league if there were broader opportunities for companies like USAA to join forces with the NFL to honor and appreciate the military. At that point in time, the NFL had a program called A Crucial Catch to raise awareness for breast cancer in October.

There was a lot of focus on that program, but since Veteran's Day is right in the heart of the NFL season, we saw a lot of synergy between the NFL's heart for the military and obviously USAA's mission to serve the military community. We brought the opportunity to the NFL and said, “Hey, could there be something much, much bigger here?”

The NFL did some research with their fans and they actually found that military appreciation was very high on the list of causes that important to their fan base. In 2011, USAA became the official military appreciation sponsor of the NFL.

We wanted to create an award that would highlight an NFL player, coach or front office member who really exemplifies military appreciation in their community. And at that point, we named it the Salute to Service Award. The NFL liked the name Salute to Service and asked us if they could name the entire program Salute to Service. We obviously were supportive of that and Salute to Service as we know it today was born.

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Obviously, the program has a much higher profile now than it did in the beginning.

With anything, you want to start small and to learn. In the 2011 season, the award was launched and there were some small things that we did. As it built momentum and as the teams started to learn about the program and as the players got behind it, it has really, really grown.

The stories and the spots that are running this year seem to really have caught the public’s attention.

No doubt. Our strategy going in was that we really wanted to take military appreciation to another level. Military appreciation is an embodiment of our mission here at USAA. It's really in our DNA. We not only wanted to bring military members to NFL games, but also to bring NFL players and NFL coaches and NFL alumni to the bases, to bring them out to where the service members are actually doing their jobs.

We see so much benefit when young military members are seeing guys that play on national TV every week who really care. The players really want to spend time learning about what service members do day-to-day to serve and to protect our freedoms. We've created a lot of content to try to raise the broader awareness of what the military does day in and day out.

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It’s amazing that there's a veteran who exemplifies all those characteristics who is also playing in the NFL.

That’s right. Alejandro Villanueva is one of our long-time members. He’s a West Point graduate and an Army Ranger. We're featuring him in some of our communications and the NFL has really leaned into telling his story as well.

But that’s just one example. There are more examples across the league, both today and with former players who have served or have a heart for service or have family members that have served.

During the couple of weeks around Veterans Day, players have a sticker on their helmet that features one of the branches of the military. We try to have those players on camera where they explain why they selected that branch and what their unique connection is to that branch of the military.

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There’s been a change over the years as to who’s eligible to become a member of USAA. When I was growing up, membership was restricted to officers and their families. That’s changed now, right?

Our mission is about facilitating the financial security of the military community. USAA was founded in 1922 by 25 officers who could not get insurance, so they decided to insure one another. Since then, USAA has really grown and expanded to all branches of the military and all ranks.

Today, all those who have honorably served, their family members and their descendants can become members of USAA. Our core is all about serving that military community and their family.

When did membership expand to enlisted men and women and their families? Do you have a date, a year, can you put that in?

In 1996, noncommissioned officers became eligible for membership. In 2009, all who were honorably discharged became eligible.

Now, if you have ever honorably served you're eligible to be a USAA member. Once you are a USAA member and you have activated with our products and services, you can hand that down through your family lineage to your children. And then when they become members, their children's children can become members.

We really like to say that membership is earned by that person in uniform and it's something that becomes part of your family. It can be handed down.

Can you give us some examples of what USAA and the NFL are doing with the Salute to Service program?

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There are two I wanted to hit on that are pretty unique. One is the activity we do in Seattle. As you know, the Seahawks really emphasize their fans as the 12th Man and the #12 is such a huge deal for them. We’ve created a program that also acknowledges the importance of the Change of Command Ceremony.

The Seahawks acknowledge a military unit in their community that will be the "12.” They will carry the 12 flag and be the 12th Man Unit for that season. There are activities that the team does with that unit.

Each year, we do a Change of Command Ceremony, just like you would see in the military, where one unit changes out with the other unit from the community takes over as the #12 unit for the Seattle Seahawks. USAA has helped grow that program and brought attention to it. We think it does a great job of tapping into the fandom that exists as well as highlighting some of these military traditions that we all hold really dear.

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As you would expect, there is a lot of pride in physical fitness in the military. I know there was when I served and that continues. We’ve created this program that we call NFL Boot Camps, where we'll actually bring service members out to a training facility and they participate in the same drills that NFL players use. They'll be in the gear, they'll be tied in a 40, they'll do a vertical jump, they'll do a broad jump, et cetera.

We actually bring awareness to the physical fitness and the physical prowess of America's military. We get such great feedback from the teams who are just amazed at the physicality of these men and women who serve. There’s also great feedback from those who participate because they're just in awe of the players and the facilities and the opportunity to do such a thing. For the broader fan base, it's just a way that the NFL is out there and that USAA is helping to make that happen.

Why the connection between the NFL and the military?

Early on in our relationship with the NFL, we did some research and all the stats say that the military really loves football and specifically they're fans of the NFL.

What we learn from that is that actually being a fan of the NFL connects you to home. So you may be stationed at Fort Hood, but if you grew up in Chicago you are very proud to wear your Bears jersey in and around Fort Hood.

At the same time, it is a way to grow camaraderie for men and women who are truly from all over this nation. You may be wearing jerseys from teams all over the country, but if you show up to an event to watch a game with members of your unit who maybe you don’t know all that well yet, there's instantly a connection and a bond that is created.

2016 Salute to Service Award Nominees

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