The Bears hosted about 800 military members representing all five branches at Thursday's practice at Halas Hall.
No one was happier to see the men and women from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard than tight end Jimmy Graham.
Born on the Fort Bragg Army base in North Carolina, Graham has actively supported the military throughout his illustrious 12-year NFL career. A licensed pilot, he takes veterans on flights on two Army aircraft used in the Vietnam War that have been restored through his foundation.
"The military is a big part of my life," Graham said Thursday. "I spend most of my off days and most of my free time in the offseason flying our veterans and thanking them for the sacrifice that they've given for us to carry on and do the things we do.
"I believe that we all need to take some time and look around and thank those who have sacrificed for us. I continue to always look to do that because I'm very grateful for the life I've been given, the life I've earned and the life I was able to earn."
The two restored aircraft Graham flies are a 1957 de Havilland Beaver and a 1967 UH1 Iroquois helicopter known as a "Huey."
"It's a very special and unique kind of experience because I'm the pilot," Graham said. "I'm flying strangers and I'm reconnecting guys with an aircraft that a lot of the Vietnam guys, it saved their lives, so there's a lot of special moments.
"This offseason, I flew a couple Purple Heart guys, and one in particular was a pilot who lost his leg. It's the first time he's seen [a Huey] since 1972, so to give him that and really to have those conversations is priceless, it really is."
Graham has been selected as his team's Salute to Service Award winner with the Saints in 2014 and with the Bears in 2020. Last year he was also the Bears' nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.
Last season Graham helped kick off Salute to Service Week by reading the bios of several fallen soldiers and virtually surprising their families through the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), an organization that remembers fallen soldiers and their families.
During the pandemic, Graham has participated in Zoom calls with veterans through the Wounded Warrior Project to thank them for their service and to lift their spirits.
In March 2014, Graham spent a week in the Middle East visiting U.S. troops on military bases. His longest stop was at Camp Leatherneck, a large U.S. Marine Corps base in Afghanistan.
"It was an eye-opening experience being on the Marine base with 30,000 Marines and eating with them every day and going 15 minutes at a time to a different group and speaking and sharing," Graham said. "I played a lot of basketball, a lot of desert basketball, with a lot of our men and women. Very unique. Very eye-opening experience."
Take a look at the best photos taken throughout Dr Pepper Zero Sugar Training Camp, including the joint workouts with the Miami Dolphins at Halas Hall and the Meijer Family Fest practice at Soldier Field.