The NFL's Salute to Service Month is never lost on Joe Cardona.
Splitting responsibilities as a veteran long snapper for the Patriots and a Lieutenant in the United States Naval Reserve, both his military and community service has made him the no-brainer nominee for New England's Salute to Service Award every year since 2016.
But on Sunday, with the initials of fallen United States Marine Captain Ross Reynolds on his helmet, Cardona was honoring something even more personal than the Patriots Foundation's game day initiative with the Tragedy Assistance Program For Survivors (T.A.P.S).
He didn't just read about Reynolds' life and service in a briefing before the game. Cardona heard it from their mutual circles.
"I knew a couple of people in his squadron who were in Norway with him," Cardona said prior to the Patriots' win. Anytime we lose a service member it's tragic, but it's tough when it's a buddy of a lot of my friends."
The Leominster, Mass. native was three years younger than the long snapper, but went through The Basic School and aviation training on similar timelines as Cardona's classmates at the Naval Academy. He also knew people assigned to the Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 261 with Reynolds in Norway, where the MV-22B Osprey pilot lost his life in March.
As a kid who grew up across the country, but similarly wanted nothing more than to fly jets and serve his country, Cardona made sure the decorated young Marines' accolades didn't go without mention. Just 27 years old when he passed, Reynolds' greatest personal accomplishment in nearly five years of service was earning his "Wings" as a Naval Aviator.
"I grew up in San Diego around Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. I see Ospreys fly around the city almost every day when I'm back home," Cardona said.
"My original goal was to go to the Naval Academy to be a pilot. I have so many friends that earned their Wings of Gold. I know how proud they are and how they look at flying as a privilege -- really, one of the great privileges of their life – that they get to be a naval aviator. The more you hear about Ross, the more he really embodied what it was to be an aviator. He took a lot of pride in his job, loved his fellow pilots and his crew members, and what else would you want from a pilot?"
As Cardona took the field to honor Reynolds in the pregame ceremony, so did Reynolds' family, joining the loved ones of four other fallen service members: U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Keith Coleman, Army Specialist Corey Shea, Air Force Senior Airman Lawrence Manlapitt, III, and Navy AM2 Timothy Clague.
With T.A.P.S., a non-profit organization that supports the families of fallen veterans, the five families were invited to a dinner reception at Gillette Stadium on Saturday to precede Sunday's game.
Bill Belichick greeted each family in the tunnel before walking out to the field for warmups. Representing Clague, a die-hard New England fan, the Patriots head coach stopped to personally thank Clague's widow for her husband's service and sacrifice.
Sunday was the first time Heather Kennedy-Clague brought herself to watch an NFL game since Clague died of PTSD.
"My daughters and I had one of the best weekends of our lives. We drove home from the game in shock from all the joy we had just experienced," Kennedy-Clague said of the experience, writing to the Patriots Foundation in gratitude.
"My husband's passing of a PTSD death has led to many complications, negative experiences, confusion, and heartache as my family struggles with his loss and the circumstance of his loss. However, TAPS has always welcomed us and reminded us that his death was also a sacrifice for his country. He may not have died in battle, but his death resulted from a war wound. To have my husband acknowledged by the Patriots demonstrates to the public the importance of these types of losses. Additionally, this action will positively impact how service members and veterans who suffer from mental health problems are treated. Words can never express how grateful I am for this."