A Hero Comes Home
During every game at Nationals Park, after the hometown nine have finished batting in the third inning, fans are directed to the landing behind the homeplate screen, where a group of military veterans are recognized. The Nationals are the only team to carry this tradition at each game, and fans and players alike – both home and away – respond the same way every time, with a standing ovation. The moment is always touching, as is the show of solidarity as we all take a moment away from the game to remember what really matters.
At the same time, each of those veterans has his or her own individual story. Following the preseason exhibition game against the Boston Red Sox, both players and fans were introduced to the group that comprises the Washington Nationals Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team. Nationals players had a chance to meet a few of them and get to know some of our more recently wounded warriors better in a recent trip to Walter Reed. But there was another story, one that flew under the radar for most, that played out at Nationals Park earlier this year.
Petty Officer Christopher Karnbach, an intelligence specialist in the Navy Reserves, was set to take off on deployment to Cuba last July when he began looking at special services to help his two children, Abby and Christopher Jr., while he was away. Unfortunately, with his deployment running into May, he would have to miss Opening Day at Nationals Park, something he had attended with his son the year prior and intended to become a father-son tradition.
“I managed to sneak in Abby’s birthday before I left and Christopher’s birthday was in February so I bought him tickets for Opening Day,” said Karnbach. “We had played hooky from school last year and we came in and saw the game. With me being gone, I had called my wife up and asked, ‘if I get him tickets for Opening Day, will you take him?’ She called in sick and they had a blast.”
Even though he couldn’t be there in person this year, Karnbach was following the game from Cuba. He was able to pick it up on television just in time to see the game go into extra innings.
“I ran home as fast as I could just to see Ryan Zimmerman score that last run,” he recalled. “Then I started texting (my family) like crazy.”
Without baseball to bring them together, Karnbach looked into other programs available for his children through the military’s family services. Both Abby and Christopher Jr. enrolled in martial arts, and Karnbach’s wife Ann-Marie would keep dad updated on their progress. Little did he know that the Navy would find out about his family’s involvement in the programs and decide to award them Military Family of the Year.
Karnbach was not set to return to the states until May, but it was arranged for him to come home a few weeks early to attend a special ceremony in which he would receive the honor. The only catch, was that he could not tell his family in advance, as the ceremony – and family reunion – would be a surprise.
There was just one problem – Karnbach arrived home a day early, and found himself stuck, unable to go home for fear of ruining the festivities planned for the next day. So, he hid out the one place where he knew he could relax, calm his nerves, and blend into the crowd.
“I had a full day in Maryland, and I’m this close to home,” Karnbach explained. “I was like, ‘I am going to see the Nats play.’”
The baseball side of Karnbach’s story could have ended there. After all, little did Karnbach know that Nationals television broadcaster F.P. Santangelo would be present at his family’s reunion the next day.
“It was probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen,” said Santangelo. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. I’ve never seen behind the scenes what it puts a family through. To see kids without their fathers, without their mothers who have been deployed, then to watch him come home, it was really touching and moving.”
Santangelo was so touched by the whole experience, he offered to bring the whole family out to the ballpark as his personal guests that night.
“(After I) watched the game Wednesday night I thought ‘alright, I got my Nats fix in,’” said Karnbach. “And then when we met, (Santangelo) said ‘here’s my number, call me and I can get you some tickets.’ My wife was like ‘we’re going.’ I said ‘I haven’t even been home yet.’ She said ‘we’re going.’ So I was like ‘OK, we’re going.'”
As a result, Karnbach got his proper welcome home with his fellow vets at the end of the third inning. Right on cue, before the military salute, Zimmerman blasted his first home run of the season, a three-run shot into the visitor’s bullpen that sent Karnbach cheering. It was obvious he was still a bit overwhelmed and just amazingly grateful for everything that had happened to bring him and his family back together that night.
“To me, this is just the coolest thing ever,” he said. “Everything the Nationals have done for my family, and me, this is great.”
For the Nationals, it is stories like Karnbach’s that make everything else worthwhile.
For more on Karnbach’s story, watch the video of his family’s reunion here.