SANTA CLARA – Ben Garland’s two worlds come together on Monday night when he takes the field with his 49ers teammates at Levi’s Stadium on Veterans Day.
Garland, 31, is a six-year NFL veteran from Air Force whose football career was delayed for two years while he completed his military commitment. He still serves in the National Guard during the NFL offseason.
“My whole family’s been in the military,” Garland said. “I got a lot of friends in the military. I’ve lost friends who’ve died in the military, so Veterans Day is always a really big thing for me and close to my heart.”
The Garland tradition in the military is believed to date back to Col. John Garland, who served 50 years, including during the War of 1812 and, briefly, in the Civil War.
There has been a Col. Garland in the Air Force for generations.
Ben Garland’s great grandfather flew combat missions in World War II, and his grandfather, Hal Garland, a full-bird colonel in the Air Force, is his hero. His uncle, Steven Garland, a brigadier general, retired in December 2017.
Ben Garland said the family tradition of entering the military was never something that was talked about. It just happened through an innate desire to serve the United States of America.
“My grandfather always told me he would be proud of me no matter what I did,” Garland said. “He said, ‘Just always work hard and do your best.’ And I always thought my best and reaching my potential would be following in his footsteps, going the military route.”
Garland said he always takes time to pay reverence for the sacrifices of his family and others during the playing of the national anthem before games.
“I know what people have done to fight for that flag and for our country,” Garland said. “My family is out there fighting for it, and my closest friends who I consider family are out there fighting for it. It means the world to me.”
In October 2015, while with the Atlanta Falcons, Garland received word that his friend, Capt. Jordan Pierson, 28, died in Afghanistan when his C-130J Super Hercules aircraft crashed. Garland and Pierson grew close during their time together in Squadron 27 at the Air Force Academy.
“Great guy, incredible dude, and to die so young, is tough,” Garland said. “It crushes you. I remember I got the news when I was at practice in Atlanta. I was struggling to even play that week and focus.”
Garland finished his military commitment a couple of years ago. He continues to serve with the 140th Wing at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colo., with 48 four-hour blocks during the NFL offseason.
“As long as I can maintain serving and continue doing this (playing football), I’m going to,” Garland said. “I’m serving because I love it, and I’ll do it as long as they want me and I want them.”
Garland, a backup offensive guard, appeared in 46 games over the past three seasons with the Falcons. He has suited up for each game with the 49ers but has seen action in only three games. Garland sees correlations between the qualities that have attracted him to football and the military.
“The military symbolizes some of the best parts of what we have in our country,” Garland said. “The reason I love football, you take a diverse group of people from every walk of life, and you have to become the best in the world. You work together.
“You get black, white, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether you’re from the ghetto or from the country, you get a group together and you train as hard as you can, you become as close as you can, and you become the best in the world. That’s what our military is today.”
Garland, of course, knows that’s where the comparisons end between football and life in the military.
“Over there, it’s amplified to a millionth degree,” Garland said. “It’s life or death over there. Here, it’s just a game.”