CHAMPAIGN — When the Illinois baseball team salutes the school's legion of student veterans this weekend, the gesture will have particular meaning to Bryan Roberts.
The Illini relief pitcher's half-brother served two tours of duty overseas, including one in war-time Iraq in 2005.
"He's always been there for me, and I've always been really close to him," Roberts said of Dan Jabs, a 30-year-old Army veteran now living in the Chicago area. "I've looked up to him since I was little. He's a great role model for me."
Roberts will join his teammates and the Illini coaching staff in donning orange-and-blue camouflage jerseys Sunday for "Honor and Serve Day" at Illinois Field.
The Fighting Illini Dugout Club donated the jerseys, which can be bid on through a silent auction during the 1:05 p.m. game against Michigan State. Proceeds will go to the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club of Champaign-Urbana.
"I thought it was a really cool idea," Roberts said. "It's really nice to honor our veterans and the people serving right now."
The redshirt junior credits Jabs — as well as his late father, Dean — for introducing him to baseball and inspiring him to progress in the sport.
Jabs was a varsity player at Lisle High School and continued in the game at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn.
"Watching my brother grow up playing the game really kind of helped me understand it, helped me in my athletic career, just striving to do the best I can," Roberts said
When Jabs transferred to Western Illinois, he joined the school's Army ROTC program. Roberts was in grade school when his older brother left for Egypt to begin his first tour of duty.
"I was kind of ignorant of it (and) really didn't understand what was going on," Roberts said. "Just that my big brother was going to be gone for about a year, which was tough for me."
Robert was finishing up his freshman year of high school when Jabs was assigned to Iraq. By then, little brother was aware of the implications — and the dangers — of being sent to that war zone.
In 2005, 942 U.S. military personnel lost their lives in Iraq.
"As I got older, I started to realize more and more what was going on," Roberts said. "And I was scared (for Jabs). I mean, it was really scary. To have him overseas and you don't hear from him for weeks at a time, it's a scary thing."
Rarely did the brothers talk by phone when Jabs was in Iraq — "You could count them on one hand," Roberts said — but big brother was a frequent letter writer to family members.
At times, those letters would briefly convey Jabs' sense of fear in such a dangerous place. But mostly, his updates were upbeat, as well as inquisitive about life back home.
"He asked questions about my life, the family," Roberts said.
"They were great getting them from him. Nothing like a handwritten letter. It's kind of lost nowadays."
In one of those letters, Jabs included a service medal he'd received that he wanted Roberts to have. For the recipient, it remains a proud and treasured memento.
"I still have that in my drawer here at school," Roberts said.
Other letters, however, included stark visual and audio evidence of the dangers of a war then in its third year. When Jabs and his unit were on patrol in military humvees, he sometimes would shoot video and later burn it onto a media disc.
"The videos were scary," Roberts said. "You'd hear gunshots the entire time. I mean, you see stuff on the (TV) news, but they still cover it up on the news what it really is. And it's a scary thing."
Roberts would need his older brother like never before in September 2005, when Roberts' father died. Jabs was allowed to return from Iraq for the funeral.
"I was relieved," said Roberts, who at the time was just beginning his sophomore year at Benet Academy in Lisle. "It was great to have him back, especially with all the things going on in my life."
Back for good, Jabs currently is attending Chicago State University. He and Roberts caught up with each other last weekend, when Jabs attended two games of the Illini's series against Northwestern in Evanston.
Roberts says he doesn't bring up Jabs' military experiences when they speak, and they'll only discuss it if his older brother initiates the topic.
But Roberts says he's learned over time the personal impact of war on his older brother. Learned of those times when Jabs had trouble sleeping or was suddenly awakened with his heart racing to a noise that others would have slept through.
"For years we really didn't talk about it," Roberts said. "I thought he wouldn't want to relive those memories, so I didn't bring it up. But you could tell there were points where it really affected him."
The dangers and hardships Jabs experienced in Iraq, Roberts says, serve as a reminder to keep his own challenges in perspective.
In 2010, the then-sophomore won the Illini closer's role and went 9 for 9 in save opportunities to enter the school record book. But the right-hander has barely pitched since, sitting out the entire 2011 season after requiring ligament-replacement surgery in his pitching elbow.
His comeback this year has been hampered by recurrent soreness in the repaired elbow and in his right shoulder. On Tuesday night, Roberts pitched in a game for the first time since March 16 and only the third time this season.
"It's been frustrating," he said. "I know what I can do; I just haven't been able to do it. I do my rehab every day. I try to work hard and do things right."
Then Roberts considers what his older brother went through while serving his country.
"I'm not facing (gun) fire," Roberts said. "Things can always be worse. It's just baseball and it's my right arm; it's not really about life or death." It's just a game."