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Across America, Soldiers arrive home to rousing welcomes

Army News Service

Release Date: 4/16/2004

By Spc. Lorie Jewell

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Army News Service, April 16, 2004) - In a gymnasium festooned with welcome-home signs, banners, buntings and balloons of every size and color, Sandy Hanke teetered on the edge of a bleacher seat, locking her eyes on a set of double doors and muttering.

"OK. Just open the doors. Just open the doors,'' she said in a low voice, to no one in particular. She clutched a homemade cloth banner and took a deep breath, willing herself to relax. It was a tough order. On the other side of the doors was Spc. Trevor Hanke, the husband she hadn't seen since he left with his unit for Iraq more than a year ago.

After waiting as patiently as possible for more than an hour, Hanke's endurance was wearing thin. She and a handful of other early birds were running on pure adrenaline, with sleep an arduous struggle in the nights leading up to the homecoming.

Dawn was a good two hours away on a Saturday morning when the welcoming crowd started trickling into the Fort Carson special events center. Not long after, the building hummed with nervous energy and excited chatter as wives, husbands, parents, children, friends and significant others awaited the arrival of 89 Soldiers with the 43rd Area Support Group, 3rd Brigade of the 7th Infantry Division and 51 members of the 113th Medical Company, Combat Stress Control, an Army Reserve unit from Las Alamedos, Calif.

At 4:48 a.m., Sgt. Maj. Robert Harn, G-3 sergeant major for the 7th ID, announced that buses carrying Soldiers had arrived on post. The modest crowd cheered. Ten minutes later, he let them know the Soldiers should be marching in within the next few minutes. More cheers. They can hear faint Hooahs! beyond the doors, pushing the anticipation and excitement inside up a few notches.

The doors opened a few minutes later and as Soldiers filed in, the crowd erupted in an unrehearsed concert of joyous cries, clapping hands and stomping feet. Hanke waved her banner, a white sheet decorated with her husband's name and glitter-outlined hearts, hollering her heart out. Laura Johnson forgot about her stomach ache and pumped a fist full of 'I love you' balloons in the air, shouting to her husband, Sgt. Dwayne Johnson.

Across America, similar scenes have played out repeatedly on Army installations and in communities large and small since the latest wave of units started coming home in February. In the first seven days of April, for instance, nearly 3,000 people gathered for at least 30 events to welcome roughly 1,500 Soldiers, according to reports from Operation Tribute to Freedom. About 3,300 Soldiers received hero's welcomes throughout the last week of March from more than 8,000 people, OTF reports said.

OTF, approaching its first-year anniversary, tracks public recognition events that honor Soldiers fighting in the Global War on Terrorism and offers assistance to community organizers.

While the extension of tours for about 18,000 Soldiers in Iraq will put a temporary hold on some homecomings, many welcome-back celebrations are still on.

Colorado Springs will honor Fort Carson Soldiers with a special parade June 5. Of roughly 12,000 Soldiers sent to Iraq last year, about 98 percent are back, said Harn. The decision to delay the return of some units is not expected to prevent the remaining Fort Carson troops from returning, he added.

At Fort Hood, Texas, the USO is putting on a 'Welcome Home' show April 22 for Soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division, which includes Task Force Iron Horse, responsible for the December capture of Saddam Hussein. Wayne Newton is the master of ceremonies for the show, which will feature performers and celebrities like Jessica Simpson, Drew Carey, Gary Sinise, Tracy Byrd, John Michael Montgomery, Billy Ray Cyrus, Lynyrd Skynyrd, No Illusion, the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders and World Wrestling Entertainment superstars, according to a USO press release.

Members of the Family Support Group for the 110th Maintenance Co., a Massachusetts National Guard unit based in Devens, started planning their homecoming celebration in November. With proceeds from several fundraisers, the group hired a caterer and disc jockey, and arranged for children's entertainment. They also put together gift bags - containing items ranging from coupons for free ice cream cones to overnight stays at a local bed and breakfast - for each of the unit's roughly 250 Soldiers, said Melissa Colclough, co-chairman of the planning committee.

Although the unit is back from Iraq, going through the demobilization process at Fort Drum, N.Y., the group isn't sure when they'll have the homecoming at the Guard Armory. Colclough said unit leaders have told planners they would try to give them at least 48 hours notice of the unit's return to Devens.

Residents of Bangor, Maine, have an organized system of greeting planeloads of Soldiers coming into Bangor International Airport, most often stopping for brief layovers on their way to home destinations. Telephones start ringing when organizers learn of incoming troops, sending upwards of 100 greeters to the airport to welcome Soldiers back to America with hugs, cakes and cookies, and the free use of donated cellular telephones.

Spc. Brian Henry of the 100th Engineer Co. at Fort Bragg was stunned when he rounded a corner after going through customs and saw 'tons' of people cheering the returning Soldiers.

"It was touching to see all kinds of people there - old and young - and veterans from every war,'' said Henry of his return from Iraq last year, where he surveyed air fields. "I think some were a little uncomfortable, not really knowing who these people were. I was impressed, especially when someone told me they've been doing this since the Gulf War. It was nice to get that right after my feet touched American soil."

The media has spotlighted displays of Soldierly affection from businesses, civic groups, governmental leaders and ordinary citizens. This year's Kentucky Derby Festival paid tribute to members of the state's National Guard, who returned last month, with Derby t-shirts and caps. In Utah, the Hilton Salt Lake City Center threw a welcome home party in March for Soldiers with the 141st Military Intelligence Battalion of the National Guard. A 12-square-foot cake fashioned into an American flag awaited members of the Florida National Guard's 1st Battalion, 124th Infantry when they arrived in Palm Beach County earlier this year.

Small clusters of Soldiers coming home have not gone unnoticed. More than 200 people - including Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner - gathered on an airfield in March to welcome a seven-member detachment of aviation mechanics with the Delaware National Guard's 131st Aviation.

While the bulk of homecomings have been for Soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, some were for peacekeepers. Fifty Soldiers with the 463rd Engineer Battalion, a West Virginia Army Reserve unit, returned from Djibouti, Africa, in March to a homecoming celebration that included a fire department escort to the U.S. Army Reserve Center in Wheeling. The unit spent nine months working on 'nation building' projects such as clearing roads and building bridges.

Earlier this month, 100 Soldiers with the 136th Infantry of the Minnesota National Guard were greeted by hundreds of well-wishers and a police escort upon their return from Bosnia, where they performed a wide range of duties such as distributing school supplies to children and gathering mines and other weaponry.

Such tributes do more than just make Soldiers and their families feel appreciated for their service and sacrifices, Lt. Col. Greg Hapgood believes.

"It helps bring closure,'' said Hapgood, public affairs officer for the Iowa National Guard.

About 1,000 Soldiers in a variety of units have returned to small Iowa towns like Boone, Oskaloosa, Audubon, and Muscatine since February. Each arrival gets an all-out welcome, Hapgood said. General officers, community leaders and state congressmen join friends and family at the celebrations.

"Especially in small towns, people really take ownership of their Soldiers," he said. "There is no way they are not going to do something for them. They need to look those Soldiers in the eye and tell them how proud they are and how glad they are that they're back. It's difficult to leave with a dry eye."

Early this month, thousands of people stood on both sides of a 13-mile stretch of Highway 38 to welcome members of the 2133rd Transportation Co. A few dozen Vietnam veterans on motorcycles led a bus carrying Soldiers into town, passing flag-waving residents and signs greeting individual Soldiers by name. Larger American flags were hoisted on cranes. A larger celebration is on tap in downtown Muscatine June 12.

Meanwhile, Fort Carson continues to hail its returning troops. Whether it's the first or the 50th celebration, organizers put equal efforts into each, Harn said. He and others witnessing the homecomings never fail to be moved by the emotional reunions, no matter how many times they see wives, husbands, parents, children and friends embracing returning Soldiers.

As Soldiers stood in formation for the April 3 celebration, Col. Michael Terry, assistant division commander for support, 7th ID, congratulated them on a job well done. He emphasized the successful working relationship between active-duty and reserve-component units.

"They fought together, side by side, in Iraq. And now they're standing here together,'' said Terry. "That's the Army today."

On the command of 'fall out!' the bleachers emptied in a flash, friends and family swarming Soldiers for hugs, kisses and slaps on the back. Spc. Kevin Bennett held his 2-month-old daughter, Kiyanna, for the first time. His wife, Janette, dressed the baby in a camouflaged outfit, complete with tiny dog tags around her neck.

Marching into the center, Bennett was choked with emotion.

"It took a lot not to start crying," he said. "I'm at a loss for words. I just thank God we all got back safely."

Maj. Beth Salisbury had a hard time speaking when her husband, Richard, wrapped her into a bear hug, clutching a bouquet of roses. Salisbury, commander of the 55th Medical Company, a Reserve unit based in Indianapolis, was attached to the 113th for the deployment.

"I told her I wouldn't be able to be here because I would be hunting in Texas," laughed Richard Salisbury. He arranged the surprise reunion with the help of Sgt. Kathryn Pollock, a mental health specialist with the 55th.

Four-year-old Jewel Whiting spent so much time practicing waving a small flag for her father, Sgt. Steven Whiting, she wore it out. Her mother, Angela, gave her another one for the big morning.

The little girl chatted excitedly about everything she and her mother did to make her daddy feel special. A new tablecloth with sunflowers covered the dining room table, which held a chocolate cake frosted in red, white and blue.

"We're going to eat it for breakfast,'' she said, thrilled at the thought of an early-morning dessert.

Later, in her father's arms, she delivered important news as Whiting mused about ordering a pizza.

"Daddy, we cleaned the Jeep for you,'' she proudly announced.

"Oh, thank you,'' he said, grinning.

Still holding his daughter, and with an arm wrapped around his wife, Whiting headed for his duffle bags. It was time to head home and rediscover normal life.



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