Marine Sgt. David Nussbaum accepts a quick handshake from fellow Iraq war veteran Ken Felchle as he heads to the stage at the beginning of a homecoming ceremony at the Kenai National Guard Armory on Saturday morning.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
The wintery mix of freezing rain and slushy snow falling from the featureless grey sky would be enough to keep most people home on a weekend morning, but cold and inclement weather couldn't keep away people devoted to giving a warm welcome to 21 soldiers returning from serving in the Middle East during a homecoming celebration at the Army National Guard Armory in Kenai on Saturday.
Upon entering the armory, it was immediately clear that Saturday's event was a celebration. The walls were festooned with large banners and giant posters with large exclamations such as "Thank You," "Welcome Home," and "We Appreciate You."
Soldiers applaud for their families during a portion of the program dedicated to recognizing the sacrifices they have to make while troops are deployed.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
The floor room of the armory was divided down the middle. On each side were hundreds of family members, friends and coworkers of the returning soldiers, as well as other currently serving and past serving military members, and a few patriotic people with no military ties, but eager to show their support.
These folks represented a broad spectrum of society, from silver-haired veterans of past world wars and other conflicts, down to small infants sporting shaved heads and adorned with camouflage garb. They, and others of all ages between, stood side by side waving small American flags as they waited for the returning soldiers to enter the room, and when they finally did after a brief welcome by Kenai Mayor Pat Porter and Soldotna Mayor David Carey, the crowd erupted into thunderous applause and a roar of cheers.
Veteran Roy Brendible and Tatyana Johnny wave flags in support of the soldiers.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Following the first soldier that tore through a banner of red, white and blue streamers like a victorious marathon runner, the rest followed by running down the red carpet in the center of the room to a stage at the front where Sen. Lisa Murkowksi introduced each of the 20 Guardsmen members and one Marine.
The "Arctic Hero's" honored included: Martin Hanson, Paul Kerr, Hal Taylor, Paul Grimsley, Albert Burns, Scott Alwin, Aaron Byrd, Eric Einerson, Charles Garrison, Ryan Gillis, Louis Grimaldi, Raymond Mixsooke, Arthur Moonin, Joshua Vanderzon, David Ahlberg, Malcohm Brown, David Nussbaum, Christopher Minatra, Wilson House, Nicholas Yoncher and Cody Kelso.
After the soldiers had all entered, Guard members posted the American and state flags, after which Christine Grimsley daughter of one of the guardsmen sung the national anthem, and then the city mayors led the audience in the pledge of allegiance.
Pastor Peter Merkes delivered the opening prayer in which he reminded everyone taking part in the joyous homecoming event to remember those that aren't back yet, and those that will never come back because they died while serving their country. He blessed their families and asked for a moment of silence to "think about the cost of freedom, and all the blood that has been shed and lives lost for the privilege."
Members of the central peninsula's three veterans' organizations, Kenai American Legion Post No. 20, Soldotna Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 10046 and AmVets Post No. 4, performed a rifle salute that reverberated through the armory, and Barb Brinkerhoff presented a missing-in-action ceremony reminding everyone in attendance that "We are compelled to never forget their sacrifice."
Sen. Murkowksi gave her own thank you to the troops, many of which she already had met at Camp Shelby in Mississippi last month, when they first arrived back from Iraq and Kuwait. She also took the time to thank the family members of these soldiers, telling them "You're incredible. With your love and support they were able to do what we asked them to do."
Thomas Katkus, assistant adjutant general-Army for the Alaska National Guard, also commented on the sacrifice the soldiers' loved ones made in their absence. He said those that stayed behind "faced challenges and obstacles they had not faced before," but they did it because they, like the soldiers that did serve, "knew they had a mission to accomplish and they did a great job."
The festivities then moved into the audio/visual portion of the day's events. On a large screen images of the soldiers were shown during their time in the Middle East. Music was piped in over the sound system, such as Bette Middler's "Wind Beneath My Wings" and Toby Keith's "American Soldier." Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue," with the lyric "You'll be sorry you messed with the U.S. of A, 'cause we'll put a boot in your ass, it's the American way," drew a deep-chested guttural "hooray," from all the soldiers in attendance, much to the delight of the crowd.
Following the slide show, the troops themselves shared their own remarks. Some were modest and thanked their wives and children before quickly stepping down, while others took their time in expressing their thoughts and feelings for others.
Guardsman Paul Kerr said "I'd gladly do it again, but it was tough," and he added the thoughtful letters and care packages he received while serving always made home feel not so far away.
Guardsman Albert Burns also spoke about the effects of receiving positive feedback from home. He told the crowd "Without knowing your support, we couldn't have concentrated on what we had to do."
Guardsman Martin Hanson also expressed similar sentiments when he said "Every act of kindness had significance and value and I thank you with all the sincerity a man can have who says those words."
Not even war could dampen the spirit of Guardsman Charles Garrison, who jokingly acted like he was accepting an Oscar when he got his turn at the microphone, but then after getting a few laughs, he used the rest of his time to deliver a serious message of remembrance for Corporal Michael H. Lasky, 22, of Sterling who died on November 2, 2006, during combat operations in Al Anbar province, Iraq while serving in the Marine Forces Reserve's 4th Reconnaissance Battalion, 4th Marine Division, based out of Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage.
"Mike dying was the hardest thing I ever had to deal with," he said somberly.
Following the soldiers remarks, the presentation wound down with a presentation of flowers by the city mayors and Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor John Williams to the soldiers, most of whom promptly presented them as gifts to their own families. There was also a red carpet invitation in which veterans from all past wars were invited to join the recently returned troops, and together they sung patriotic songs.
The Veteran's Day observances continue today, as veterans from all eras will be honored at a ceremony at the Soldotna Sports Center at 11 a.m.
Joseph Robertia can be reached at email@example.com.
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