Sunday, November 19, 2006

Patriot Guard Riders - Taking Care of the Homefront

A while back I posted a piece about riding with the Patriot Guard Riders escorting the funeral procession of a soldier who fell in Iraq. That was a very moving event for me. As a veteran, I feel it's important we welcome home those returning from duty overseas - whether they gave the ultimate sacrifice or not.

One of the PGR's leaders forwarded a video of a TV news item. The item, I believe, captures the spirit of the PGR and those who ride for our military members. The video is from the "Post Cards from Home" segment on an Illinois TV Station.

Watching this reminded me of my own homecoming after Desert Storm.

I had the privilege to serve with a Warrant Officer who served in Vietnam as a young man. On one occasion, while we were sitting around in the middle of Saudi Arabia waiting for the "Storm" part of Desert Storm to kick off, we were discussing the outpouring of generosity and good will from those at home. We got cards, letters and packages from people we hadn't heard from in years as well as those we'd never met. As the discussion carried on, the Chief (as that's what we called senior Warrant Officers) warned us not to count on the public's support and largess to continue once the war kicked off. His fear was that the war could become very unpopular once the real shooting started.

His fear was well-founded according to his experience coming home from Vietnam after one of his tours there. He was a young man who chose the military as his career. Coming home, he proudly wore his uniform as he arrived at Fort Lewis, Washington. Once he got on the ground, he was "strongly advised" to change into civilian attire before leaving the post to get transportation home. He told us of protesters outside the gates of Ft. Lewis throwing stuff at the cars going in and out, carrying signs protesting the war and vilifying the troops. I could see telling us of his experience brought a lot of sadness to him. He wanted us to keep in mind that peoples' opinions change and he wanted us to prepare ourselves in case the same thing happened to us.

We can all remember how quickly everything was over once the "Storm" got underway. Our unit was in and out of Iraq within a few days of the cease-fire being declared and we were on a plane back to the US within a week or so.

We landed at Kennedy Airport in New York to fuel up for our last leg back to Ft. Bliss (which is in El Paso, Texas). There was a buffet line with pizza, coffee, soft drinks, and other goodies waiting for us. There were people behind the barricades holding signs, not of protest, but of support and welcoming. It was quite a treat.

When we finally arrived at Ft. Bliss, we could see a vast crowd waiting to welcome us home through the plane's windows. This was an even larger "welcome home" than what we experienced in New York. I happened to be right in front of the Chief as we started down the stairs off the plane. There was a line of Generals waiting to shake our hands as we disembarked and headed to the building where we were to turn in our weapons. At one point, Chief put his hand on my shoulder. I thought, perhaps he took a misstep and was steadying himself. He was trying to steady himself, but it wasn't from a misstep on the stairs, rather is was because he was overwhelmed with emotion. He looked me in the eye and said, "This makes up for last time. This makes up for last time." I even think I saw a tear in his eye, which was very out of character for him. I was happy he got some closure for his bad experience in the 70s.

I regale this story because I believe the men and women of our Armed Forces deserve the same kind of homecoming. Whether you agree with the war in Iraq or not, the Soldiers, Marines, Airmen, Sailors and Coast Guardsmen are putting it all on the line to help make our lives safer and to continue to enjoy the freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution.

I hope you will take some time out of your life this week and do something to support our troops, both overseas and at home. I know the sacrifices of time and effort it takes to be a member of our Armed Forces, and those people deserve respect and support from everyone living under the blanket of freedom they help protect.

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