Community Thanks Families of Fallen; Welcomes Vets Home
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
MANASSAS, Va., Sep. 14, 2005 Their hearts were still breaking from the loss of their son three months ago in Afghanistan. But they still had smiles on their faces.
Judy Petersen, center, one arranger of "Operation Welcome Home," chats with Rev. Felicia Alexander, mother of Army Special Forces Staff Sgt. LeRoy E. Alexander, 27, who was killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan on June 3. At right is Mary Lee Poteat, who also worked to ensure that the event happened. Photo by Rudi Williams
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Ronald and Felicia Alexander were smiling because the community was showing that their son, Army Green Beret Staff Sgt. LeRoy E. Alexander, 27, who was killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan on June 3, isn't forgotten.
They also were smiling because Moose Lodge 1380 here had opened its doors for the community to flow in to give a special "thank you" to families of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the war on terrorism. Called "Operation Welcome Home," the Sept. 10 event also was held to show appreciation for those who fought and returned home safely, organizers said.
Alexander was among 12 names of fallen servicemembers from Prince William County, Va., listed on the night's program of events. He was killed at Forward Operating Base Orgun-E in Afghanistan when an improvised explosive device struck his vehicle. Alexander was serving with the 1st Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) from Fort Bragg, N.C.
Alexander, a Special Forces engineer, was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart, Meritorious Service Medal and the Afghanistan Campaign Medal.
Besides his parents, who live in Dale City, Va., Alexander is survived by his wife, Marissa, who is six months pregnant with twins. His mother is a pastor at the First New Birth Baptist Church here, and a case-management assistant at Prince William Hospital here.
"I thought it was a good idea, because so many times when things happen, and it's fresh in everybody's mind, you get a lot of support," said the fallen soldier's mother, who delivered the invocation. "It's good to know that people still remember. That makes me feel good that he's still being remembered."
Some wives and parents of the fallen said they couldn't handle the emotions of attending the event, but Alexander said it wasn't difficult for her and her husband to attend. Her husband, a former Marine sergeant now wheelchair-bound, agreed. "I'm dealing with him being gone," he said. "It's a good thing to honor the people in the military working for the country."
Operation Welcome Home evolved out of the desire of Ira and Judy Petersen and Mary Lee Poteat of Manassas to welcome a friend and his son home from Iraq.
"It started out as a homecoming party for a very dear friend of mine who worked for the agency - the CIA -- upon his and his son's return from Iraq, Ira Peterson said. "It grew a little." I'm proud to say that my friend did make it back and is here with us tonight. His son also made it back, but unfortunately, can't attend as he is on orders elsewhere."
A former Marine, Petersen recalled his own homecoming from war. "When I was in the service from 1969 to 1973, people were spitting on returning servicemen in airports and bus stations because of the different views on world politics," he said, "which the poor soldiers have no control over anyway. It's his job to do what he is told and protect this country and its people. Most of them leave as mere boys and return seasoned men -- changed forever."
Petersen noted all veterans should feel proud of their service, and that most do. "It's a feeling you just can't put into words, but every vet knows what I'm talking about," he said.
Petersen told the audience he doesn't care about their political views, whether they're for or against the war. "Tonight is for the veterans, the ones that made it and especially the ones that didn't," he noted, adding that many merchants gave gift cards as door prizes for the veterans and their families.
Poteat said when she and the Petersens read in the newspaper about the families who had lost loved ones, they decided to combine the welcome home party with a fundraiser to raise money to do something for families whose loved one didn't make it back alive.
"We wanted to honor the fallen and say thank you to the veterans who sacrificed to go to war so that we can stay here and be free," said Poteat, an administrative coordinator for the Prince William County Community Services Board. "And it just kept growing."
The idea grew too big to have the event at her house, as originally planned. So Poteat and the Petersens asked Ronnie Lee, governor of the Moose Lodge, if the Moose would host the event.
"We want to buy a flagpole to put at Quantico National Cemetery on the Avenue of Honor to be flown in honor of the fallen who are buried there," noted Poteat. "We hope to raise enough money to buy a flagpole for each person from Prince William County who was killed in the global war on terrorism." Poteat's husband, Barry, and daughter, Cindy Colbert, are part of the "Cindy and the Steele Rose Band" that performed during the event.
"If the family of the deceased veteran donates the casket flag to the cemetery, it will be flown on the Avenue of Honor on Veterans Day and Memorial Day for the whole cemetery," said Billy Webb, a cemetery program assistant. On those days, we have about 40 Boy Scouts who come in to help put up the flags - about 140 of them. On Flag Day and the Fourth of July, we put them up ourselves and line flags from the front entrance of the cemetery to the main flagpole circle."
He said neither flagpoles nor the American flags will be marked with the name of the deceased veterans or the donor. However, he said, donors will receive a letter and certificate of appreciation for their donation.
Each 15-foot flagpole costs $125. The casket flag measures 5 feet by 9 feet, Webb noted.
"Any money left over will go to the families of the fallen who need help," Poteat said. "We're hoping that other counties and communities would pick up on this and do the same thing so veterans and their families will know how much they're appreciated."
Unfortunately, Poteat said, the group has been able to reach the families of only three of the county's 12 fallen servicemembers. "Some of the families are not accepting phone calls, because they're tired of being hounded by the press," she explained. "Some are grieving too much and can't talk about it. Some have moved away."
Still, Judy Petersen said, "it makes me feel wonderful to do something like this."
"Words can't describe what the servicemen and women are doing for us," she continued. "I talked to some of the families who had someone who died, and it was very heartbreaking. I couldn't sleep all night. I was very broke up over it, because one family said they think it's wonderful what we're doing, but it would be too hard to come to. ... But the family I initially talked to - the Alexanders -- called back and tonight they have nine people coming, including her husband in a wheelchair."
Petersen, an administrative assistant with the county's community services board on the drug offender recovery team, said it's impossible to do too much for those who have sacrificed so much. "I've done a lot of volunteer things, but this seems like it means so much more because of what they did for us," she said. "I don't think we can do enough for them."
One veteran who made it back home safely is Virginia National Guard Staff Sgt. Brian Higgins, who returned home in July after a year in Afghanistan as an infantry squad leader with Company A, 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, based here.
"It's very touching for the community to put on this function to show it appreciates its veterans," said Higgins, a veteran of Operation Desert Storm and also served in Bosnia.
A military history buff, Higgins said he knows how Vietnam veterans were treated when they returned from the jungles of that country. "To go over and have your country stand behind you and to come back and be appreciative for what we've done is very touching," Higgins said. "We lost three personnel in my unit, two to an improvised explosive device incident and one to a noncombat-related injury." Higgins said his unit may soon be going back to Afghanistan or to Iraq.