Arkansas Hosts Statewide Armed Forces Day Welcome-Home Celebration
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
LITTLE ROCK, Ark., May 21, 2005 Arkansas celebrated Armed Forces Day today by giving a "Razorback welcome" to its more than 7,500 National Guard and Reserve members who were called to active duty to support the global war on terror.
Nine-year-old Tyler Mann holds up a sign honoring his father, Army Maj. Travis Mann of the 39th Infantry Brigade, during the "Welcome Home Arkansas Heroes" celebration in Little Rock, Ark., May 21. Photo by Donna Miles
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The "Welcome Home Arkansas Heroes" celebration in the capital city's War Memorial Stadium honored the state's citizen soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines "for setting aside their dreams, their personal pursuits and even their families in defense of freedom," Medal of Honor recipient Nick Bacon said during the invocation.
"You did a great job -- a job not everyone can do and fewer still are willing to do. But you are all volunteers and you held up your hands," Army Maj. Gen. Don Morrow, adjutant general for the state, told the troops. "Well done, servicemembers! Well done!"
Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee called the ceremony "a fitting tribute" to the state's Guard and Reserve members who served with honor in Iraq "and have made us all very proud."
The event's opening ceremony honored the state's Guard and Reserve units, which marched on the field to the cheers of the crowd and formed up under the hot Arkansas sun.
During the program, emcee Bob Robbins, a local radio personality, paid special tribute to several other groups, including the families of Arkansans killed in action. Three volleys saluted the fallen, followed by the playing of "Taps" and a flyover by four F-16 Fighting Falcons in a missing-man formation.
Robbins also acknowledged those wounded in action, the families who supported the state's troops during their deployments, and veterans of other conflicts.
Among those veterans was Fred Steube, a key organizer of today's event. A Vietnam veteran, Steube called the welcome-home celebration a way "to give these troops the welcome home we never got."
"These men and women have made great sacrifices, and some have paid the ultimate price defending our freedom," Steube said. "This celebration is the least we could do to express our gratitude."
The smell of barbeque wafted through the stadium, and music filled the air as Guardsmen and Reservists feasted on a free lunch while enjoying local entertainment acts.
The troops, many who hadn't seen their comrades since returning home, shook hands, slapped backs and basked in the limelight.
"It's awesome," said Army Spc. Michael Booker of Company A, 2nd Battalion, 153rd Infantry Brigade, who returned with his unit from a deployment to Egypt and Iraq in November 2004. "It's great to know that we are recognized and loved and appreciated. It makes us feel good about why we went and what we did and who we did it for."
Marine Corps Cpl. Gerald Jones, a squad leader with the Marine Corps Reserve's Company I, 3rd Battalion, 23rd Marines, said today's event tops off the outpouring of appreciation he's felt since returning from Iraq in September 2003.
"Every person you meet, when they find out that you're a Marine and that you were over there, thanks you," he said. "This is just one big thank you, all at once."
Jones said he feels a bit uncomfortable about the attention he's received since returning home to Little Rock and his civilian job selling cars. "I feel like I didn't do anything except my job," he shrugged.
But for Air Force Senior Airman Wellena Seamon, who "left in the middle of the night" when deploying with the Air Force Reserve's 96th Aerial Port Squadron and returned the same way, today's celebration held a special significance.
"This is the homecoming we didn't get, and it feels really good," said Seamon, who carried the guidon for her unit during the opening ceremonies. "It's really nice to come home and get this kind of welcome."
Army Brig. Gen. Ronald Chastain, commander of the 39th Infantry Brigade, the largest single group honored at today's event, said he's "not surprised at all" by his state's outpouring of support. His unit, the largest in the Arkansas Guard, includes soldiers from all 75 counties in the state, as well as from 10 other states.
"Communities throughout Arkansas have had welcome-home events, sometimes two or three on the same day," said Chastain, whose unit returned home in March from its deployment in Iraq. "The amazing thing is that towns that didn't even have armories or a direct connection to the military had welcome-home celebrations."
Chastain said successful deployments depend not only on military skills but also on support from three important groups: families, employers and the community.
"We had them all," he said. "And this is a demonstration of the tremendous support from the communities within the state of Arkansas."