Those wishing to use the Glenbrook Gym to play basketball work out in the fitness center slunk away dejected Sunday, but others walked into the gym with their heads held high with their families by their side. These were soldiers coming to be honored with the Freedom Salute Award.
“It’s nice to be recognized, to know people appreciate it,” Sgt. Paul Woodard said.
Soldiers in the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, the Alpha Company, and Charlie Company who were sent to Iraq for 13 months and arrived back home in Vermont on Dec. 16 were awarded their Freedom Salute Award on either March 11 or 12.
Because of the number of soldiers returning, the ceremony was split into two, one for northern Vermont held at Norwich University on March 11 and another for Southern Vermont March 12 at Glenbrook Gymnasium.
Although the gym was able to house all those who arrived to recognize the soldiers, the bleachers were packed and some were left standing.
The soldiers said they felt lucky to be back home and luckier that everyone in their companies made it out alive.
“”It’s great to be back,” Woodard said. “It’s a different world out there, makes you appreciate what you wake up to here.”
The ceremony started at 2 p.m., but soldiers were arriving as early as 11:30 a.m. to catch up with their buddies they made while serving together. The ceremony was the first one they all were required to attend after arriving back in the states.
Music blared from the gym with such songs including “The Boys are Back in Town” and “God Bless the U.S.A.” to welcome back the soldiers.
“It was an honor to serve with the people I served with,” Alan Blaise said. “I’m glad we all came home. I lost friends in other task forces.”
The soldiers receiving the Freedom Salute Award received a folded flag in a case, a coin designed for the mission they were sent to, a certificate, a pin for their dress uniforms, a pin for their spouse and a packet for their kids. Other awards they earned while away were announced at the ceremony.
Families, community members, college students, and even soldiers who were not deployed because of injuries were in the audience watching the awards ceremony.
“We wanted to welcome the guys home,” Michelle Harrington, the wife of a soldier who was unable to be deployed due to medical reasons, said.
Volunteers Heather Hinckley and Tammy Petty, who helped organize the event, also set up many activities for the families to get together and keep in contact after the event. While happy for the returned soldiers, they were quick to point out that about 500 soldiers from Vermont are still deployed and will not be back until May or August.
“Welcome home. We’re glad to have them here,” Hinckley said.