Tuesday, March 20, 2012

American Homecomings

   Digital First Media, which includes The Mercury, is putting together a narrative on American Homecomings with stories on military personnel who have returned home to the United States. Several are on going pieces written about service men and women trying to get back into the normal day to day activities of civilian life and the tough times that go with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and fighting in a war.
228th Engineering Company returns home to Spring City.
   I admire these people who give up a relatively safe life in the states and put themselves in a position where they can be in a deadly fire fight on many days of their deployment. The ability to turn off the kill or be killed mentality has to be the most extreme difficulty of returning to American society.  I will never know their thoughts as they return to civilian life because I didn't have to go off to war. But, I have seen a lot of the military since I was a small boy.
   I grew up in a military family with a father who left his home town in Ohio and joined the Marines during World War II. From that point, the Navy trained him as a corpsman and he fought and treated wounded men during battles in the South Pacific theater. He made the military his life long work. He became a career man in the Army spending over twenty years in active duty. He was also sent overseas to fight in the Korean War. He retired from the Army reserve while stationed at the Valley Forge Army Hospital in Phoenixville at the same time men were being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. He died a year later in 1968 shortly before my twelfth birthday.
Sgt. Anthony Pezzetti with his son.
   Our family lived in Pottstown, but we spent many hours at the army hospital. My mom would take us to the commissary and the PX to do our shopping. Whenever we were sick or needed inoculations that is where we were treated. This is where I came face to face on the cost of war. Once inside the walls of the infirmary I saw the casualties. These young men just out of high school were in the same hallways as me waiting for treatment. Only their injuries had life changing consequences.
Sgt. Crystal Walker with her kids.
   Many I saw were walking with crutches or sitting in wheelchairs missing a limb lost in battle. Others were bandaged.  Once, as we drove,  I heard my mom take a deep breath and tears fell from her eyes. I looked over and saw a double amputee and his buddy making their way across the base. She didn't hide this from me. I believe this was part of the reality of life that she wanted me to see. There was a quiet strength about my mother as she continued on in life as a widow. She didn't say anything but let the moment speak for itself leaving a lasting impression of how precious life is.
   There were times when we were on base that I asked her to drive over to the helicopter landing area. We saw a number of injured soldiers flown into Valley Forge and carried to waiting trucks with the red cross painted on the side. It had a big impact on me. Even as a boy I had a great respect for these warriors.
Michele & Tim Rooney an emotional reunion with son Gary Anoushian.
   I would get a chance to talk to some of these men as they recovered. Even in their injured state they would come over, smile and say hi to me. I wasn't afraid. I seemed to be drawn to them even if for only a few minutes. As I got older I took my mother to Valley Forge until they closed the hospital.
   As a photographer at the Mercury, I have the honor of shooting photographs at the homecomings of service men and women. Many of these are happy reunions but there are times when you can see some of the sadness in their eyes thinking of a friend who didn't make it home.
A Hero's Welcome Maria Hyland.
   But the Pottstown area has a strong bond as Vietnam Veterans and Warrior Watch Riders make sure that those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan aren't forgotten and get the welcome back that they deserve. These former servicemen and families hop on their motorcycles year round in all kinds of weather to lead the procession giving the service personnel a positive memory as they return to the United States.
   Area resident Maria Hyland continues the work of her daughter Marine Lt. Sharon Hyland-Keyser who started 'A Hero's Welcome'. Constantly sending out emails, she lets people know when and where to greet the next one home. It takes a lot of sacrifice as the group volunteers their time to do the work for a cause they feel strongly about. She attends many of these homecomings and gives each a certificate of thanks. There are a number of chapters across the country.
56th Stryker Brigade Sgt. Edward Cox holding his daughter.
   I put together a gallery of eighty photographs of these military welcome home events. It will be my part of the nation wide project. Visit the series once the project goes on line and read about some of the lives that have been changed by war. It will include a link to various resources that are available to former servicemen and women.
   And when you are out and see someone in a military uniform take a minute to say hello and thank them for serving their country. They will be glad you did.

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