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'I wanted to give you the welcome home that we never got'

November 10, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

MARLOWE, W.Va. -- There were about 60 of them. Some walked with the spring of youth, some slowed in middle age, octogenarians hobbled up on canes. One was so feeble he couldn't leave his seat.

They were there Tuesday morning in the gymnasium of Spring Mills Middle School. Veterans all.

Some serve today in Iraq and Afghanistan, some were in the first Gulf War, others in Vietnam, before that Korea, and the oldest and fewest among them, in World War II.

They were related to Spring Mill students, said teacher Lisa Dirting, a coordinator of the event.

Tuesday's was the school's fifth consecutive Veterans Day celebration, "a central part of learning, Principal Marc Arvon said.

"Kids need to hear about this," said Tom Horn, a Korean War veteran. "This is a big switch from the '60s," he said, in reference to the draft card-burning protest days of the Vietnam War.

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Tuesday's speaker was Lt. Col. Ronald G. Chew of Calvert County, Md., a decorated soldier with 26 years of Army service who was awarded two Bronze Stars. He is a special project operations officer. 

"A veteran," Chew told the audience of 650 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, "is someone who has or is serving in the military in war and peace. Beyond that, they are people who realize that they are part of something that is bigger than themselves. Our (the military) way of life is much bigger than each of us is as individuals."

Chew grew somber when he recalled his childhood at the end of the Vietnam War and how badly some veterans were treated upon their return home. "The country was in turmoil."

He called the antiwar protesters "shameful. It was a dark time and it made a deep impression on me."

That impression surfaced when he returned with his unit from Iraq in 2003.

Their plane landed at an airport in Massachusetts and the men were taken to a huge room to go through customs.

They had been on a 15-hour flight, were tired and eager to move on, he said.

The soldiers heard low voices in the next room. Inside were several hundred people ready to welcome them home.

At this point, Chew lost his composure.

The people greeted each soldier as they wove their way through the crowd, he said.

"They were crying and we were crying," he said.

Across the room, they were met by a group of Vietnam War veterans. About 10 of them in front were in wheelchairs.

"One of them wheeled up to me and said, 'Welcome home, brother, and thank you. I wanted to give you the welcome home that we never got.'"

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