Ride Report posted by Lutz

All photos by Heather Salazar

In the pre-dawn hours of a clear September morning, the TV cameras were already rolling and the camera lights blazing when we rolled into our rally point at the Philadelphia Engine 69 fire house,  fresh-looking reporters already talking to members of A Hero’s Welcome and Warriors’ Watch eager to get an unusual story: A troop homecoming, not “just” one, but an entire unit. The 392nd Signal Battalion was coming home from Afghanistan. 303 soldiers, coming to Philadelphia International Airport directly from Afghanistan on a chartered plane.
The mission was called on very short notice when I received a phone call from the Operations Manager of the USO for SEPA and S. New Jersey, asking if we could provide a motorcycle escort and greeting for 300 returning troops, coming home from Afghanistan. (By the good grace of God, this unit had suffered no casualties.)
Operational Security concerns kept the details very light. All we knew was that if we could get down there to greet an incoming plane, it would be appriciated.
The SEPA Single Point of Contact Bobcat was put to work (and John Delivers on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River)  and by calling in and coordinating all of our contacts we put together a plan. We called our usual rally point near the airport, but this time, rather than going to the terminals, the Airport Police came to us, and led us to a secure area where they FBI opened a gate allowing us to ride our bikes and vehicles right out onto the tarmac. Once in place we met several members of the unit that was returning, the Commander and SGM and Public Affairs officers taking photos and getting soundbites.

Only an hour overdue (but still soon enough) a gigantic commercial airliner taxied into view. We had figured out ahead of time where the big bird would be, and we lined up our motorcycles and formed a flag line so that the soldiers on the plane, upon their first touchdown on American soil, would see the color and chrome and people awaiting their arrival.

The Lt. Colonol in charge and the Command Sgt. Major did us the incredible honor of putting us (me and Bobcat) between them, first in the receiving line to greet the troops. The stairway was rolled into place, a small army of customs officials ascended and did their brief duties, and then the plane began to disgorge it’s honored and precious cargo of American fighting men and women.

The soldiers, as they descended the stairs, were armed. I was struck by the dichotomy of a young woman carring her automatic rifle in front, and in back, a teddy-bear peaking out of her backpack. Child-soldier, doing the duty that her country called upon her to do.

Now, I have greeted entire units of soldiers before.  In fact I have done that relatively frequently (as compared to most) in my past 5 years of troop support work.  But never have I experienced such a close personal encounter with so many, all at once. Standing in our receiving line, I literally shook 303 hands, looked squarely into 606 eyes, and said “Welcome Home!,” as forcefully as I could, 303 times. And let me tell you, I could have done it forever, it was so intense.

These soldeirs were tired. They were all used up, for now. They needed to be home, they needed to be welcomed, they needed to be appricated. We did our best to provide that human touch as their first people they encountered on American Soil after their year of service and sacrifice.

One soldier told our WWR PA State SC, Jeff “Huggy” Huggins, that this was the conclusion of his FIFTH tour, and it was the FIRST time anyone had been there to tell him “welcome,” we are glad you are home. That is shameful.

It took awhile to unload everyone and everything. In the end we formed a convoy of 24 motorcycles, SIX tour busses, two tractor-trailers and a few smaller trucks full of equipment and baggage, 12 vehicles both official and WWR/AHW, and several police vehicles, was formed to escort our 303 charges to New Jersey, “home” to Fort Dix.

Once again the Airport Police, the Philadelphia Police Traffic Division, stepped up and escorted that very long convoy safely to the Walt Whitman Bridge. From there we were immediately met (“Picked up”) by the New Jersey state troopers who did a phenomenal job of both blocking and escorting us all to Fort Dix, about an hour’s ride.
When we finally arrived at the end-point, there was a small crowd of Army personell, Family Members, and five men wearing Vietnam Veteran caps, waiting for their arrival. While Fort Dix was the home base of this unit, the members are from all across the country, so that for most of them the real homecoming would have to wait awhile longer until after their demobilization processing. For us, that made it all the more important that we were there to say “welcome home.”
I hope I have done justice to the facts of what happened that day, because now I need to turn to what all of this really meant to us:
I wish that every member of the WWR, and more, every citizen of this country, could have the experience of greeting 303 soldiers fresh from the war in Afghanistan. The very act of taking their hands in yours and looking, really looking, into their eyes. Most of the faces I saw were very young. But not all. Many were older, men and women who obviously had joined the army later in life, perhaps as a second carreer, or perhaps returning to the army in response to the national need in this time of foreign wars. Every one a hero to me, to us.
Every one of them would turn away the word “hero” in reference to him or herself. But the very fact of their voluntary enlistment in time of war, of their deployment to a hostile environment, to their selfless sacrifice – not only personal sacrifice but family sacrifice, makes them “heroes” to us. And shaking those hands and looking into those eyes drives that fact home to us like no other experience could.
But if you were not there, and if you are not a member of the Warriors’ Watch Riders or A Hero’s Welcome, you can still have that feeling for yourself, and you can gain that understanding for yourself, and you can do it tomorrow.
Go to the airport. Sit down. Wait. When you see a uniformed soldier, and you will, soon, go to him or her. Extend your hand. LOOK HIM/HER IN THE EYE. Then, with all the power that is in you, say “thank you for your service.”

You will learn what honor is, and what “hero” means.