BLOOMINGTON — Families felt “pride and relief” as 18 Illinois Army National Guard soldiers were honored Saturday at the Lafayette Club in south Bloomington.
“It’s good we’re back together again,” said Annette Chapman, Atlanta, who attended with son Hayden, 14, and daughter Courtney, 16.
The Chapmans and about 50 others gave a standing ovation to the soldiers, who included their husband and father, Spec. Harold Chapman. He returned in October from a year-long deployment in Afghanistan with Company B, 33rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion.
Dignitaries thanked the soldiers and the families who supported them during Operation Enduring Freedom in the past year.
The soldiers are among about 650 statewide honored this weekend — including about 70 honored in Pontiac today — at events organized by the National Guard Bureau Freedom Salute Campaign.
The 33rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion lost 18 soldiers. More than 90 others were wounded.
“The Freedom Salute is one of the largest recognitions in army history,” said Lt. Jim Chism. The included a prayer for transition of the warriors to citizen soldiers.
Trevor Grant, Bloomington, was majoring in economics at Illinois State University when he left to serve as a medic in Kabul and southern Afghanistan.
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“This (ceremony) is really nice,” he said. “We say we don’t need this. But we do appreciate it.”
Sherral Wood, Bloomington, who leads a family readiness group, watched the ceremony with tears in her eyes.
“It’s a year of answered prayers to have all my guys home,” said Wood, whose group helped solve problems for the soldiers’ families and arranged special events. For her efforts, she received the Center of Influence Award.
Each soldier was presented an encased American flag; a sequentially numbered commemorative coin; certificate of appreciation; and lapel pin. Families also were recognized for their support and sacrifice.
“You did great things where you were,” said Col. Michael Haerr. He called the soldiers, “the cream of the crop.”
Haerr said the readiness group and families had a “unique challenge” because these soldiers served in many roles in many places. Many solders were split from their company when they arrived in Afghanistan so they could support 226 bases.
First Sgt. James Iverson, who returned from his third deployment this fall, said the mission was “really complex.” Some soldiers worked in military intelligence; others as medics, combat medics and infantrymen – all “to win the hearts and the minds of the Afghan people and to train them to take over their own country.”
“We accomplished a lot,” he said.
State Rep. Dan Brady, a Bloomington Republican, was among elected officials at the ceremony. “We owe you a debt of gratitude that will never be forgotten,” he said.
“The sacrifice you put forth, what you endured, what your families endured, can never be repaid ... .”
U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson, a Crete Democrat, called family members “heroes.” Bloomington Mayor Steve Stockton thanked the soldiers on behalf of the community.
What: Ceremony honoring Army National Guard soldiers from Troop A, 2nd Squadron, 106th Cavalry
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Pontiac Armory, 825 W. Reynolds St., Pontiac