Puyallup - As the soldiers of a local Stryker brigade fought in Afghanistan, local residents stood behind them like relatives who send love and support to a distant land.
For the holidays, the community donated gifts and other goods that filled two trucks, then raised the $7,500 to mail them overseas. A local senior-citizen group made 500 quilts. Students from an elementary school wrote letters. City officials mourned each fallen soldier at on-base memorial services.
On Thursday, more than a month after the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division was formally welcomed home, Puyallup carried out its biggest project yet: a reunion that served as both celebration and remembrance.
Thousands of soldiers, their families and residents filled Pioneer Park for the event, organized by the Puyallup subchapter of the Association of the United States Army, with assistance from the city, businesses and individuals.
The salute featured a barbecue and outdoor concert as well as the unveiling of a granite memorial for the more than three dozen soldiers who didn’t return.
“We know that the freedom of our nation is dependent on the courage of a few, and may your example be our inspiration,” said Mayor Kathy Turner.
It’s the first time in the decade-old Community Connections program that an entire community opened itself to soldiers and families of a brigade and welcomed them home after a deployment, said Joe Piek, a spokesman at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
The intent of the connections program, which includes several communities around Lewis-McChord, is to strengthen the ties between those who work and train behind the fence and those who live outside of it. Puyallup partnered with the brigade when it formed at Fort Lewis in May 2007.
Col. Barry Huggins, who took over command of the brigade after the conclusion of the deployment (when it was renamed the 2nd Brigade), said community support was a rock for the nearly 4,000 soldiers facing the daily uncertainties of war.
“It’s a tremendous comfort to know that now as we return and years from now when we’re silver-haired, Puyallup and its wonderful people and leaders stand behind us,” he said in remarks to the audience. “They honor our service, they feel our loss, and they have given of themselves in so many ways to give us the certainty that somewhere, somebody cares.”
More than 40 family members of fallen soldiers attended the event, crying and drawing close as their loved one’s names were read aloud.
Officials delivered six wreaths to the memorial by walking down a grassy path lined with American flags and saluting cadets. A fire truck was used to hang a giant American flag over the memorial, next to the city’s existing veterans memorial.
Before and after the ceremony, people lined up to visit the new memorial, some spending a quiet moment reflecting on the names etched on it, others taking pictures.
“You can’t underestimate the meaning of this,” said Buddy Williamson, of Broussard, La., whose 24-year-old son, Patrick, was one of seven soldiers killed by a roadside bomb Oct. 27. “As the officer (Huggins) said, it’s a touchstone, and it will be here long after we’re gone and he’ll be remembered. We’re very grateful for the community to come together like this.”
Soldiers at the event said they appreciated the community’s efforts.
Staff Sgt. Seth Peterson, 27, will head to Fort Jackson, S.C., to train to become a recruiter. He completed four combat deployments, including three tours in Iraq.
He said the event is another of the gestures he’s enjoyed when returning home from war. He recalled how a florist gave him a discount on flowers for his wife for their anniversary after learning he’d missed the prior one due to deployment. He remembered a gas station attendant who offered a simple “thank you” after seeing his military identification.
“It definitely makes you feel proud for going over there,” Peterson said.
Christian Hill: 253-274-7390 firstname.lastname@example.org