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Around Our Town...Hometown Heroes

Freedom Salute

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02/01/2006 - by Jennifer Sardam

A small but significant awards ceremony held January 9 in Casper's National Guard Armory echoed a nationwide theme.

Over two years ago, the Army National Guard began the Freedom Salute Campaign, an unprecedented program created to recognize Army National Guard soldiers, their families and others who support them as they serve on missions at home and abroad. Soldiers who were mobilized under either operations Noble Eagle (U.S. military and civil operations in support of homeland defense) , Enduring Freedom or Iraqi Freedom, and those on orders in support of one of these operations for over 30 days, are eligible for recognition.

During a Freedom Salute Ceremony, presenters award each soldier with an encased American flag; a sequentially numbered commemorative coin; a "Defender of Freedom" certificate signed by Lt. Gen. Roger C. Schultz, Director of the Army National Guard, and Command Sgt. Maj. A. Frank Lever, III, 7th Command Sergeant Major, Army National Guard; and a lapel insignia. The soldier's spouse and children are also eligible to receive items recognizing their support and contribution. In addition, each recognized soldier can observe one individual or organization for their outstanding support during the soldier's mobilization. This is given in the form of a commemorative lapel insignia and a medallion with ribbon.

In Casper, family and friends gathered to acknowledge the contributions of soldiers in the state's Force Protection Airport Security Program that began soon after the September 11th attacks. This was in response to President Bush's authorization and request to U.S. governors to deploy National Guard forces to assist in providing interim security to airports within their states. During the course of almost eight months on duty, Wyoming Air and Army Guardsmen helped to secure 10 airports.

Brenda Welch says her husband Dean's role was twofold in addition to providing security, both helping to calm fearful air travelers and being diplomatic to those disgruntled by the inconvenience of the new measures.

Dean, a retired sergeant first class with six years in the Navy and 19 years in the Army Guard, was the noncommissioned officer in charge of the overall mission to secure Natrona County International Airport.

In a short period of time, he found himself in charge of the Guardsmen, organizing their 12-hour shifts and managing the transport of the soldiers' weapons to and from the Casper armory.

"It's just one of those things," says Dean. "You get angry that you're attacked, and [then] it's 'okay what are we going to do.'"

Pride was the most visible emotion during the ceremony, as Brenda pinned the insignia on her husband's lapel. "We knew from the time we got married that this was always a possibility and I couldn't imagine him not doing it," she says. "I think he gives the community a personal touch through the military, because they're not just the Army, somebody unknown. This is somebody in the community that works in the community, and then they're called up; it gives it a personal touch."

What soldiers like Dean gave the community was returned in the form of donations -- cookies, coolers and even a Thanksgiving dinner invitation were offered freely by strangers.

"We got a lot of local support," says Dean. "People came out there and actually walked up and shook our hands and thanked us for our service."

Family support is a valuable and challenging part of the mission, too.

"It was scary at the beginning, because we didn't know what was going to happen or what was going on," says Brenda. "At that time, we still had two children at home."

Following his duty in Casper, Dean moved to Laramie where he was assigned the same role at its airport, and later to Cheyenne to oversee the state's force protection program.

"He would come home every other weekend," says Brenda, "and that would be about it. It takes a lot of long-distance phone calls, a lot of e-mails, and a lot of talking."

So it was with a sense of camaraderie that attendees gathered on this windy Wyoming evening, not just to honor the soldiers in their lives, but in the spirit of a shared identity with their fellow community members.

Dean, now a heavy equipment operator working for the City of Casper, also serves as an Employer Support for the Guard and Reserve representative, a liaison between employers and their employees who are also Guardsmen and Reservists. He helps to educate both sides on such matters as reemployment rights following deployment and other concerns. This former soldier and veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom identifies well with three of the words engraved on the bronze plate adorning the case that contains the American flag: citizen, soldier, hero.

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