It was a half hearted attempt to get some donations for this group who are hosting 21 wounded Vets in Fort Myers for a weekend of fun! Well, It looks like they are sure enjoying themselves!!
It was the welcome of a lifetime.
Twenty-one wounded soldiers traveling by bus got a police escort down Interstate 75 into Fort Myers on Friday.
They were escorted by six sheriff’s deputies on motorcycles, two sheriff cars and a dozen bikers with Rolling Thunder and Legion Riders.
“We’re here to give them the welcome back they deserve,” said Russ Holcombe, with the Rolling Thunder.
The soldiers, who were wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, traveled from the Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Ga., to Fort Myers. Their hometowns cross the United States. Many of them serve with the National Guard.
“Their spirits are high,” said 1st Sgt. Joe Gardocki, one of three escorts with the group.
“A lot of these guys have been through hell.”
The soldiers were invited to Fort Myers to enjoy a weekend of fishing and fun by a man who wanted to pay it forward.
In 1967, Cliff Naylor was injured during the Vietnam War. The then-20-year-old soldier spent a year at the Fort Gordon hospital.
Near the end of his recovery, the city of Miami offered to take 21 soldiers from Fort Gordon hospital and treat them like kings for a weekend. The trip to Miami reminded him people cared despite the unpopular war.
It was Naylor’s dream to make that happen for other wounded soldiers. His dream was realized Friday.
“It’s about these kids knowing people care about them,” he said. “I want this to be healing for them. That’s what it’s all about.”
The soldiers felt the love. Their hotel rooms were packed with Norman Love chocolates, teddy bears, a trophy, a welcome bag and goodies.
They had breakfast Friday at Cracker Barrel on Palm Beach Boulevard and shook a lot of welcoming hands. This weekend is packed with activities and surprises.
“Soldiers worry about being forgotten,” said Staff Sgt. Paul Mullis with the National Guard. He’s from Alabama, has four children and been in the hospital four months since an improvised explosive device hit him in Iraq and crushed his right shoulder.
“This confirms that people still care. This makes us feel wanted. I wish I could meet all the people who donated anything and say thank you.”
Specialist Nash Marlow, 22, was hit by an explosive device while pulling a convoy in Iraq. The blast herniated three of his discs, pinched his sciatica and ripped a disc.
“People were proud of this war in the beginning,” he said. “But now the war is dragging on and people are getting tired of it. Everybody here is a part of history and now we know someone still cares.”
Specialist Andres Perez, 35, has one wish. “We just want our country to love us the same way we love our country,” he said.
Perez, a National Guardsman from Texas, has suffered far more than most. His wife and two children were killed in an auto accident last year while he was deployed. Six months ago, an accident cost him five herniated and two ruptured discs. He has been at the hospital for six months.
“We just want dignity,” he said.
The worst part about being injured is not being welcomed home with your unit, said Specialist Marcus Varnell, 20.
“My unit came back and had a nice ceremony surrounded by loving family and friends. This homecoming makes us feel special. Someone appreciates what we did for them.”
Specialist Crystal Davis, 23, is the only woman soldier on the trip.
“I love it,” she said. “I get all the guys to myself.”
Davis, who is from South Carolina, has been in three hospitals since January 2006 when she lost her right leg in an explosion. She was driving in a convoy when an explosive device detonated. Her left leg was shattered as well.
“They saw me coming and they hit the remote control button,” she said.
After breakfast Friday, Davis asked for a hair appointment.
Kathy Cantu, owner of Red Salon & Spa, dropped everything to give Davis the works — complimentary massage, manicure and hair styling.
“If there are any other soldiers who want to get pampered, we want to pay them back,” Cantu said. “We all need to pay it forward.”
Cantu called Pinque Boutique owner, Mandee Roenigk, and told her about Davis. Roenigk invited Davis to her store to pick out any outfit she wanted.
The community has opened its arms to welcome all the soldiers. Jeff Webb, owner of the Hampton Inn & Suites on Colonial Boulevard in Fort Myers, put the soldiers up for free. Capt. John Bunch, who operates Operation Open Arms, raised money; local restaurants Mel’s Diner, Bert’s Bar and Pinchers Crab Shack are offering meals; and Enterprise Rental has donated vans. Local VFWs and the American Legion are pulling out all the stops.
The soldiers leave Monday morning after a farewell reception at the Hampton Inn & Suites in Fort Myers. They will receive the key to Fort Myers.
Naylor is touched by the soldiers’ positive reactions and the outpouring of generosity by the community. He tries not to choke up.
“It’s everything I expected it to be and more,” he said.
The soldiers feel emotional as well.
“This is the first time I’ve had public appreciation,” said Sgt. Scott VanNatta, 36, a National Guardsman from Kansas. He rolled over in a truck while in Iraq and severely injured his shoulder.
“I love it but I’m in shock. It’s really, really overwhelming. It’s always been my honor and privilege to serve.”
They are Heroes in my eyes!!
WOW -- I would of not survived that. Honestly, I think I would of left this world with a taste of 12ga slug after that one ....
I'm very happy to see that at least a few vets are given the respect they've earned. These folks have seen a baptism in fire, and deserve this country's appreciation. If everyone did a little something, not matter how small, it'd add up to a serious display of appreciation.
I just sent a good friend of mine that I served with a care package of gear to take back to the sandbox with him...he's a Forward Air Controller on his 3rd deployment to Iraq, after 3 back to back trips to 'Stan, and 1 to Bosnia...all of which he volunteered for...
Good work jj.
must be sumthin.. in my.... eye.......
You rock JJ. Glad to hear all went well.
Very well done!