Nation's Heroes Arrive For Week In Their Honor
November 6, 2013
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- It does not matter if they hail from Alabama, or faraway places like California, Alaska or Vermont -- they will receive a hero's welcome home in Huntsville just the same.
From the roar of motorcycles to the outpouring of red, white and blue accompanied by the cheers of bystanders, today the Tennessee Valley opens its arms to wounded heroes from across the country arriving for the seventh annual Semper Fi Community Task Force's Heroes Week. While the well-wishers that welcome the war fighters to Huntsville International Airport and The Westin today don't know the heroes' names, they know of their sacrifice, which is enough to give them a rousing reception befitting the service they have given their country.
"It's genuinely fun to see these young people get off the airplane, and just the surprise of what they're experiencing when they get here, because they've never experienced anything like that," Dave Johnson, co-chairman of Heroes Week, said. "Most people in the U.S. believe the war is over. They don't realize, for a lot of these guys and ladies, the war is going to go on for the rest of their lives."
Heroes Week provides a break from that war, a chance for rest, relaxation and recognition for the wounded service members and their spouses and caregivers, and today's welcome to North Alabama is only the beginning. With the four-star accommodations of The Westin as their home for the week, other activities throughout their weeklong stay include the Veterans Dinner, parade of boats on Lake Guntersville, aerial tour of North Alabama, Marine Corps Ball, Veterans Day breakfast and parade, as well as a spa day for the ladies, and variety of lunches and dinners held in their honor.
"They come off the plane and there are people all around them, it's a big crowd -- we want it to be a big love fest for them," Dave Bonwit, co-chairman of Heroes Week, said. "The last time they were in a big crowd they got hurt, so their shields are up, their guards are up, but by the time they leave six days later, they're just so relaxed. They're looking for the hug and the contact, and they realize that it's OK. They're going to be all right. There's someone who cares."
Presented at absolutely no cost to the Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who attend the festivities, Heroes Week is made possible through the generous donations of the community. What began as a weekend event in November 2007 has grown tremendously as a result of the incredible support the Tennessee Valley offers the nation's heroes.
"It's grown because the community has embraced it," Bonwit said. "The community shows their love for these kids. We provide a mechanism for people to say thank you, and that's basically what we're doing. It means a lot to be able to help in that regard."
Primarily working with the Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment out of Quantico, Va., and Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, the Semper Fi Community Task Force invites wounded service members from all branches of service and all parts of the nation to Heroes Week, provided they are physically, mentally and emotionally prepared for the activities, and don't have any medical appointments that would conflict with the week's schedule. A total of 60 guests have been invited this year, a mix of single and married wounded heroes and their spouses, partners and caregivers -- no children allowed -- so mom and dad can have a chance to fully focus on their relationship.
"They go away to war, they come back, and now they're looking at an entire lifetime of their spouse being a caregiver," Johnson said. "They didn't sign up for that. It's every day. It doesn't stop. That's why it's so important for us to have a day of beauty for their spouses. They've been taking care of their warrior and helping them recover, getting them to their appointments, and they haven't had a lot of loving themselves. This gives them a chance to reconnect, without any distraction of appointments."
Not only do the wounded heroes and their loved ones have the opportunity to reconnect, but the heroes also have the opportunity to connect with each other.
"You get to watch the interactions that they have -- it provides them a venue to talk to other people who have been through a similar experience," Bonwit said. "The whole event creates an environment where they can relax and take their pack off. They're safe. No one's going to use anything they say against them. They can really unload."
Those interactions at times can also be eye-opening for their loved ones.
"A lot of times the wounded warrior doesn't tell their spouse the details of what happened, either they can't or they don't want to put them through that," Bonwit said. "They will talk to another wounded warrior about it, and the spouses will sit and listen to what's going on. Afterwards, they'll come up and tell us, 'He doesn't tell me these things. I never knew what he went through. Now I have an appreciation for it.' They won't. They can't. They're trying to block it out, but when they're in an environment where someone has been through something similar, they'll open up."
James West was once in their boots. Injured while serving with the Army in Iraq in June 2006, West was burned over 40 percent of his body when a fireball struck him while he was refueling a truck. A few years following his injury, West was invited to participate in Heroes Week.
"It was amazing to see how many people showed up, especially when you're riding down the road up to The Westin, to see how many people took time out of their day to come out, to just stand there and wave and show their support," West said. "That was the most heartfelt, touching thing, the support of the community. It's not just a group of people, it's the total community."
This year, West will be one of the motorcycle riders escorting the heroes from the airport to The Westin, just like those well-wishers who made such an impact on him when he was an attendee of Heroes Week. West will never forget the people who cheered for him as he rode past in a Corvette at the Veterans Day Parade.
"Most people go there for the parade itself, but here you can just feel that it's different," West said. "They're not only there for the parade; they're there for a much larger reason. It's hard to explain, but you can feel it."
For more information about Heroes Week, visit www.semperfictf.org.