FORT POLK, La. -- Not every brigade has "soldiers" who wear combat boots or carry weapons. Armed with apple pies and smiles, the warriors of the Apple Pie Brigade have a mission: To deliver a pie and appreciation to every Soldier deploying or arriving home from a deployment.

"This is about the Soldiers and all they do for us," said Sara Simmonds, the brigade's leader.
With 93 years under her belt and enough zest to carry a community, Simmonds, who insists on being called "Sara," began this mission in 2004 when members of the Idaho National Guard were stranded at Alexandria's England Air Park en route overseas. They were originally scheduled to be here for three days, but it turned into six weeks, she said.

Sara was having dinner at the air park bistro one night when those National Guard Soldiers showed up. She stopped to talk to several of them. During their conversations, it was brought to her attention that they were there for an indefinite amount of time due to a transportation backlog.

"Their conditions were dismal in the old hangar, and they did not have transportation to get to the store to purchase personal items," explained Fred Rosenfeld, operator of the bistro and Parc England Hotel. "I offered them transportation, and Sara and I fed several of those Soldiers that night. Then, she went into overdrive," explained Rosenfeld. "Sara also rallied the help of the community to make their conditions as comfortable as possible during their stay."

That was the beginning of the Apple Pie Brigade.

"That event really got this whole thing started, and Sara has never let up," Rosenfeld said.
From that point, Sara made it her mission to help all Soldiers who processed through Alexandria International Airport, and she rallied the help of the community and volunteers to assist in those efforts.

"Sara is very motivated, focused and driven," said Rosenfeld. "You don't want to get in her way."

One of her first gatherings following the extended stay of the National Guard troops was in early 2005 when she gave king cakes to the troops. The Mardi Gras season ended, which is what led to the delivering of apple pies. "I volunteered on one of her committees one day. That's when I approached her with the hot apple pies we sell at our stores," explained Glenda Stock, owner/operator of the McDonald's restaurants in Alexandria. "From then on, we worked out an alliance with her to aid in her efforts," she said.

"Our troops recognize hot apple pies as a symbol of America - of home. We're honored to be aligned with Sara in support of our Soldiers," explained Stock. "This is just a small token to show we care."

Every time Sara receives word that a group of Soldiers will be arriving at the processing center, whether coming or going, she rallies her troops and puts her plan into action.

During a speech at an awards ceremony held at a change of command ceremony Jan. 7, retired Brig. Gen. James Yarbrough, then Fort Polk commanding general, spoke of Simmonds and her brigade. "A Soldier may stick that apple pie in their cargo pocket and forget about it. Several hours later, at 30,000 feet, they'll reach into their pocket and find that apple pie. It reminds them of home and a familiar face," he said.

"(Brig.) General Yarbrough named us the 'Apple Pie Brigade,' but we call ourselves the 'apple pie pushers,'" joked Sara.

The pies are purchased by First United Methodist Church in Pineville, La., and through various donations, said Sara. "The beverages are donated by one of our volunteers, Leo Dobard, who owns Cenla beverage in Alexandria. Everybody brings something to the table, whether it's pies, sodas or a smile. Things in this project just 'click' beautifully. It somehow all comes together."
The brigade has not missed any deployments or homecomings of Fort Polk troops since its 2005 beginning. No matter the time, Sara and her brigade are at the center to greet the Soldiers. "Day or night, if they're here, we're here," she said.

Soldiers from Fort Polk's 272nd Military Police Company, 519th Military Police Battalion, got to experience the Apple Pie Brigade firsthand when they arrived at the processing center Jan. 21 en route to their year-long deployment to Iraq.

"These people are amazing, and it's great they're here. Being around a military post all the time, we've really not seen civilians who show their appreciation like this," said Sgt. 1st Class Robert Key, a 272nd Soldier.

"We're just a motley crew who meets at no other time than to greet these troops," explained Carolyn Pate, one of the brigade volunteers.

The brigade is comprised of 10 volunteers and is considered one of Fort Polk's best-kept secrets. They serve drinks, deliver apple pies and greet the troops as they come through their line in the processing center.

"Thank you for your service."
"We appreciate you."
"Come home safely."

It's important to each volunteer that every Soldier is reminded of the group's appreciation. "We are all there because we want to tell the troops we appreciate them," said Sara. "This is all about them."

Once the last pies were eaten (or shoved into a cargo pocket) and the last of the soda cups emptied, the 272nd Soldiers donned their gear and marched to the awaiting aircraft. As they walked their way to a year outside U.S. soil, the Apple Pie Brigade lined their path and cheered. Each Soldier passed through a rank of people concerned with giving them a farewell fitting a hero. Whistling, clapping, high-fiving and hugging surrounded the Soldiers, which is something most of them were not expecting.

"The Soldiers look forward to seeing this group of people here," explained Lt. Col. David Detz, commander, 519th Military Police Battalion. "The Apple Pie Brigade is the last group to see them before their deployment - and they're the first to see them when they get home. That's a big deal to these Soldiers."

Detz said that Soldiers use small goals to signify their homecoming and the end of their deployments. "These Soldiers know the sooner they see the Apple Pie Brigade again, the sooner they get to see their Families. The Soldiers look forward to that."

The brigade stays at the center until the last Soldier has filed in or out. Then, they collect their supplies and discuss the next gathering or memorial service. "We try to get to the memorial service of each fallen Soldier from Fort Polk," said Sara. "We know we may have been the last familiar face they saw before they left home," she said. "We support them until the end."

The brigade members are quick to explain they are not looking for accolades or praise. "This is about the Soldiers. It's one thing to read about it or see it on TV, but these are human beings. We aren't doing this for recognition. We do it because it's right," Rosenfeld said. "We do what we can to make life a little better for them."

"These people (Soldiers) do so much for us and our freedom. This is just our way of thanking them. It is our privilege to be here. This is an honor," said Sara.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16