For the past 15 years, service members from throughout the United States have come to Huntsville, Alabama, during the second week of November to be honored during Heroes Week.
As its name implies, Heroes Week celebrates heroes — service members and first responders who have been injured in the line of duty. It is held in conjunction with Veterans Day and is coordinated by the Semper Fi Community Task Force, a local, nonprofit organization initially established by Marines, for Marines in 2006.
Over the years, the task force opened its membership to all branches of the military and Heroes Week is its preeminent event. Service members are nominated to attend by their warrior transition unit, and they are each allowed to bring one caregiver with them to enjoy a week in Northern Alabama.
Heroes Week includes daily activities to honor and celebrate the attendees, the first of which is the welcome reception, a casual dinner that allows the heroes to meet each other, as well as the members of the all-volunteer task force, prior to the first outing.
This year, 18 heroes and their caregivers were invited to attend. They traveled from as far away as Hawaii, as close as Tennessee, and from several states in between. Semper Fi Community Task Force Vice Chairman Willie Simmons oversaw the coordination for this year’s event. During the welcome reception he went through the rules and the itinerary, then he explained southern hospitality.
“We love ya and we want you to enjoy your time here,” he said. “I know I’ve been asked more than once, ‘why would anyone in Huntsville, Alabama, love me?’ Well, that’s just the way people in Huntsville, Alabama, are.”
The welcome reception guest speaker is traditionally an active-duty leader from Redstone Arsenal. This year the task force invited Maj. Gen. Tom O’Connor, commanding general of the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command.
“What makes our nation great is people like you,” O’Connor told the heroes. “I’m honored to be here, and I’m honored to get to know each and every one of you. Thank you for your service to our nation. Thank you for your support of each other. And most importantly, thank you for being who you are and for making a difference in the lives of many.”
After he welcomed the heroes to the local area, O’Connor spent nearly two hours engaging in personal conversations with each of the attendees. They talked about duty assignments and deployments. They shared their experiences overseas, compared aches and pains, and connected in a way that only those who have worn the uniform, or loved someone who has worn it, really can.
He posed for pictures, shook hands, and stayed until the cleaning crew cleared the last dish and wiped down the last table — a signal that the party was over. Then O’Connor walked the last hero out of the room and thanked the Semper Fi coordinators for the opportunity to attend.
He said he was absolutely humbled and honored to be invited and he is grateful for the Semper Fi Community Task Force volunteers, who provide a well-deserved heroes’ welcome to injured service members each year.