By Amy Guckeen Tolson, Staff Writer Redstone RocketNovember 16, 2011
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala.--Their names and faces he did not know, but Sgt. Anthony Tipton knew exactly where they had been and what they were going through.
"I don't know any of them but we've all walked on the same dirt, the same sand, had the same bitches and moans that everybody had that was over there, the dust, the heat, the cold at night, long times on watch, looking for somebody that you didn't find," Tipton said. "Just being around military people, that community and that sort of camaraderie that you have, you don't get that anywhere else."
With outstretched arms, North Alabama welcomed Tipton and other wounded warriors from across the country to Huntsville for the fifth annual Heroes Week, organized by the Semper Fi Community Task Force. From Nov. 8-13 the nation's heroes were embraced by the Tennessee Valley with a spirit of gratitude and given the chance to bond over their common ground -- their sense of duty, selflessness and the sacrifice they made for their country.
"In my area when we deploy and when we come back we never have any fanfare, we never have any acknowledgements other than in our own little community," said Tipton, with the 20th Special Forces Group with the Army National Guard. "It's nice to be recognized for doing something we feel was right. I didn't volunteer to go over to Iraq or Afghanistan lightly, it's something I really thought about."
The usual quiet of the Huntsville International Airport was suspended Nov. 8 to welcome the wounded warriors as cheers, the revving of motorcycle engines and flashing lights erupted upon their arrival. Patriot Guard riders lined the airport concourse with American flags before escorting the heroes from the airport to the Westin.
"We weren't expecting this at all, this elaborate welcome," said Katlynn Hoy, wife of Lance Cpl. Mason Hoy.
The wow was just beginning for the wounded warriors and their families, who were treated to nothing less than the best in accommodations, dining and activities. Highlights from the week included a day of beauty for spouses, fishing tournament, the Marine Corps Ball and Veterans Day parade.
"We want them to know how much our country loves them and appreciates them," Joe Bongiovanni, chairman of the Semper Fi Community Task Force, said. "That's more important than anything -- validation. Validation for their service and their sacrifices and their commitment to our country, just for them to feel good and know that they're loved and appreciated."
Tipton was medevaced out of Iraq this July after an IED attack that left him with vestibular and ocular nerve damage and traumatic brain injury. For the past few months he has coped with the effects of his injury, migraines, headaches and memory loss. Despite living right here in North Alabama, Tipton and his wife took advantage of the opportunity to completely unplug from life, staying at the Westin, where they were able to reconnect and spend time with each other. Prior to his deployment to Iraq, Tipton was deployed to Afghanistan from 2009-10, with only eight months at home between deployments.
"This is as much for her as it is for me because of the sacrifices she makes," Tipton said.
For the Hoys, high school sweethearts married last January, the trip was a much-needed chance to make fun, rest and relaxation a priority.
"Having a little break from my recovery will be nice and really help me out," said Mason, who has struggled with traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder since his injury in Afghanistan in September 2010.
"Where we are nobody really understands what he's going through or what the wife is going through," Katlynn said. "Here it will feel more like a family. It's nice getting him away from everything and giving him a good week to just relax and enjoy."
The Semper Fi Community Task Force raised more than $130,000 for Heroes Week, all of which went to support the wounded warriors. Combined with the outpouring of support from the community, those that volunteered and others that simply showed up with signs and cheers at the airport and the Westin, the week was a concrete sign of how dedicated the North Alabama community is to the nation's wounded warriors.
"For people to give up their time with their families and work, and to come down here, and for the businesses in the community, the Westin, and all the other companies that provide support, with the economy the way it is, for them to put out a helping hand and to show their appreciation for our service, it puts a little icing on top of the cake," Tipton said.
"The truth is, this effort is ecumenical," retired Gen. Frank Libutti, senior Marine of the Semper Fi Community Task Force, said. "This event is about bringing wounded warriors to Huntsville and telling them how much we appreciate their service to our country and carrying that same view with their spouse or family member, telling them thank you thank you thank you, God bless you, we appreciate all you've done. It's about giving back a sense of worth and value that they have given to our country by small tokens of our appreciation."