Sergeant 1st Class Leo Hess, an Army reservist and firefighter, traveled all the way from Afghanistan to Washington, D.C., to show his thanks to the town of Gilbert, Ariz. for its support of the military.
Hess, on mid-tour leave in September, was on hand at the 2011 Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award ceremony, to personally express his gratitude to the people who cared for his wife and held his job for him while he was away.
In early 2011, while deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Hess nominated Gilbert for the Freedom Award, which recognizes exceptional support from the employer community. The town was among 15 organizations receiving the award, selected from more than 4,000 nominations.
"I was just so happy to see them recognized because I never expected the nomination to get this far," Hess said. "It really hit my heart to be there for them and for the town of Gilbert to be recognized in this way. For this to be a small town and to be recognized for what they do, not just for (me), but for all veterans, was a great honor."
Around town, Mayor John Lewis said Gilbert's appreciation for its servicemembers and veterans is no secret. Each year the town hosts an array of activities on Memorial and Veterans days, and its Constitution Week (a patriotic event with military themes) has grown over the past 10 years into one of the largest fairs in the country.
And Lewis said the town rolls out the red carpet for each servicemember returning from deployment. Every welcome celebration includes flag-waving citizens, band music, proclamations from state officials and a police escort with flashing lights and sirens.
"It's been a very positive way of expressing our appreciation for those who served," Lewis said. "We are always looking at ways of thanking our military both while they are servings and (when) welcoming them back. We have a community that is very patriotic, and we seem to have a strong feeling about that."
Hess, of Downey, Calif., shares the same feelings of patriotism and appreciation for the town he now calls home. He talks about how his coworkers stepped in to fill the void at home while he was away, and said he is even more grateful to the town for allowing him to keep his position as a firefighter with Ladder 255, even after he was called to duty twice in three years. There was a time when he doubted that would be the case.
For Hess, becoming a firefighter was a lifelong dream. He completed an associate degree in fire science before attending the firefighting training academy. He then went to school to become certified as an emergency medical technician-basic, pre-hospital emergency medical provider, all pre-requisites for the job.
"It was something I always dreamed about as a kid," he said. "I love helping others. It's a hands-on job and that's how I am. I like being out there and working with people … it's a lot of fun and rewarding."
Hess was an intern with Ladder 255 when in 2008 he got orders to deploy to Iraq. He fulfilled that commitment and returned to his job a year later. Hess had barely completed his job probation when his reserve unit called in December 2010 asking him to deploy again. With a second deployment looming, he feared his dream job could come to an end.
"It was kind of a shock because I had just got back," Hess said of the news. "I had only been home for about a year and they called and said they needed another person, and my name was on the list. I didn't know how my wife would take it, and I was worried because of my job situation."
Although Guard and reserve Soldiers are protected by the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act from job loss and pay cuts while fulfilling military obligations, Hess worried about having to face his supervisors and explain that he need to take another leave of absence, because once again, duty called.
It was at that moment that Hess learned how deeply committed the people of Gilbert are to its military.
"The first thing they said to me was, 'How can we help you? How can we help your family? What are some of the things around the house that you do that we can do for you?'" he said, recalling the words of his immediate supervisor, fire Capt. Mike Palmatier. "They weren't bothered by (the deployment) one bit."
"Keep in mind, Leo had only been back on the truck for about a year or so when he was asked to go to Afghanistan," Palmatier said. "As a crew, we admire and elevate him for his dedication to all of us here through his military service. We all knew L255 "A" shift just wouldn't be the same without Leo … but we supported him and his wife in any way needed throughout his deployment."
For the town of Gilbert, ensuring the Hesses were taken care of became a family affair. They were there when Hess's wife, Tamara, had a minor traffic accident, and paid her a visit to see if she needed assistance getting her car repaired. Ladder 255 "A" Shift, along with other members of the Gilbert Fire Department, checked on her occasionally to see if she needed help around the house. They were there the morning after a late-night water main break and performed repairs at no charge to the Hess family.
Hess said that while he was in Afghanistan, the town's generosity continued. He received multiple care packages from the people back home. "They loaded me up with candy … they kept the goodies coming this way," he said. "They always asked me what I needed and were always putting together packages. They just didn't do it for me, but always sent enough to share with everyone else. They wanted everyone to know they were missed and that someone was thinking about them."
Lewis said the comments from Soldiers returning from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan have always been that they have few worries about home while deployed because, "We knew the town would take good care of our families.
"That goes all the way from the typical things such as continuing differential payroll and health care benefits, if needed," he added. "As I have talked to those who have come back, they have said it is the 'little things' that have meant the most."
Hess, who was deployed when interviewed, said he could only imagine his homecoming. But he was certain there would be flag-waving, music and a police escort with flashing lights and sirens.
"It can be overwhelming at times," he said. "They really go out of their way when it comes to showing their thanks and appreciation for the military."