The Soldier and their family - that's who are at the heart of all the activities sponsored every year by the North Alabama Veterans and Fraternal Organizations Coalition and its 48 member organizations.

And the coalition's annual awards and recognition reception Feb. 20 at the Veterans Memorial Museum was an opportunity to thank the local organizations and companies who have donated special services to the coalition's Soldier and family-friendly events, including Operation Christmas Bear, the Veterans Day Parade and several Welcome Home programs.

"We're all here because we love our troops. We really do," said coalition president and retired National Guard sergeant David Carney. "All the programs and activities we do are done because our hearts are into helping Soldiers and their families. That's what we're all about."

With the displays at the museum as a backdrop for the awards program, Carney presented organizations and companies with a token of appreciation. The program also included a review of coalition highlights from 2007, an induction of 2008 officers, an update on plans for the new veterans memorial, patriotic music sung by Huntsville firefighter Danny McNeal and refreshments served by members of the DuMidi Women's Club.

The coalition was started more than 30 years ago. But several events have redefined its mission in recent years and increased its significance to the community, Carney said.

In its earlier years, the coalition was involved in the Veterans Day Parade and focused its efforts primarily on supporting veterans and retirees. That role expanded substantially 10 years ago when it began hosting a Veterans Day Dinner in conjunction with the parade. That event grew through the years to include several other activities planned around the patriotic holiday.

Four years ago, the coalition began Operation Christmas Bear and, at about the same time, became more involved in supporting military deployments from North Alabama.

"When our Soldiers started going to war we became more aware that supporting them needed to be a major part of our mission," Carney said.

Not only did the coalition's members support its expanded role with Soldiers and their families, but so, too, did corporate sponsors and the community in general.

"Operation Christmas Bear gets bigger and bigger every year ... The Blue Star Service Banner program became important to us because it was a way for us to give our support to families and show our appreciation for the sacrifice they were making," said John Perry, the coalition's executive vice president and a retired Reserve command sergeant major.

"And, the Going Away and Welcome Home ceremonies also became an important mission for us. Everyone (from this community) that goes over (to a deployment) we send over knowing these Soldiers are going to return and we'll give them a big welcome," Perry said.

"The support of the military is what makes this community great. One of the things that I think drives us all on is that we want to make sure the welcome home that we received (after Vietnam) is not going to be the same welcome home our Soldiers receive today."

The coalition - with the help of the Patriot Guard Riders -- has made it a point to publicly welcome home every returning Soldier as a hero. During 2007, the coalition welcomed back Soldiers from the 108th Reserves, and the National Guard's 128th Military Police Company and 1169th Engineer Group along with other airport Welcome Home events for smaller groups of Soldiers and Marines.

"We want them to know we appreciate their sacrifice," Perry said.

Such events couldn't be accomplished without special sponsors that make donations of needed services.

"We couldn't do it without our corporate sponsors and all of you here," Perry said to the coalition audience. "A lot of these things, like Christmas Bear, have a huge budget."

Those corporate and community sponsors who received special recognition were: AAAA-Tennessee Valley, Aero-Thermo Tech, American Legion Post 229, American Legion Post 237, ASMDA, Redstone-Huntsville Chapter of AUSA, Cahaba Shrine Temple, City of Huntsville, City of Madison, Domino's Pizza, DuMidi, Enchanted Masquerade, Fraternal Order of the Eagles, Fraternal Order of the Eagles Ladies Auxiliary No. 3263, Gray Research Inc., Huntsville Fire Department, Huntsville Police Department, Inergi, INFROPRO, Krogers, Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co., Madison County Military Heritage Commission, Military Order of the Purple Heart, N&L Enterprises, NDIA, Redstone Recognition, Regions Bank, Shearer & Associates Inc., Sparta, Tennessee Valley Voiture 1012 (Clown Unit), Wal-Mart (Sparkman Drive), Heart of the Valley YMCA, Woody Anderson Ford and volunteers Bob Quire, Madison County Circuit Court Judge Laura Jo Hamilton, Linda Crutcher, Judy Johnson and Darlene Jolly.

In addition, Sue Paddock, director of Army Community Service, accepted a special award from the coalition on behalf of ACS "in grateful recognition of your support to our nation's Armed Forces and their families."

The coalition's 2008 officers were also sworn in at the banquet. They are: Executive Vice President - retired Reserve Command Sgt. Maj. John Perry; Treasurer - retired Col. Joe Paddock; Secretary - Beverly Lowe; Vice President for Finance - National Guard Cpt. Jeff Owen; Vice President for Corporate/Military Affairs - retired Sgt. 1st Class Russell Kimball; and Vice President for Membership - retired Col. Bob Wilke. Carney is serving the second year of a two-year term as coalition president.