Saturday, July 7, 2012

A Hero's Welcome

Maria Johnson welcomes son,
 Army  Sgt, Ryan Clarke
 home from Afghanistan.
There was a giddy nervousness about her, not unlike a school girl fidgeting about before her first date, and a blind date at that. At least that was the impression this wound up mother of three gave in the final moments before piling into two cars with her two younger sons, her husband, mother-in-law and a smattering of family friends, and headed down the Suncoast Parkway to Tampa international Airport (TIA) where, after nearly two years of silence and a tour in the heat teaming deserts of Afghanistan, her oldest child, Army Sergeant Ryan Clarke was finally coming home.
Maria Letner Johnson, West Pasco Chamber of Commerce Membership Director by day, Pampered Chef consultant by night, and full time concerned Mom to an overseas serviceman, oozed anticipation and restlessness fiddling for toll booth change, bubbled with excitement that ‘her boy’ was coming home.
But it wouldn’t go smoothly for the Land ‘O Lakes, Florida resident and her supporting entourage.
They were met at the roof level parking lot at TIA by Members of the Tampa branch of PATRIOT GUARD RIDERS, a motor cycle club made up of veterans of the Viet Nam War and other military conflicts, waiting, flags in hand, to join in the salute.
They were met at the gate by representatives of Sand Soldiers of America, a non-profit organization serving veterans, active troops and military families, on hand to welcome Sgt. Clarke home, and make a presentation to him.  Pasco County District 5 Commissioner, Jack Mariano waited with the nervous Mom and her slowly growing group, offering his support, not, he said, as a politician, but as a neighbor and friend.  Commissioner Mariano remained by Maria’s side throughout the flight delays, canceling other meetings to do so.
The flight from Louisiana VIA Houston was due to arrive at 10:20 AM.  At 11:00 the boards were updated to say the flight was delayed.  Again at 11:15, 11:30 and 11:45.
 Finally, at 11:50 a frantically pacing Military Mom reached into her pocket for her ringing cell phone.  “Hi Mom,” the voice in her ear said. “We just touched down and should be at the gate in about ten minutes.”
You could see the look of relief in her now teary eyes as she shouted to the crowd now grown to nearly a hundred, including total strangers who were passing by, heard why they were here, and joined into the celebration slowing growing at gate eighteen in TIA’s ‘A’  concourse.  “He’s here!  He’s here!  He’s here!”
One of the groups of strangers consisted of elementary school aged members of a local Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) group visiting the airport on a field trip.   These excited kids quickly and enthusiastically joined the party, each taking a small US flag and waving it every time a shuttle from the gate to the concourse terminal arrived.
It was nearly noon when finally, after several false alarms, one more shuttle arrived.  The doors on the left side shuttle landing opened and the tired passengers disembarked.
One of the last in the group was a short haired, neatly shaved all-american kid in a grey T-shirt and khaki shorts.  As he walked down the concourse entryway, you could see the spark of recognition turn into a slowly growing big toothy grin as the sounds of over a hundred people chanted “Sergeant Clarke!...Sergeant Clarke!...Sergeant Clarke!”
Then it happened. The burst of applause as even more strangers joined in welcoming an American hero home from Afghanistan.  The Patriot Guard Riders snapped to attention, popped a crisp salute, and held their full sized American flags out as an impromptu color guard honoring this young returning hero.
And a tearful mother wrapped the son she had not seen in over two years in her arms while the crowd of joyful onlookers clapped, cheered, and cried with her.
For his part, this humble young man warmly and appreciatively thanked everyone who had come to greet him – after giving his younger brothers a half-hearted scolding for not warning him about all this.
Sergeant Ryan Clarke is a young man about whom America and Pasco County can be proud.  Humble in his appreciation of what was going on and at the same time uncomfortable that people were making such a fuss over him!
And Mom, well she’s walking on clouds.
“My family is now complete.” She said through teary eyes as she hugged all three sons for what was a small eternity.
Sergeant Ryan Clarke, US Army, welcome home!  We salute you, and wholeheartedly thank you for your service to your – and our – nation!  God Bless and protect you, Sergeant Clarke, and God Bless the United States of America!
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