Tuesday, April 24, 2007

National Guard: Freedom Salute

"You get by with so little there," Lopez said. "Having it all back is overwhelming."

- Delicia Lopez

Grand Forks soldiers, their families, employers and friends were honored Saturday for their sacrifice and support during a Freedom Salute ceremony hosted by the North Dakota Army National Guard.

The motorcycle Patriot Guard team held U.S. flags to welcome soldiers and distinguished guests as they arrived at the Grand Forks Armory as the 188th Army Band brass quintet played.

North Dakota's congressional leaders, Sens. Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad and Rep. Earl Pomeroy, joined the families and friends of the 1-188th Air Defense Artillery Regiment's JLENS unit to honor the 39 soldiers who returned home in February from a year of service in Afghanistan.

Gov. John Hoeven arrived after a slight delay with Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk to pay tribute to the soldiers and family members.

"They are our citizen soldiers," Dorgan said. "They leave families, homes and jobs behind, which is very different than active duty. It is a significant sacrifice that these men and women do so willingly.

"I just want to thank them."

Irma Moran, Grafton, N.D., is thankful to have her sister, Delicia Lopez, 27, home safe.

"I came here to show my support," Moran said. "Glad the whole unit came home safe. They were in our hearts and prayers."

"It was long," Lopez said. "I was deployed with my fiance, and having him there was a big help."

The hardest part for Lopez was being away from her daughter, Peyton, 7, who was her biggest supporter.

"You get by with so little there," Lopez said. "Having it all back is overwhelming."

Before leaving, Lopez decided it would be best not to return home on leave during deployment.

"It was hard watching people go home on leave," she said. "It was best for my daughter. I made the right decision."

The unit was the first Guard unit to operate new surveillance technology to provide security for forces on military bases. They were replaced by 39 other soldiers from the 1-188th Air Defense Artillery.

"The JLENS unit was the eyes in the sky, keeping watch over their fellow soldiers," Conrad said. "Their service only reinforces the North Dakota National Guard's key role in defending our nation."

JLENS stands for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor.

"The ceremony honors the soldiers, the families, the children and employers," said Master Sgt. Rob Keller, public information officer. "They all sacrificed in their own way."

Shelle Michaels, regional manager for Soldiers' Angels, received a Center of Influence award for her commitment and dedication to the soldiers and their families.

"It is one of the most prestigious awards," Michaels said. "I am speechless, and very honored."

As part of the National Guard's "Freedom Salute Campaign", each mobilized unit that comes off active duty awards one "Distinguished Center of Influence" award to an individual or organization for their support of the unit's soldiers and their families.

Michaels and her group send support and information to soldiers overseas. When they come home on leave, they seek her out to meet her and thank her, Michaels said.

"Keeping them informed about what is happening back at home," she said. "It means so much to them."

Soldiers and their families were presented with commemorative flag cases with Freedom Salute medallions to honor their service and support.
- May no soldier go unloved