At left, Michele Rooney a volunteer with Hero's Welcome and her husband Tim Rooney, center, a member of the Warriors Watch Riders welcome home their son Marine Corporal Gary Anoushian after a tour of duty in Afghanistan. It was Anoushian's 3rd tour - the first to Iraq and the second and third to Afghanistan - fighting terrorism. (John Strickler)
At left, Michele Rooney a volunteer with Hero's Welcome and her husband Tim Rooney, center, a member of the Warriors Watch Riders welcome home their son Marine Corporal Gary Anoushian after a tour of duty in Afghanistan. It was Anoushian's 3rd tour - the first to Iraq and the second and third to Afghanistan - fighting terrorism. (John Strickler)

A Hero’s Welcome: No one should come home without our thanks

Sharon Hyland started out alone, standing with a flag at Philadelphia International Airport.

She watched for service members returning home to their families. When she saw one, she offered her thanks.

Seeing shock, gratitude and humility in their eyes, Hyland said, she was hooked. “You get addicted to that feeling,” she said, “and want to do it again and again.”

Hyland is the founder of A Hero’s Welcome, which mobilizes volunteers to welcome home returning soldiers, Marines, sailors, airmen and Coast Guardsmen, and now has chapters around the country. She was inspired after she realized that the Vietnam veterans in Pottstown, Pa.’s annual Fourth of July parade seemed to carry themselves differently than other vets.

Michele Rooney talks about the serious side of her son, Marine Corporal Gary Anoushian and him wanting to enlist in the Marine Corp. She told him that to make sure he was making the commitment for the right reasons, by joining the Marine Corp, he needed to know that he was willing to give his life for his country. Photo by John Strickler/The Mercury

“I thought, ‘Shame on us that we ever let our heroes come home from a war without our thanks.’”

Hyland, then 25, began A Hero’s Welcome in 2007. Less than a year later, Vietnam era veteran Wayne Lutz founded the Warriors’ Watch Riders, a “motorcycle-centric group” of veterans and nonveterans who escort returning service members to celebrations.

Today, the Pennsylvania groups both have chapters around the country and often work together. A Hero’s Welcome is the lightning, Hyland said, and the Warriors’ Watch Riders “bring the thunder with their motorcycles.”

“The only thing that draws attention more than a motorcycle,” Lutz said, “is a lot of motorcycles.”

Lutz said the men and women he’s welcomed are “always the same. They’re always extremely humble, [saying] ‘I don’t deserve this.’“ But he tells them, “You do deserve this by the very fact of raising your hand.”

‘It’s amazing.’ When Hyland created A Hero’s Welcome, the U.S. was involved in an unpopular war. She did not want the group to veer into politics. “I wanted people who were out to support the troops, and that was it.”

In September 2007, she organized the first of what would become more than a thousand large-scale welcome home celebrations.

U.S. Army Airborne's Ian Keyser, at left, husband of A Hero's Welcome founder Sharon Hyland-Keyser, at right, was honored with a welcome home ceremony after a tour of duty in Afghanistan. The event was held during half time of a Pottstown, Pa. football game where Ian Keyser was a former standout quarterback for the Pottstown Trojans. Sharon Hyland-Keyser has since enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and is currently a Lieutenant stationed in Beaufort, S.C. Photo by Kevin Hoffman/The Mercury

Two young Marines were cheered by hundreds as they stood at the Pottsgrove High School football field in Pottstown, Pa. for the coin toss at a Friday night game.

Aaron Martin, a 2001 graduate of Pottsgrove High School, and Patrick Smith, a 2005 graduate of nearby Boyertown Area High School, had both recently returned from Iraq.

“I thought it was just going to be a bunch of friends at my house. Then I came here, and people are coming out of the woodwork,” said Martin, who had been picked up at the airport hours before the kickoff. “It’s amazing,” he said that night. “I’m enjoying every bit of it.”

Quieter homecomings. The welcome was colder for those who returned from Vietnam. Service members were discouraged from wearing their uniforms in public, Lutz remembers.

“The hatred that that generation had for the war, they transferred that directly to the soldier and blamed him for that,” Lutz said. “No matter what, those troops were giving their lives for a country that didn’t give a damn about them. … It’s a horrible thing for any young kid — and you’re talking young, 18-, 19-year-old kids — to go through that kind of scorn and derision.”

That’s the memory he keeps in mind during every welcome home he joins.

Lutz, of Glenside, Pa., joined the Army in 1972 at age 18 and served for about 10 years, the first six in Germany. He had intended to go to Vietnam, but by the time he finished his training, the war was over.

He said one of his most profound welcoming experiences occurred as he waited for an arriving soldier at Philadelphia International Airport. The Warriors’ Watch Riders and members of A Hero’s Welcome were “lined up on the escalator,” holding a gauntlet of flags.

Lutz spotted a uniformed officer in the next baggage area and went to talk with him. The staff sergeant was escorting the parents of a fallen soldier from Tennessee to Dover, Del., to pick up the body of their son.

“Here we are, greeting a live soldier coming home,” Lutz said, “and on the other side was a soldier coming home in a very different way.”

At the request of families, Hero’s Welcome and the Warriors’ Watch Riders have rallied at the funerals of veterans and those killed in action.

Some soldiers, Lutz said, are unable to handle an exuberant welcome.

“You sit in the arrival area of these airports and you see these soldiers, these children in uniform, they may literally have the dust of Afghanistan on their boots,” Lutz said.

“They’ve come from this sun-bleached, hot environment, where most everyone they meet may want to kill them. The transition home is jarring, and it can be hard for some of them to take.”

‘Sign us up.’ Michele Rooney worried throughout her son’s first deployment in 2008. When he came home, she got just 48 hours of notice that he was flying in from Iraq.

Rooney, of Gilbertsville, Pa., had Hyland’s card on her refrigerator and called her. The women had met by chance months earlier, while helping with a candidate phone bank.

And when Marine Gary Anoushian arrived, he was met by several motorcycles and a large group of supporters from the Warriors’ Watch Riders and A Hero’s Welcome, who had driven through a December snowstorm to honor him.

“To see those people at the airport that were so willing to give of their time and be there to welcome home my son, I immediately felt like, ‘sign us up,’” Rooney said.

Her husband, Tim, owned a motorcycle but had put it up for sale, influenced by her concern for his safety. But seeing the Warriors’ Watch Riders, she decided, “OK, Tim can keep the bike.”

If he helped with the welcome home efforts, “maybe God would protect him because he was riding for such an important cause,” she thought.

The Rooneys began volunteering, and Tim Rooney has since become a ride captain, leading the way for Warriors’ Watch Riders who escort returning service members to celebrations.

On Father’s Day in June 2011, he led dozens of motorcycles that welcomed home his stepson, Anoushian, who was returning after seven months in Afghanistan, his third deployment. Cpl. Anoushian is now serving at Camp Pendleton in California.

Seeing people gather to greet your hero feels amazing, Rooney said, paralleled only by being part of a welcome for someone else’s child.

Her son’s second deployment overseas, for eight months in Afghanistan, was during one of the most deadly periods for U.S. service members. She again feared for his safety, but helping others made a difference.

“We had avenues to focus our energy,” she said. “We felt like we were making use of our time and doing something for our troops.”

Inspired to serve. Hyland, the daughter, sister, granddaughter and niece of Marines, had gone through officer candidate school in 1999 and 2000. But she was injured and sent home before graduation.

Inspired by those she met in the early months of A Hero’s Welcome, she thought, “OK, I’m still young enough and able-bodied enough to serve.”

She re-joined the Marines.

Her mother, Maria Hyland, decided the mission of A Hero’s Welcome was too important to be left undone. She took the baton and ran.

A mother of four, she juggles the requests for celebrations and for help opening new chapters with working full-time in the family business, Hyland Technologies, in Frederick, Pa. She coordinates with Warriors’ Watch Riders for homecomings throughout southeastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

“The thing that keeps me going is when you see the hero uniting with their family,” said Hyland, who sometimes goes to such reunions five or more times a week, jetting from city to city or even from state to state.

Now a first lieutenant, Sharon Hyland-Keyser is married to an Army staff sergeant and serves as director of public affairs at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in Beaufort, S.C. She’s delighted by how A Hero’s Welcome has grown since she stood alone five years ago.

Because the service of America’s military is never-ending, so too is the work of A Hero’s Welcome and the Warriors’ Watch Riders, Maria Hyland said.

“A lot of people think the war is over; it’s not over,” she said in her Gilbertsville, Pa., home. “We’re here to support the troops, so as long as there’s military, we’re here to support them.”

The Riders have grown to include more than 5,000 members, from New Jersey to Florida to California. Lutz said he disagrees with service members who say they don’t deserve celebrations  — and urges them to take his place someday.

“I always tell them, when I’m dead and they’re old and gray, to pay it forward. You and I know that 40 years from now, there will be another war” — and more men and women laying their lives on the line who will need to be welcomed home.

bkessler@pottsmerc.com

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=565283811 Lee Weinstein

    Doesn’t matter if you ride a bike or drive a car, come out and experience the intensity of a welcome home mission for a soldier, and I’ll bet the farm that you cant wait to do it again! Our Troops need YOU!

  • Anonymous

    awesome Job Michele!….
     

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  • Sunshine

    Lee I couldn’t have said it better myself and that is exactly what happened to me. Warriors’ Watch and A Heros Welcome were there to welcome home my husband in 2009 and I started doing missions in 2011 and have been hooked since, the feeling is INTENSE!!! I have lost count of how many missions I have attended but every one is like the 1st one AWESOME!!

  • Carol Klein

    It is our honor to be part of the Heros Welcome.  Thank s to our brave military, their moms and dads, like Michelle and Tim, to Wayne Lutz, Sharon Hyland, her mom, Maria, and all those Warriors Watch Riders.   Great article recognizing the importance of Welcoming Home Our Troops.

  • Superdog06098

    when i came home from viet nam i did not get a welcome home, got spit on im glad the people of this country stop and thank the vetern’s for giving them our freedom. before obama take’s it away from us

    • http://twitter.com/I_M_BrandieK Mercury Reporter

      Superdog06098,
      Thank you for your service!

      Reporter Brandie Kessler

      The Pottstown Mercury newspaper, http://www.pottsmerc.com

      bkessler@pottsmerc.com

    • Bee Serious

      I spit on Mercenaries!

    • Tim Rooney

      Hey Brother. I want to tell you Welcome Home, and Thank You for your service.

  • Cynthia

    Is there a way for people to sign up or find out when a Hero is coming home?  I live in Colorado and would love to volunteer.

  • http://twitter.com/I_M_BrandieK Mercury Reporter

     Cynthia,

    If you go to http://www.aheros-welcome.org/, the website for A
    Hero’s Welcome, you will see a link in the top right corner of the
    homepage which should allow you to look for chapters in your area. If
    you don’t see a chapter in your area, you can start one. This isn’t as
    scary or time-consuming as it sounds. You can learn more about that on
    the website, too. I hope this answers your question.

    Reporter Brandie Kessler

    The Pottstown Mercury newspaper, http://www.pottsmerc.com

    bkessler@pottsmerc.com

    • http://www.facebook.com/maria.d.hyland Maria DePhillipo Hyland

      Honoring our troops is one of the most rewarding things you will do in your life. I have found that giving my time to our Heroes is as much a gift to them as a gift to me.. sounds a little selfish, doesn’t it? but try joining us for one welcome.. you will understand what I mean! It’s wonderful feeling to see the families reunite with their loved ones. I’m sorry it has taken me this long to post something on this site but I really want to say Thank you to Brandie once again for her continued support to our Military and to A Hero’s Welcome.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1660898045 Michele Rooney

    Cynthia, A Hero’s Welcome is ALWAYS looking for Volunteers to start chapters! It’s EASY to do just takes a little of your time, an American Flag, gathering up some volunteers to say THANK YOU and WELCOME HOME to Our Heroes. You WILL be SO glad You DID! We will walk you through the process and are here to Help. Contact info is also on website as Brandie stated below. Thank You.

  • Veteran

    served in vietnam, came home  no welcome we were HATED!

    • http://twitter.com/I_M_BrandieK Mercury Reporter

       Veteran,
      Thank you for your service. I’m sorry you didn’t get the thanks you deserved when you came home. If you haven’t already, I suggest taking a look at the websites for A Hero’s Welcome (http://www.aheros-welcome.org/) and the Warriors’ Watch Riders (http://www.warriorswatch.org/). Many of the volunteers who find fulfillment in giving time to these organizations are veterans like you, some who served in Vietnam. The volunteers want to ensure no other American hero ever comes home without being offered thanks for their service. You might find volunteering enjoyable and rewarding.
      Thank you again,
      Reporter Brandie Kessler

      The Pottstown Mercury newspaper, http://www.pottsmerc.com

      bkessler@pottsmerc.com

    • http://twitter.com/I_M_BrandieK Mercury Reporter

       Veteran,
      Thank you for your service. I’m sorry you didn’t get the thanks you deserved when you came home. If you haven’t already, I suggest taking a look at the websites for A Hero’s Welcome (http://www.aheros-welcome.org/) and the Warriors’ Watch Riders (http://www.warriorswatch.org/). Many of the volunteers who find fulfillment in giving time to these organizations are veterans like you, some who served in Vietnam. The volunteers want to ensure no other American hero ever comes home without being offered thanks for their service. You might find volunteering enjoyable and rewarding.
      Thank you again,
      Reporter Brandie Kessler

      The Pottstown Mercury newspaper, http://www.pottsmerc.com

      bkessler@pottsmerc.com

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1660898045 Michele Rooney

      A Hero’s Welcome has taught me to reach my hand out to Every Veteran of this Country ESPECIALLY our Vietnam Veterans and say “Welcome Home” I am sorry you were treated this way. I teach my children to approach Every Veteran and to look them in the eye, say Thank You and WELCOME HOME. Please Forgive us.
      @ad3dfdf33de93db87552ad7e203557ad:disqus Thank you for your honorable service and sacrifice to our country and Welcome Home!

    • Tim Rooney

      Veteran,
      Welcome Home Brother. Thank You for your service. I hope you have found some peace of mind and happiness in your life.

  • Bee Serious

    Only heroes who defend their Nation deserve a Welcome Home

    Mercenaries, the paid fools serving the Oil Corporations and serving Politician’s Egos, deserve NOTHING from the People who are taxed too much already!

  • Johsnon8295

    My Daughter will be coming home from Afganistan in 57 days. I feel like a proud parent I will be waiting for her.

  • http://twitter.com/I_M_BrandieK Mercury Reporter

     Hi Johsnon8295,
    Thank you for sacrificing time with your daughter for the benefit of our nation. If you haven’t already, consider getting in touch with A Hero’s Welcome and the Warriors’ Watch Riders (you can see whether there is a chapter near you by visiting the websites http://www.aheros-welcome.org, and http://www.warriorswatch.org ) and see whether they can help with the welcome home celebration. If there isn’t a chapter near you, perhaps your daughter can be the catalyst for starting one. Maria Hyland, Michele Rooney and the other volunteers are there to help those who start a new chapter, so you wouldn’t be doing it alone. Thanks again!
    Reporter Brandie Kessler

    The Pottstown Mercury newspaper, http://www.pottsmerc.com

    bkessler@pottsmerc.com

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1660898045 Michele Rooney

    That is Awesome and Exciting NEWS! *Please remember OPSEC Rules when posting regarding days* Thank YOU, Your family and Your daughter for your sacrifice and Service for OUR FREEDOM! Please look into the websites that Brandie Kessler posted if you are interested in surprising your HERO, OUR HERO with a WELCOME HOME!!! You will SOON Sleep much Easier Mom! Prayers continue until your daughters safe return!

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