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.
“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.
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.