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Parade to honor returning local troops

LAWRENCEVILLE -- After 10 months of teaching and fighting in the sun-baked Afghani desert, members of the National Guard's Gwinnett-based Alpha Company have returned home.

Saturday morning, they'll march through downtown Lawrenceville, remembering two fallen heroes and honoring the city that has supported them through local training and fighting halfway across the world.

"We did something similar when we came back from Iraq in 2006, but we wanted to have another parade, this time to show our thanks to the community for their support while we were overseas," said First Sergeant Joseph Neely, who was deployed with the company.

The 130 or so members of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 121st Regiment, 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team were deployed to Afghanistan and Operation Enduring Freedom at the end of May 2009.

Stationed just 20 kilometers from the country's western border with Pakistan, the first half of their mission was to train and assist the Afghan national army and police. From there, they spent several months completing infantry missions with Afghani counterparts.

In June 2009, they lost a comrade. In September, they lost another.

Though Neely will tell you Saturday's events are to honor Lawrenceville, community volunteers for the parade, like Emory Morsberger, think otherwise.

"I was disappointed with the lack of support when these guys came back from Iraq a few years ago," Morsberger said. "We owe these people a lot, and we want to make them feel like we're there for them and we appreciate the sacrifices and things they went through."

First Sergeant John Blair, a native of St. Augustine, Fla., was killed last June during an hour-and-a-half long firefight with enemy forces -- but not before being credited with saving the life of his staff sergeant during the attack.

Staff Sergeant Alex French, a Milledgeville native, was killed when enemy forces attacked his unit using an improvised explosive device.

"We lost two soldiers over there ... two very important soldiers," Neely said.

Saturday's parade will begin at 9 a.m. on Pike Street, ending at the Gwinnett County Justice and Administration Center's Fallen Heroes Memorial, which already bears the names of Blair and French.

"The parade itself is a brainstorm put together by the National Guard unit itself," said Quartermaster Mike Brown, an event organizer for the local branch of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "They don't have a lot of funds to put on an event or anything, so they wanted to do what they do best -- march."

In support, as Brown put it, "the citizens of Lawrenceville have done a lot to get people out to the parade."

Boy and Girl Scout troops will be involved, the Gwinnett Chamber and Rotary Clubs have been on the recruiting trail and all kinds of businesses have chipped in, trying to make a huge event of the parade and guarantee a large turnout to honor the returning troops.

The county Republican party and Sen. Johnny Isakson will also be on hand, Morsberger said.

"Most of the businesses in downtown Lawrenceville have gotten in on the event," Morsberger said. "Whether they're providing flags or different kinds of services, lots of donated things are being thrown in."