Troops welcomed home; fallen honored

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

LAWRENCEVILLE -- A sea of camouflage calmly swarms around a single pillar, its black marble, like the others standing around it, shining in the humid morning sun.

One by one, the sea parts. Men, servicemen, make their way to the front. They take turns patting the warming stone.

One tap -- First Sergeant John Blair.

Another -- Staff Sergeant Alex French.

Among hundreds of others, these two names have been etched here since last November. Veteran's Day.

As Alpha Company, the National Guard's Gwinnett-based unit, completes its miles-long march around Lawrenceville on Saturday morning, those 130 or so lucky enough to be home pause and contemplate the pair of comrades that weren't.

"These two men are far more worthy of far greater honor, and far greater recognition, than mere words and memorial," says James Gray, Georgia's state chaplain for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, addressing the troops and well-wishers at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center's Fallen Heroes Memorial.

"Their sacrifices and their deeds shall be written in the annals of history. They shall remain in our memories forever."

For 10 months, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 121st Regiment, 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team was deployed in the Afghanistan desert, completing missions and training the Afghan army and police force.

Having been home for a little more than a month, a huge American flag draped between two cherry-pickers on Pike Street marked the start of their parade route Saturday, as a few hundred supporters lined the streets of downtown Lawrenceville to officially welcome them back.

"Just judging by the size of the parade, I think there's a lot of us that are proud of them," said Lawrenceville resident Jerry Brown, whose friend has a son in Alpha Company.

"It's a hell of a sacrifice."

A police escort, dozens of Harley-pushing "Patriot Guard Riders," bagpipes and snare drums led the marching honorees west down Pike Street, across Lawrenceville Square and on down Langley Drive to the Fallen Heroes Memorial.

A float from a local Boy Scout troop followed them, bearing these words: "We respect, we honor, we remember."

Well-wishers cheered them along all the way.

"This was my way to support them and say thank you to the troops that have come home," said Grayson resident Liticia Weissinger, a small American flag tucked into her straw hat.

It was a thank you not lost on the returning National Guard members.

"It's bigger than we expected I think. It's good to see," said Alpha Company First Sergeant David Osborne. "You lose track sometimes, because you see all the negative press. It's good to see the support's still there."

As the parade comes to a close, "Taps" is played in a memorial service for Alpha Company's fallen heroes -- First Sergeant Blair, a family man in Gordon County, killed by a rocket-propelled grenade last June; Staff Sergeant French, a father of twins in Bibb County, his life taken by an improvised explosive device last September.

Both were veterans of tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Amid many others, soldiers make their rounds to see the two names they're most interested in today.

Some weep. Some do the consoling.

"It's sad," says Osborne, who knew both men well. "But the way both of them were, they train you for their absence. So you move on. And that's what they would want."

Soldiers are dismissed. They have a hearty meal to look forward to, and an afternoon banquet where they will be honored with medals and badges earned during their stay near Afghanistan's western border with Pakistan.

But not before Gray, the chaplain, shares his closing words.

"God bless you," he says, "and God bless America."

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