It might have been the first organized welcome-home ceremony for a veteran returning home from overseas in more than two decades. Organizers hope it won’t be the last.
An impromptu, grassroots ceremony on Monday morning welcomed home U.S. Army Sgt. Neal Martin, who returned to Oak Ridge after serving for 10 months in Afghanistan.
Val Emery, a friend of Martin’s wife Julie Martin, was the chief organizer.
“Every soldier deserves a hero’s welcome,” said Emery, who described herself as a “military brat” whose grandfather was killed in Laos in 1966 and has his name inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
She estimated that about 150 people turned out, lining streets near the intersection of New York Avenue and Oak Ridge Turnpike on Monday morning, many waving flags and others holding “Welcome Home” signs.
The ceremony—which was triggered by a Super Bowl commercial and organized in part through a campaign that used Facebook, e-mail, phone calls, and local media—was a surprise for Martin.
“He had absolutely no idea,” Emery said. She said many local businesses changed their signs to welcome Martin home.
His family was escorted through the city by the Oak Ridge Police Department on Monday morning. Elected officials from Oak Ridge and Anderson County were joined at the ceremony by Anderson County Emergency Medical Services, community volunteers, business leaders, and children. Nearby, a flag draped from an Oak Ridge Fire Department ladder truck flapped high overhead.
“It makes me absolutely proud to be an American and an Oak Ridger,” said Oak Ridge City Council member Trina Baughn, who helped organize the ceremony and has a son, Collin, serving in the U.S. Air Force in Afghanistan.
Two dozen or more Patriot Guard Riders also showed up Monday to show their respect for Martin.
“He’s a vet,” said Lee West of Oliver Springs.
Clinton resident Larry Hale, who is senior ride captain for Patriot Guard Riders, said many of their missions are for memorials.
“This is way better than welcoming them home in a box,” Hale said.
Baughn said the last time there might have been an organized welcome-home ceremony for veterans was in 1991 for military personnel who had served in Desert Storm.
“I think we’re on track to become one of the leaders in the nation for honoring our veterans,” Baughn said. “What if we could do this for every returning vet?”
Emery said this was Martin’s first tour in Afghanistan, but he deployed to Iraq a few years ago.
Note: This story was last updated at 2:57 p.m.
More information will be added as it becomes available.