In a scene reminiscent of a graduation ceremony, wives, husbands, parents, siblings and friends crowded into the main hangar at the 177th Fighter Wing and watched as more than 420 New Jersey Citizen-Airmen marched across a stage on June 13.
In the first Hometown Heroes Salute ceremony in New Jersey, the Airmen, along with their families, were honored, for their sacrifices in supporting this nation since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
"When it's time to take care of the skies over New Jersey – the Northeast sector, it's the 177th there 24/7," said Maj. Gen. Glenn K. Rieth, The Adjutant General of New Jersey. "Whatever the nation has asked of the 177th, you've stepped up and done it in a phenomenal way."
The Airmen recognized in this ceremony included those who have deployed for more than 30 consecutive days in support of Operations' Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, Noble Eagle and other peacekeeping operations across the globe.
"Words just don't come close to describing what a debt of gratitude we owe you as a nation and as a community," said U.S. Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo (R- 2nd Dist.). "It is a very special thank you from all of G u a r d l i f e 5 us to you, our veterans; our heroes. Hometown heroes yes; more importantly, American heroes."
As the Airmen crossed the stage, their names were called out and each was thanked by the members of the official party.
Medical Services Specialist Senior Airman Luz Rivera, center, grins at the camera during the Hometown Heroes Salute.
Family members of fallen Airmen were honored during the ceremony. Maj. Gen. Maria
Falca-Dodson, left, watches as Maj. Gen. Glenn K. Rieth crouches to shake the
hand of Jake Green while Lori Green, right, whose husband Master Sgt. Jack Green
died in an accident following his deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom;
is thanked by New Jersey Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo (R-2nd Dist.) during the Salute.
Among those honoring the Airmen were LoBiondo, Rieth,Maj. Gen. Maria Falca-Dodson, Commander, New Jersey
Air National Guard; Brig. Gen. James J. Grant, Chief of the Joint Staff; Col. Robert C. Bolton, 177th Commander;
Command Chief Master Sgt. Christopher Muncy, who serves as the enlisted advisor to Lt. Gen. Harry M. Wyatt,
Director of the Air National Guard at the National Guard Bureau; New Jersey State Command Chief Master Sgt. Michael R. Francis and 177th Command Chief Master Sgt. Raynaldo Morales.
"You made a choice to defend America's way of life," Rieth said. "For that I want to say thank you."
In August 2008, Gen. Craig R. McKinley, former Director of the Air National Guard, initiated the Air National Guard Hometown Heroes Salute Recognition Program. The program's purpose is to celebrate and honor the contributions of Air National Guard Airmen, their families, communities and those special supporters to the mission of the U.S. Air Force and the Air National Guard.
"We procured this (program) from our Army Guard brethren," Muncy said. "It was
time and well overdue to stop and say thanks. We need this for our Airmen; we need this for their families."
The ceremony was timely because more than two hundred 177th Airmen had just returned from a deployment to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"We can't thank you enough from D.C.; from the State House; your families can't thank you enough; this nation can never, ever thank you enough," Muncy said. "God bless you and God bless the New Jersey Guard."
Each Airman received a framed letter signed by Gen. McKinley and Command Chief Master Sgt. Richard A. Smith along with two Hometown Heroes Salute coins. The Airman's spouse or significant other received an engraved pen and pencil set, while the children were presented with a set of personalized dog tags. The Airman also received a Center of Influence medallion, which they could present to any non-family member who significantly supported them before, during, or after their deployment.
In the documentary Band of Brothers, one of the Easy Company Soldiers was asked by his grandson if he was a hero. He had replied that no, he wasn't a hero, but he had served in a company of heroes.
"Today we honor all of you," Muncy said. "Our company of heroes."
Displaying their congratulatory letters from Gen. Craig R. McKinley, left to right, Master Sgt. Michelle Pierce, Staff Sgt. Angela G. Ward and Senior Master Sgt. June I. Kelly pose for a photo in front of a 177th F-16.