After witnessing the horrors and difficulties of war, coming home often is the hardest part of a tour of military service for veterans and soldiers. Chandler and Gilbert are trying to ease the transition.
Both cities have implemented an Operation Welcome Home program that honors and celebrates veterans through ceremonies, gifts, dinner and surprises for both the service member and his or her family.
“Some veterans, especially if they have faced a lot of combat, have a hard time,” Chandler City Councilmember Nora Ellen said. “We completely understand, but we want to make sure each one feels very special and very honored.”
Since Ellen brought Operation Welcome Home to Chandler, the city has honored eight soldiers and their families in two separate ceremonies, the last of which was on April 21. At the Chandler ceremonies, veterans and their families are escorted to the Chandler Council Chambers and surprised with gifts. In the past, the veterans have received items from or signed by state legislators, U.S. congressional representatives and city officials.
Ellen said she worked to bring the program to Chandler because she wanted the honoree and other veterans to know that the community supports them and appreciates what they did for them.
“Without what they are doing in sacrificing their life, we would not have the things we have,” she said. “Our veterans are very important to me and our city.”
Gilbert’s Operation Welcome Home is operated in partnership with the Small Business Alliance and the town, which gives more community members and businesses an opportunity to be involved and show their appreciation for the honorees. The program, originally started by Gilbert Councilmember Jenn Daniels, has recognized more than 20 veterans and their families. On April 17, the city honored three more veterans.
Gilbert and sponsoring businesses work together to provide honorees and their families with a day of pampering, limo ride to the event, delicious dinner and ceremony afterward.
Lisa Rigler, president of the Gilbert Small Business Alliance, said the organization decided to partner with the town to make sure the program remains in tact and grows over the years.
In the past, Operation Welcome Home had issues finding honorees because of the humility instilled into the veterans in their military training, but now the program is growing because previous honorees are joining the committee.
“Sometimes they don’t get the recognition they deserve,” Rigler said. “But honorees usually don’t want to be recognized because they always feel like somebody did more than they did. They don’t feel deserving of what they actually do deserve.”
In addition to honoring the veterans, the Small Business Alliance coordinates an educational program for all fourth- and fifth-graders in both the Higley and Gilbert school districts. The program will share the importance and traditions behind honoring veterans and soldiers.
While it’s obvious that veterans and their families benefit from the program, Rigler said everyone else involved also does from their interactions with honorees and the stories they tell.
“We get to meet the honorees and that’s the biggest benefit,” she said. “When you meet them and their families it just brings visibility to the honorees, but we just get so much pleasure out of it.”
Betty Julien, aesthetician at Frankie D’s Salon and Spa in Gilbert, said the spa provides hairstyling, makeup, manicures and pedicures to the honoree or their family members to make them feel beautiful for the special ceremony. She said interacting with the honorees and their families has affected her deeply. Their sacrifice, stories and optimism have inspired her and other employees.
“Most of these people are really uplifting people and they actually give back as much as we give just by listening to them,” Julien said. “I think it works both ways.”
Julien’s son was in the Marines for 10 years. Her father was also at Pearl Harbor when it was attacked, and several of her friends served in Vietnam. Each of these important people in her life had difficulties readjusting to civilian life. She was even unaware her father had been at Pearl Harbor until she read it in his obituary.
She said she hopes by recognizing veterans they will understand how much their sacrifices mean to the community.
“A lot of these people coming home just disappear, so I wish there would be more help for the soldiers and what they need after they come home,” Julien said.
• Shelby Slade is a sophomore at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is an intern with the Tribune this semester. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.