MONTROSE – The crowd at Friendship Hall went wild on Monday, screaming and cheering as two huge doors flung open, first letting in blazing sunlight through which marched the Colorado National Guard’s 928th Area Medical Supply Company, to the rousing strains of “Citizen Soldier.”
With flags waving and wild applause, between 500 and 600 people cheered the 85 troops during the hour-long Friendship Hall ceremony, and then went downtown for a parade – which included a fly-over by Victor Flight, whose member pilots provide fly-bys for special events.
Sgt. Rick Bresett, who organized the daylong send-off events, said the troops of the 928th were “blown away,” as one young corporal said when he called late Monday night.
“He could not believe so many people were willing to come out, and that the fire department had a ladder crossed over the road with the flag hanging in the center,” he said. “And I’ll bet there was 100 vehicles in the parade.”
The day began for the 928th before lunch on Monday, when a group of local law enforcement, Patriot Riders and Harley owners club members met buses carrying the troops east of town and escorted them to Friendship Hall, where they were served lunch by several local organizations, including the Salvation Army.
The program opened with a recording of a patriotic reading by John Wayne, accompanied by the Montrose High Concert Band, followed by more performances by the band, under the direction of Josiah St. Peter, Bresett said.
“They only had been rehearsing about two weeks, but they got with the army band director via phone,” Bresett said.
The school’s Junior ROTC Honor Guard also marched during the ceremony, and National Guard top brass, including generals, came from throughout the state to honor the troops.
The program also honored former members of the armed services, and about a dozen veterans, some in wheelchairs and walkers, were cheered and applauded as they walked across the floor to be acknowledged.
That acknowledgment was important to Bill Minerich of Montrose, a member of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 784 who served on the USS Enterprise, the country’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, during the Vietnam War.
Minerich said his VFW post turns out for every occasion it can to honor the troops, and it’s important that the men and women of the 928th know that they’re appreciated.
“The Vietnam vets were not treated very well,” he said.
Most of the 928th is comprised of medical personnel, said 1st Sgt. Mark Gootee, but also includes maintenance people, mechanics, radio operators, cooks and other personnel necessary to maintain the troops, who will be spread out in five units across about 250 square miles, some in urban hospitals and some in field hospitals or “M.A.S.H.” units on the front lines.
Gootee said he’s already been to the Middle East on four tours of duty, but for some, this is their first trip overseas. He said it’s hard on their families, but maybe a little easier for him because his wife is also in the military.
“It can be trying at times, but we have a very good Family Support group,” he said.
Most of the members of the 928th are from the Front Range, Gootee said, but they are based in Montrose, with training sessions at Fort Carson near Denver. But with some members from the Western Slope, it was important to have a sendoff in this area, made possible by Sgt. Bresett’s hard work, he said.
Pfc. Leah Allish of Durango said she’s ready to go and serve in Afghanistan as a mechanic with the 928th, and is not worried about going into a war zone for the first time.
“My family is somewhat concerned, but I know I’ll be OK,” she said.
Montrose County Commissioner Gary Ellis expressed that concern when he spoke during the ceremony, which he called an “enormous spiritual moment” for Montrose in seeing the 928th off to war, which was last deployed in 2004 to Iraq.
“I believe in the power of prayer, and we need to commit to praying daily,” he said, for the troops to come back safely.
Many other dignitaries were on hand, including Montrose Mayor Kathy Ellis, who also spoke, and Jesse Smith, Montrose County Manager.
“We want to send this unit off with all the dignity and support we can muster,” Smith said as the ceremony began.
The day after the Montrose festivities, the troops were to have another ceremony at Fort Carson before heading to Washington State and eventually on to Afghanistan, Bresett said, but it will be nothing on the scale of the events in Montrose.
Bresett said the troops knew they were coming for a deployment ceremony, but were surprised it was such a big deal.
“Once it started happening, it was so much bigger than they imagined,” he said. “They’re still fired up about it.”