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Events both somber and joyful show gratitude to troops

When our military personnel ship out for hazardous duty in far-off lands, we know they will either come home safe or wounded or they will have made the ultimate sacrifice.

All three aspects were on display last weekend in Crystal River.

On Saturday, veterans and their families and friends gathered in Bicentennial Park at the appropriately named Fallen Heroes Memorial to salute their comrades in arms. Many of the veterans were from conflicts that today are all but relegated to the history books: World War II, Korea, Vietnam. But to them, the memories remain fresh.

The event, the Purple Heart Commemorative Ceremony, aimed to honor those who had given so much of themselves in the line of duty. These are the men and women who returned home physically damaged, knowing they would face tremendous physical challenges for the rest of their days as a result of their wounds.

And they counted themselves among the lucky ones. So many of their brothers and sisters left everything on the battlefield.

As the war in Iraq drags on, we are starting to see more and more young people from Citrus County honored on this day of remembrance. More names are being added to the roster of the Fallen Heroes. Who knows how many more will have joined this list by the time the commemorative event is held next year?

The contrast between the somber nature of this ceremony and the wild exuberance that filled the air the next day was thrilling.

That was because on Sunday, not far from Bicentennial Park, hundreds of families, friends, well-wishers and simply caring individuals lined the highway to welcome their heroes. The white sheets wrapping the chain-link fence at the Crystal River Armory billowed in the stiff breezes, snapping their messages of joy to returning servicemen and women.

After more than a year in Afghanistan, the 690th Military Police Co., based in Citrus County, was coming home.

The 120-plus members of this unit had survived their time in the combat zone at Bagram Air Force Base without losing a single soldier. They had their share of difficulties, to be sure, but the same men and women who shipped out from this same armory in 2004 all managed to step off of the buses and into the arms of their loved ones.

Not every community in the United States that has sent its children overseas in recent years has been so fortunate.

As a National Guard unit, the members had been balancing their military obligations with their civilian lives before the 2004 callup. They had spent weeks and months providing security and support to Florida communities ravaged by a series of hurricanes.

Then, just as the rest of us were catching our breath, these men and women received word that their mission was getting more challenging. The 690th answered the call, and made their families and their community proud.

These tours of duty, however, carry with them heavy costs to the guardsmen and their families far beyond the emotional burdens of being separated from loved ones for more than a year. Shipping out meant leaving jobs and careers on hold, which often placed an extraordinary financial hardship on the soldiers.

Recognizing that these members of the National Guard and reservists need help making ends meet, groups such as the Citizen Soldier Family Support Foundation have been formed and are offering aid to families in need. For the 690th, the unit's Family Readiness Group has served in this role, doing whatever it could to keep these families afloat during these difficult times.

It is shameful to note that with untold billions of dollars flowing from the U.S. treasury overseas to reconstruct the homes and the lives of those in war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan that more of these dollars are not going to the U.S. service personnel who are carrying the heaviest loads.

While the dignitaries were leading the cheers for the soldiers, it was only right that the residents of Citrus and other counties around the state were remembered for their role in supporting the unit. Civic and service groups, classrooms, businesses and ordinary citizens never forgot the 690th and provided them with a steady stream of gifts and small touches of home.

The welcome home celebration was both inspirational and cathartic, as emotions of all sorts flooded the crowded armory. Right up there with joy was pride, in many forms. Families proud of their soldiers, soldiers proud of accomplishing their mission, officers proud of their units. And a community proud of them all.

Welcome home, 690th.

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