Community gathers to support local troops

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Moist eyes and aching hearts filled Ohio University Southern's Bowman Auditorium Tuesday as the community came out in force for "A Salute to Our Troops."

Hundreds attended the community event that paid special tribute to the soldiers of the Ohio Army National Guard's Detachment 1, Company B of the 216th Engineer Battalion as the soldiers prepare to say goodbye to their families.

Detachment 1, Company B consists of 36 soldiers from Lawrence County who train at the armory in Ironton. They will join others from the 216th Battalion in Indiana this weekend for training and then leave for a 1-year deployment to Iraq.

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The group that consists of carpenters, plumbers, electricians and heavy equipment operators will assist in humanitarian efforts that include building bridges, roads, buildings and providing other support.

"We are gathered here to honor these soldiers and extend a heartfelt message to them. It is two words - thank you," OUS Dean Dr. Dan Evans said. "We want you to know this community cares about you and wishes you well. All our prayers are for your safe journey and quick return."

Evans said he was honored that the university could host such a momentous event as he welcomed everyone in the diverse crowd that included elected officials, concerned citizens, Boy Scout Troop 106, families and loved ones of the soldiers and numerous representatives of local military chapters including the Purple Hearts, AMVETS, the VFW and the DAV.

Mayor John Elam was just one of the attendees who was deeply touched by the ceremony and moved to tears.

"Today, we wish you Godspeed as you accomplish your mission," Mayor Elam said as his emotions were echoed by many in the audience. "Know that every day you will be in our thoughts and our prayers. And as you watch over and protect our families and the freedom that we enjoy, we will watch over yours."

Lawrence County native Lt. Col. Scott Evans, 216 Engineer Battalion commander, was also caught up in the emotions of the day as the men and women prepared to say goodbye to their families.

"The crux of my comments can be summed up with one simple statement. Lawrence County - be proud," Lt. Col. Evans said through teary eyes. "Your sons and daughters will serve you with distinction."

This is the first major shift change since the war began. It marks the first time that this detachment has been deployed into harm's way since World War II and the first time a full battalion from Ohio has been sent to war since the Korean conflict, Evans said.

Heading off to foreign lands is nothing new to Spec. Albert Thibodaux Jr. of Ironton who fought in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. This time around, he has mixed emotions as he must say goodbye to his wife and three children.

"The first time I was over there, it was just me and my wife. Now I have got three children to think about," he said. "Now whether (his 3-year-old son Albert Thibodaux III) will remember me when I get back is the question."

Overall, the elder Thibodaux said he was impressed with all the support the soldiers have received.

"It shows that the people care about us," he said. "After I was over there the first time, when I came back I got cold chills from the wonderful welcome we got. It was almost like a rush."