|Veterans and their families file into the Dutchess Stadium in Fishkill, NY for the Welcome Home events honoring returning combat veterans.|
It was 5 p.m. on a warm July evening when hundreds of Veterans and their families began to filter into Dutchess Stadium in Fishkill, NY. Soon, the stadium would ring with the swelling sounds of the boisterous crowd, of the crack of a bat, of the soft thud of a baseball hitting a glove. But tonight, the Veterans hadn't just come to watch a minor league baseball game. They were here for the OEF/OIF Returning Combat Veterans' Welcome Home Event.
"Our goal was to honor returning Veterans and their families," said Juliana Laurenzi, LCSW, program manager for OEF/OIF Veterans in the VA Hudson Valley Health Care System.
She said VA Hudson Valley HCS chose Dutchess County for this year's event because it's home to the second-highest concentration of Veterans in the health care system's seven-county jurisdiction.
Veterans and their families received free parking, admission to the game, Hudson Valley Renegades baseball caps, traditional ballpark snacks, and goody bags filled with giveaways like VA-branded water bottles and American flag pins with "Welcome Home" stamped in tidy letters on each pin. "[The Veterans] loved those," said Laurenzi.
Several tables lined the stadium, with volunteers and staff on hand to enroll Veterans in the health care system and to speak about educational benefits, career services, a new safe driving program, and health care eligibility. Brochures stacked on the OEF/OIF table detailed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms and treatment, general health care information, and VA's free online health program, MyHealtheVet. A mobile Vet Center all the way from Springfield, MA, offered information about readjustment counseling and outreach services.
Laurenzi said the Hudson Valley community came out in full force to support the Veterans, adding that Dutchess Stadium had been airing announcements about the Welcome Home Event for weeks during games. The 5,000-seat stadium was full. "There were a lot of people from the community," said Laurenzi, "And Veterans from all eras attended." They packed the stands, representing every military conflict, including World War II, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.
Several notable officials, including Hudson Valley Health Care System Director Gerald F. Culliton, Congressman John Hall, Dutchess County Executives Representative Betsy Brockway, and Fishkill Town Supervisor Joan Pagones, whose own son recently came back from Iraq, welcomed and thanked the Veterans in opening remarks. VA chaplain Nancy Cornell gave an invocation following the remarks.
Local motorcycle organizations Rolling Thunder and Patriot Guard Riders roared out onto the field with a salute to the Veterans, circling the field in their motorcycles while an OEF/OIF Veteran color guard assembled and stood at attention.
The crowd applauded and cheered as the emcee first asked all Veterans to stand, then OEF/OIF Veterans, and finally the Veterans' families. "The families have also made a sacrifice," Laurenzi said. "We wanted them recognized." Between innings, the children of OEF/OIF Veterans took to the field and sang "God Bless America" and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
A few days before the event, Laurenzi began receiving calls from Veterans. "There was a World War II Veteran who called me up," she said. "He told me, 'I would just like to shake the hand of every Veteran coming into the stadium.'"
The Hudson Valley Welcome Home Event was just one of many that happen nationwide throughout the year. Find local Welcome Home Events here: http://www.volunteer.va.gov/Welcome_Home_Events.asp.