Living in this post-9/11 world, we seem to have a more keen appreciation for the hard work and sacrifices made by our veterans. We respect them and marvel at their selfless bravery, thankful that they stand in defense of our freedoms and protect us from the threat of terrorism that has so shaken this nation—and the world—to its very core. But even in as many ways as we try to express our gratitude, far too often we fall short of giving them the honor and appreciation they truly deserve; and we go about our daily lives without realizing that our freedom to do those ordinary things is due to the sacrifices made by the men and women in uniform who serve or have served our country in military service.
Unfortunately, it sometimes takes the prompting of national holidays to offer us a reminder to formally stand up and say thank you to our service members. But for those who live in the midst of military life—on the fringes of bases and posts, as members of a military family, as friends of those who serve—the costs and the trials are witnessed on a daily basis.
Even in our shortcomings, however, we try our best as a nation to make their lives better, to honor them and reward their efforts. But that wasn’t always the case. For the men and women who came home from the Vietnam War, in fact, “thank you” was a phrase they rarely heard, respect something that few ever felt. In an effort to make amends and ensure that that lack of respect is never replicated, celebrations paying tribute to these brave men and women are held all over the country—and as a town deeply rooted in Army culture, Clarksville has taken on the meritorious mission of hosting Welcome Home Veterans Week in September, five full days of events and activities that highlight our heroes—both past and present.
Originally begun five years ago in Pigeon Forge under the name Welcome Home Vietnam, the event was fittingly relocated to Clarksville in 2015 and was officially taken over by the tourism team at Visit Clarksville. And as the event grew in popularity and scope, the two-day span that it initially covered was expanded to cover five days, packing each of those days with everything imaginable, from concerts and Bob Hope tribute performances reenacting his tours entertaining the troops with the USO to parades and actual scale replicas of the Vietnam Wall.
“The purpose of the event is to honor and celebrate all of our veterans, and that’s so important because Clarksville is a military town, and we have the honor of working beside and living with heroes everyday. Our Welcome Home Veterans celebration is a way to recognize our military community and share that celebration of service with veterans from all over the nation, and our ultimate goal is to ensure that each and every veteran from every theater of war knows how much they are respected and how grateful we are for their sacrifices,” says Frances Manzitto, Director of Tourism Sales at Visit Clarksville.
But such a big mission can hardly be taken on alone, and the army of sponsors and supporters behind the even is critical in its success. And proudly taking on that major task is AARP. “AARP supports the efforts to empower veterans in communities across the country, and it’s one way that we, as an organization, are able to give back to veterans and their families,” says AARP Community Outreach Director Stacy Pennington.
“AARP is honored to be the major sponsor of the Welcome Home Celebration in Clarksville, and we truly look forward to seeing the ways that this event will touch the community.”
And it will indeed touch many, with such exhibits as the 360 foot long American Veterans Traveling Tribute Wall depicting an 80 percent scale version of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, DC, containing every name etched on the original monument. Along with the Traveling Tribute Wall, the Field of Honor-Veterans Tribute flag display pays special tribute to the strength and unity of Americans and honors the many veterans who have faithfully served our nation to preserve our security and freedoms.
“I’m so glad that Visit Clarksville saw the need for an event like this in our area and that AARP had the commitment and vision to see what it could become,” says Sherry Pickering, Executive Director of the Montgomery County Veterans Coalition, which worked in partnership with Visit Clarksville to bring the event to Clarksville. “It’s an amazing opportunity to celebrate our veterans and highlight their sacrifices and their determination to serve us and share some of their struggles.” During this year’s celebration, a traveling memorial called “The Eyes of Freedom: Lima Company Memorial” will be unveiled for the first time. Depicting the fallen Marines and Navy Corpsman of Columbus, Ohio-based Lima Company 3/25—one of the most heavily engaged units of Operation Iraqi Freedom—the memorial features 23 life-sized portraits honoring the bravery and ultimate sacrifice of the many men and women who have served our nation throughout history. The powerful gaze of these 23 pairs of eyes represent those who have stood watch over our country’s freedom, defending our liberty and seeing things that test their bravery, determination, and dedication to the mission they have taken on. In an area like Clarksville, those 23 pairs of eyes offer all the more powerful a message.
“Many of the residents of Clarksville are active duty as well as retired soldiers, which means that it truly is a veteran community; and attending and supporting events like this truly shows pride in our veteran population as well as in out whole community,” says 35 year-old former soldier Ernesto Rodriguez, who joined the Army at the age of 19 and served for 15 years, taking on two deployments to Iraq and two to Afghanistan. After getting orders to Ft. Campbell in 2012, Rodriguez felt that he’d truly found a place to call home and decided to make the move a permanent one after separating from the Army. “To know that there are veterans and supporters coming from all over the country to share in this event is exciting, and it is truly an example of the importance of the military community.” It’s an importance that can never be stressed enough and a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid. But as we move on into our future as a nation, we celebrate the people responsible for the fact that we are still the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.
To learn more, visit www.aarp.org/veterans.
Love a discount? AARP members and their guests receive an 18 percent discount on tickets to the Welcome Home Celebration events using the code Welcome50.
If you’d like to show your appreciation or honor a loved one, flags for the Field of Honor-Veterans Tribute flag display may be purchased in honor of veterans or first responders online at the event website or by calling (931) 647-2331. Flags may be sponsored for $40 and will be tagged with each honoree’s information. Purchased flags will be available for pick up after the event, and net proceeds will benefit veteran’s causes.