Command Sgt. Maj. Oscar Vinson has seen the world in an Army career that took him overseas to war six times. He saw something new Sunday.
For the first time, a civilian community welcomed him home from combat with a parade and celebration in town. It was a touching gesture for soldiers who tend to keep their goodbye hugs and homecoming kisses inside the gates at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
"I have never received such a welcome home as I have for this deployment,” said Vinson, the senior enlisted soldier for the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
Sunday’s parade in Lakewood marked the formal end to a 4th Brigade deployment to southern Afghanistan that began last November. All of its soldiers have been home since July, but they went on leave before the parade.
The celebration also signified a farewell to the Stryker brigade in the South Sound. It is being deactivated as part of an Armywide force reduction plan and its equipment is being sent to Fort Carson in Colorado next year. Its soldiers will find new positions in the Army, or follow through on personal plans to leave the military.
The city and the brigade have had a close partnership since 2007, when they became linked through Lewis-McChord’s community connector program.
Over the years, Lakewood business sent care packages to 4th Brigade troops on their two deployments to Iraq and one in Afghanistan. From time to time, Lakewood residents stepped up to help care for families of wounded and fallen soldiers, too, Vinson said.
Those ties motivated the city to put together the homecoming parade through town and a party at Fort Steilacoom Park, said Mayor Don Anderson.
“That’s the reason for this today, to bring the welcome home off base,” said Anderson, one of several city officials who has regularly attended 4th Brigade events, homecomings and memorials at Lewis-McChord.
A few thousand people attended the parade under damp skies. Many of them were veterans or family members of soldiers in the Stryker brigade. They watched about 2,000 soldiers march on foot through town mixed in with a sampling of the brigade’s eight-wheeled Stryker vehicles.
“It’s good to know the city is honoring all the soldiers who deployed,” said Jane Moorhead of Olympia, whose boyfriend serves in the brigade. She kept their baby, Raelyn, warm through the march.
Monica Williams came to the parade both to recognize her husband, Sgt. Garreth Williams, and to remember one of their friends who did not come home, Staff Sgt. Wesley Williams. (They are not related.)
Monica Williams carried a sign near Lakewood City Hall with the fallen soldier’s name on it, as well as the names of his wife and daughters. They met through classes they took to get ready for the births of their children, Monica said.
“He’s the nicest person you’ll ever meet,” she said.
Wesley Williams died on Dec. 10, 2012, when he suffered fatal injuries from an enemy bomb in Kandahar Province. Monica has been impressed by how his widow, Krista, has kept his memory alive since his death.
“She does it with more pride for him and more strength than you can imagine,” Monica Williams said.
Wesley Williams was a big fan of superheroes, and Monica Williams wore a Batman T-shirt in his memory at the parade.
“I want everyone to remember him,” she said.
Normally homecoming marches at Lewis-McChord conclude with speeches from colonels and generals. They spoke in Lakewood, too. Brigade Commander Col. Mike Getchell assembled the troops and thanked the city for its support.
But the marquee speeches fell to a couple civilians, Mayor Anderson and Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia.
Heck told the soldiers that Afghanistan was a safer place because of their service. “Our nation is safer; the world is a better place because of you,” Heck said.
Anderson asked the troops to put down roots in the South Sound when they’re ready to leave the military.
“You will always have a home here. You will always have a place in our hearts,” he said.