For 35-year-old Sgt. Joe Cousineau of Rotterdam, his tour as medic in Iraq was all about helping people and the camaraderie of his fellow soldiers.
“Everyone is almost like a family member. It’s just something to be proud of,” he said.
Cousineau was one of about 70 Army National Guard soldiers who received a warm welcome home at a “Freedom Salute Ceremony” held at Glens Falls High School on Sunday.
The members of the 466th Area Support Medical Company of the 53rd Troop Command returned in October from a yearlong mission overseas in Iraq. While deployed, the soldiers attended to more than 29,000 wounded Americans soldiers, Iraqi Army soldiers and insurgents.
Brigadier General Mike Swezey said this event is a way to get the troops reacclimated. They and their loved ones spent the weekend at the Queensbury Inn, where they received information about veterans’ benefits, free college tuition at SUNY and other programs. The ceremony was the capstone of the weekend.
“It’s our way saying thank you to the soldiers and their families for what they did,” he said.
Choking up while making his remarks before the crowd of 300, Col. James Green praised the troops and their friends and family back home for their sacrifices and the soldiers for making it home safely.
“I did not want to write a letter to a wife, a husband, a sister or a brother to inform them a loved one wouldn’t be returning,” he said.
He said a superior officer in Iraq commended the unit on its performance.
“They were at the right place at the right time and thankfully the right people did the right thing,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said the soldiers’ record of service was “unparalleled” and she wanted to make sure that those returning have appropriate access to their benefits and not get trapped in bureaucratic paperwork.
“I am 100 percent committed to making sure they receive every benefit and every investment that they have not only earned, but deserved,” she said.
State Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, also expressed gratitude. “Thank you for all you have accomplished — for your dedication, your effort and your love of our country,” she said.
Assemblyman Roy McDonald, R-Saratoga, a Vietnam veteran, thanked the soldiers for putting their lives on the line. “We’ve got to take care of you folks now that you’re back,” he said.
Glens Falls Mayor LeRoy Akins, also a veteran, said “today, you are seeing the heroes of what you’re going to be reading about in tomorrow’s history.”
Each solider received an encased American flag, lapel insignia, a commemorative coin and a certificate of appreciation from the Army National Guard.
Eighteen-year Guard veteran Maj. Ed Bonk, 50, of Schenectady said conditions seemed to have improved with the troop surge. The hospital he worked out was in a safe zone south of Bagdad.
“It wasn’t as bad as I thought,” he said.
Twenty-two-year-old Cpl. Melissa Scheuer of Ballston Spa said she is not sure if the surge in troops has worked because she said it is too soon to see the long-term effects. The most difficult part, she said, was battling the extremely hot and dry conditions, as well as being separated from loved ones. Her grandmother died while she was away.
Scheuer has been in the Guard almost six years. “I wanted to help people,” she said.
Being separated from loved ones was a challenge for all.
“That was the hardest part,” said Staff Sgt. Andrew Preville, 40, of Albany who was away from his 13-year-old Emmory and 21-month-old Jaden.
Soldiers used e-mail and letters to communicate. Capt. Brian Rockwell, 35, of Schenectady served as executive officer in charge of personnel and logistics. “It’s easier to talk to people [back home]. It’s not as difficult as in past wars,” he said.
Support on the homefront was crucial for the soldiers to get through the days. “I was surprised by so many people sending care packages, churches and schools sending cards and letters,” said Spc. Joshua Klein, 28, of Cortland.
Sgt. 1st Class John Rentas, 44, of Brooklyn, who was on his second tour in Iraq, said being separated from his wife Beatrice, 7-year-old daughter Arianna and 5-year-old Enrique was difficult. However, he said he enjoyed the experience.
“I love my country. I’m here to serve,” he said.
More from The Daily Gazette:
Categories: Schenectady County