Joannie Burnett’s eyes turn red and watery when she recounts how Post Falls police and fire personnel waited on a freeway overpass two summers ago to bid farewell to the Idaho National Guard soldiers with the 116th Combat Engineering Battalion.
Burnett’s son, Chris, and his fellow soldiers couldn’t miss the big American flags displayed especially for them as they headed to the airport for training in Texas and a year-long deployment in Iraq.
“He called me and said, ‘I’m so damn proud,’ ” Burnett recalled. “I said, ‘Honey, they’ll be hanging there for you when you come home.’ “
But members of the 116th’s Charlie Company in North Idaho are already starting to trickle back. Most are expected to return home Nov. 15-20, after flying first to Fort Lewis, Wash., for debriefing and processing for veterans’ benefits.
Post Falls Mayor Clay Larkin is trying to work with the National Guard to arrange a special flight to bring most of North Idaho’s citizen soldiers home together so supporters can welcome them at the airport and escort them to the armory.
“We don’t want to see it become another Vietnam,” Larkin said, referring to the lack of appreciation many of that war’s veterans experienced. “We want to make sure they feel welcome.”
Even if they don’t return as a group, the efforts of Larkin, Burnett and others are destined to make them feel appreciated.
Burnett and other Guard family members, with the help of donations from a half dozen businesses and the use of her neighbor Bill Ottis’ woodshop, spent much of October making about 300 giant wooden ribbons.
Painted yellow and bearing the messages, “Coming Home Soon” and “Support Our Troops,” the ribbons now flank Seltice Way in Post Falls en route to the Amory. Burnett is erecting more on stakes or trees in the right-of-way.
Burnett said she’s not motivated just for her own son, but for all the National Guard members, whom she now calls family.
Chris Burnett, 21, was fresh out of high school when he was deployed and had two birthdays while he was away. His parents heard from him through weekly phone calls that he sometimes stood in line for two hours to make, his mother said.
Burnett covers herself with the symbols of support – from the bead-and-safety pin American flag she made for the first Gulf War to the tiny ribbons, flags and photo of her son, a sniper with the 116th, on her charm bracelets.
“For me, it’s a way of being a part of what my son does,” she explained over a soda at Taco Bell before going out Friday to put up more ribbons.
Meanwhile, Mayor Larkin has been working on his own plan – a special commemorative knife personalized for each of the 110 soldiers.
“It was my hope we could give them something from their own community,” he said.
So Larkin approached Buck Knives Chairman Chuck Buck about the knife idea.
“We were ripe,” Buck said. “I’m one of these guys, I want that war to be over with, but I also know why we are there.”
Buck said he’s hoping to be able to present the knives to the soldiers and to “shake their hands.”
The knives are a standard drop-point hunting knife, 8 ½ inches long overall, and wholesale for $92. On one side of the charcoal wood handle is the laser-engraved shield for the 116th Battalion.
The blade is laser-engraved with the words “Operation Iraqi Freedom 116th Engineer Battalion 2004-2005” on one side and the soldier’s name and rank on the other.
“We had to go through three generals and two colonels to get the ranks and names,” Larkin said. Donations from businesses and individuals are helping cover the cost of the knives, he said.
Still more is in the works.
Burnett is coordinating the creation of Welcome Home boxes for each of the soldiers, and hopes to fill them with gift certificates, coupons and other goodies
And the American Legion is working with restaurants to plan a sit-down dinner to be served to guardsmen and their families in December or January. Burnett said the Greyhound Park and Event Center has offered its facility for the event.
“We’ve got to have a party,” Burnett said.