Home for the holidays

Operation Yellow Ribbon welcomes another local veteran home after a long deployment overseas 

Mt. Laurel resident and Army National Guard Specialist John Robbie embraces his grandfather, Louis Berra, a veteran of WWII, upon his arrival to his surprise Operation Yellow Ribbon welcome home ceremony.

Mt. Laurel resident and Army National Guard Specialist John Robbie will be home for Christmas. As the old song goes, you can plan on him.

Robbie has spent the last year deployed in Qatar, overseas and away from family. When  his mother, Janice Robbie, learned he would be home for the holidays, she wanted to do something special.

That’s where Operation Yellow Ribbon came in. The South Jersey-based nonprofit serves  local servicemen, women and veterans by preparing care packages and planning welcome home celebrations for those returning from foreign deployment.

Janice contacted David Silver, who leads the organization’s operations locally, for help welcoming her son home in what OYR calls “Rock Star Fashion.” Invited to these celebrations alongside family are local officials; police; fire; and OYR partner Warriors Watch Riders, a motorcycle escort group.

“I heard wonderful things about (OYR) and I wanted to do something special for (John) when he came home,” Janice recalled.

For several years now, Silver has reached out to veterans, and while not a vet himself, the work is his way of giving back.

“It’s the look in their eyes when they realize it’s all for them,” Silver noted of what he considers the best part of OYR events. “They all say the same thing, that they don’t deserve it — they were just doing their jobs. But they and their families do deserve it.”

The Robbie family is relatively new to Mt. Laurel, having moved from John’s native Marlton  just a year ago. The welcome home event was a unique introduction to new neighbors.

For such a tight-knit family, John’s year away meant a lot of missed moments.

“He missed a whole year of family time, holidays and special occasions,” Janice said. 

When the big day came, an unwitting John was taken for a meal at a local diner while Silver — aided by fellow OYR members and the Mt. Laurel Fire Department —  prepared the Robbie household for his welcome home celebration. 

Before long, the Warriors Watch Riders’ engines announced John’s arrival and he was greeted by a grateful crowd waving flags and cheering. Mt. Laurel Mayor Kurt Folcher, Congressman Andy Kim, members of council and representatives from local veterans organizations joined family members and fellow residents for the ceremony. 

John’s grandfather, WWII vet Louis Berra, embraced his grandson as the soldier emerged from his car, in disbelief at the crowd that had gathered outside his home.

“He’s a good kid and I know — I use him a lot when he’s home,” Berra said of his grandson.

“We are the land of the free because of the brave like John,” Silver said as the ceremony began.

“There are people shopping at ShopRite, Mt. Laurel rec basketball is starting today, there are people driving around listening to Frank Sinatra on Sundays with Sinatra, and people can do these things in our country only because of men like Specialist John Robbie, who step up and go across the world to help protect our rights and things we take, sometimes, for granted,” said Mayor Folcher.

“But today we don’t.”

John Robbie said he was mostly looking forward to spending time with family after a long year away. The welcome home celebration came as a total surprise after the diner diversion, he admitted.

“I was completely shocked.”