HomeMarlton NewsA hero’s welcome

A hero’s welcome

Operation Yellow Ribbon gives returning soldier a homecoming fit for a rockstar

Madeleine Maccar The Sun: From left: Operation Yellow Ribbon President Dave Silver with Luis Reyes-Torres of the United States Air Force

After a stretch of dreary days, the sun broke through just in time to make sure a local hero got the warm homecoming he deserved Feb. 12, courtesy of the volunteer organization Operation Yellow Ribbon of South Jersey.

A 10-year veteran of the United State Air Force, Luis Reyes-Torres thought he was going to lunch with a friend. Instead, he came roaring down Evesham Township’s South Elmwood Road in a flag-festooned, horn-honking motorcade filled with motorcycle and police escorts who delivered him to an enthusiastic group of well-wishers at the Indian Springs Country Club.

“We have a hero to welcome home!” Operation Yellow Ribbon President Dave Silver shouted over the engines to the cheering crowd, as the afternoon’s guest of honor —  accompanied by his mother, Maribel Torres, and father, Ariel Reyes — made his way to a tree-filled corner adorned with yellow ribbons and American flags.

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Reyes-Torres, currently a resident of Mount Royal, had just returned home Feb. 7 after his second deployment to Kuwait and a previous deployment to Yemen. He had not expected to see a giant flag waving from an Evesham Township Fire Department truck and a gathering of eager supporters.

“It was definitely a surprise,” said Reyes-Torres, who had also received a care package from Operation Yellow Ribbon during his deployment. “But it makes me feel good. It’s really good to know that there’s a lot of people who are behind me and supporting me.

“Even when you’re overseas and you don’t feel like a lot of people know what you’re doing, there’s a lot of people back here that appreciate it.”

Among them were a number of representatives from local organizations; volunteers; and elected officials, including Burlington County Freeholder Daniel O’Connell.

“We all hear people — we do it, too, as elected officials — thanking our military men and women for their service, but coupled with that is also the sacrifice that they make to be away from family and friends, to be in harm’s way,” the freeholder said.

“It’s the least we can do to say thank you and welcome them home.”

During speeches that punctuated the afternoon, Evesham Deputy Mayor Heather Cooper and Councilwoman Patricia Hansen presented Reyes-Torres with proclamations thanking him for his service.

“It doesn’t matter where a veteran is located: It’s the fact that they want to come to Evesham and spend time with us, and that we want to honor them,” Cooper noted, adding  the council has “made it our initiative to be at every single welcome home we can be” and has cited Councilman Robert DiEnna’s military service as a special motivator.

“Because we’re public servants, I feel like it’s only right to celebrate our military heroes,” Cooper added.

The deputy mayor appreciates the chance to thank local heroes and loves the event’s emotion and fanfare, befitting a serviceman who’s just come home.

“I feel like it brings the community together, and it’s an opportunity to celebrate those heroes, those military folks who have served for us,” she said. “The best part is when the motorcycles come up and you feel like this guy is a rock star.

“It’s such a celebration, and it is an overwhelming emotion to see that someone who’s been away and served our country is welcomed home and honored.”

A rock star experience is exactly what Silver aims to deliver with Operation Yellow Ribbon’s homecomings.

“One-hundred percent of the servicemen and women we do this for say that they don’t deserve it, that they’re just doing their jobs,” he explained. “Yes, they’re doing their jobs but they do deserve it.

“A generation ago, our brave men and women were spit on when they came back, so we used the freedom they provide and protect to make sure that never happens again,” Silver added. “We want them to know that we’re grateful.

“We want them to know that, at least here in South Jersey, this is how we treat our heroes when they come back.”

Silver says that his dedication to Operation Yellow Ribbon and the heroes for whom it rolls out the proverbial red carpet is “both selfish and selfless,” but it is a true labor of love that pays off every time.

“It started as a way to give back,” Silver explained. “I was mad at how us Americans were taking things for granted here at home while these heroes and their families were dealing with their sacrifices and deployment, so it was my way of giving back and making myself feel better. And then I realized how awesome it was to see their responses with our care packages and welcome homes, and then it just became something addictive to do.”

And that big-hearted enthusiasm is what keeps drawing in volunteers. Reyes-Torres’ homecoming is the first Operation Yellow Ribbon event that Donna Jennis of Shamong has helped the organization put on.

“I just joined the group after hearing about it for a number of years and I’m really excited to be here,” Jennis said. “I decided it was time to give back. My husband just passed away: I was drawn to the military and then, looking back on my husband’s life, I realized that he wanted to join the military and never could. So this kind of brings it full circle for me.”

Once the speeches were over and nearly everyone in attendance had given hugs and personal thanks to Reyes-Torres, the soldier admitted being back on American soil after so much time away was still surreal.

“I just got home last Friday, and it has been a little different and an adjustment,” he added, laughing at the understatement. “The cold I can definitely do without.”

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