MANATEE -- A rousing, emotional welcome from several hundred residents embraced six combat-wounded veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The veterans, who suffered amputations, spinal cord and other injuries, were overwhelmed Monday by the size and warmth of the welcome as they stepped off a jet at Dolphin Aviation to cheers, color guards and hand salutes from veterans and law enforcement officers.
“It’s an amazing feeling to have the whole city come out,” said Staff Sgt. William Castillo of Orlando, who lost a leg in Iraq. “It means a lot to us.”
One of those in the crowd, Chip Munro of the Patriot Riders, overheard Castillo’s comment, and responded, “You mean everything to us.”
The crowd surged up to the veterans, who were given a pass from the hospital to take part in Operation Second Chance for a few days of fishing and relaxation.
Residents wanted to shake their hands, give the vets a hug and say “thank you.”
There were few dry eyes in the house after the crowd began singing “God Bless America.”
“We are honoring our patriots. It’s important that we show our support for these warriors. They are our true heroes,” Carole Holland said.
Bob Pelletier was there to thank the veterans and their families for their sacrifice.
“I am proud to be an American and happy to get them home,” Pelletier said.
The group was escorted by Sgt. Adam Kisielweski, who lost an arm and a leg in Iraq.
“Some of our missions are real low-key. We’re in and we’re out before people know we were there,” Kisielweski said. “It was an honor for me getting to see this. I can’t thank you enough.”
While serving thousands of miles away from the United States, it is possible to lose touch with reality back home, said Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Ferre, who suffered a broken back and spinal cord injury.
And they valued Monday’s welcome. “It’s great ... it’s wonderful,” Ferre said. “It shows the true support of America.”
Staff Sgt. Louis Watson, a U.S. Army signal corpsman from Boynton Beach, felt the love from grateful citizens. “Words really can’t express coming here and seeing this level of support,” Watson said.
Monday’s arrival of the wounded warriors was the first by Operation Second Chance in Manatee-Sarasota, retired Army Col. Ben Knisely said.
Gene Sweeney of Lakewood Ranch took note of the severity of the injuries sustained by the visiting vets.
“All gave some, some gave all,” Sweeney said. “What an incredibly beautiful crowd. It’s absolutely awesome.”