King City club members hand out flags to soldiers just returned from Afghanistan
There were some VIP guests in the audience for the Oct. 27 demobilization ceremony for the Oregon National Guard's 1186 Military Police Company, which recently returned from a year-long deployment to Kabul, Afghanistan.
Members of the King City Lions Club were front and center at the event, held in the Chemeketa Community College Gymnasium in Salem, to honor 180 Oregon citizen-soldiers from throughout the state who were deployed in October 2011 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
The National Guard unit provided force protection and personal security for high-profile visitors, and it also trained Afghan national police.
The Lions club was invited to attend the ceremony because it purchased U.S. flags to give to every returning service person at a cost of $3,500, and one of the Lions was given special recognition - Jennifer Fair, the co-founder of Mission Mahalo who has worked tirelessly for nearly two years to send packages of toiletries and comfort items to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The club fronted the money for the flags, and we are working to get other Lions clubs around the state to contribute some funds toward the project to help out the King City group," Fair said. "It was a pretty amazing thing for them to do, and it was really important to them to present the flags to the soldiers."
She credits Lions President Bill Gerkin for getting high-quality and guaranteed-for-life American-made flags - 3-feet-by-5-feet with embroidered stars - at the best price from Elmer's Flag and Banner. Each flag came in its own box, and all the boxes were signed by volunteers at Mission Mahalos Oct. 6 packing party.
Fair also appreciates the efforts of state Sen. Jackie Winters (R-Dist. 10) and state Rep. Deborah Boone (D-Dist. 32), who have been especially connected with the overseas troops.
"When they discovered what we wanted to do, they were hugely supportive," she said. "When one of the organizers of the demobilization ceremony found out how many Lions were involved, she arranged for us to present the flags in person. I'm so, so touched that we got to hand out the flags to the soldiers individually - it was awesome. The Lions was the only organization that did this for the troops.
"This unit protected President Obama when he was in Afghanistan as well as generals and other important visitors, and they suffered no casualties during their deployment. Seeing the smiles on those guys was heartwarming."
The 1186 Military Police Company had a gift for Fair too - she was presented with a folded American flag that had flown over Kabul.
While that surprise was planned, another one was not: At the event, Fair met a young woman face to face who was one of her first contacts and recipients of the boxes when she first started sending them over 1 Â½ years ago.
"Her name is Maribel Ortega, and she has been back in Oregon for a while," Fair said. "She was the third contact I ever made, and she actually approached me. It was one of the few times that I have actually met one of my contacts in person, and it was the only one that was impromptu. It was the highlight of my day - it was pretty amazing."
The troops serving in the forward operating bases really appreciate the boxes because they have no opportunity to purchase such basic items as deodorant, shampoo and laundry detergent, let alone candy, books, puzzles and CDs, according to Fair.
Ernie Karlson, a member of the King City Lions Club who served in the Army, said about attending the demobilization ceremony: "It was really inspiring and well worth the trip. It was a way to show our appreciation for all the sacrifices they have made. When people serve as citizen-soldiers, there is a lot of disruption to their lives - it takes a whole lot of patriotism and sacrifice on their part for the benefit of our country. And Jennifer put a lot of time and effort into this project, which everyone appreciates."
Bill Gerkin, who served in the National Guard for 28 years and personally signed all 180 boxes, said the demobilization ceremony "brought back a lot of memories." He added, "I have a soft spot for the National Guard. The whole ceremony was just great."