Troops receive second welcome

Sunday, May 22, 2005

PERRYVILLE, Mo. -- "Freedom Salute," the official state-sponsored event honoring National Guard soldiers who were deployed to Iraq, was held Saturday at Perry Park Center followed by a meal at the neighboring National Guard Armory. The Perryville ceremony honored Perryville and Jackson soldiers of 1140th Engineer Battalion Company B with encased American flags, a commemorative coin stamped with a minuteman symbol, a certificate of appreciation and a lapel insignia. One-hundred troops from the 106-member company participated in the ceremony.

About 189 civilians were in attendance. Spouses were pinned by their soldiers with a lapel insignia during the ceremony, and children received a "footlocker" kit including a card game, comic book and activity. The tokens were an effort to recognize the sacrifice of living for months without a husband or wife, mom or dad.

Handmade welcome signs were posted around the auditorium boasting "1140th Engineers, often tested never bested," "We love company B," and "Thank you 1140th."

Susan Berkbigler of Biehle, Mo., the ex-wife of Perry Berkbigler, attended the ceremony alone while their two children, Alicia, 10 and Collin, 7 sat with their dad.

"Even though we're divorced, I still worried about him," she said.

Susan Berkbigler and the children stayed away from the news while he was in Iraq for a year, for fear of the worst.

"You hear of so many killings over there. And if that was dad, how would I explain that?" she said.

It helped that Perry Berkbigler wrote to the children twice a week and called to let them know he was OK.

This was the second homecoming celebration for the soliders, who arrived back in the region from Iraq on March 1.

"The homecoming they had in March at the armory was great. My son wouldn't let go him for nothing," Susan Berkbigler said.

Alycia enjoyed the ceremony with the Perryville High School band's patriotic medleys.

"My dad is hardworking," she said, smiling proudly. "I know that he worked really hard over there."

Collin narrowed his impressions of the second homecoming ceremony to one word: "awesome."

Some soldiers included their children in the trip through the receiving line to accept their commemorative memorabilia, toting a toddler in their arms or a child by the hand.

"Today's ceremony is all about families," said Company B commander Kevin Compas of Jackson.

Husband and father of three, Compas explained that serving your country is a two-way street. While soldiers were over there bearing the heat and making sacrifices for the sake of freedom, he knows that spouses had to take over the other half of the work it takes to make a home, including repairs and paying bills.

Compas said the heat in Iraq at this time of year made it impossible for soldiers to touch a rifle without gloves on. Tents were air-conditioned, but outside temperatures reached 120 degrees in July. Special desert camoflauge wear was pretty lightweight and clothing and footwear were designed with keeping moisture on the body at a minimum.

Seven members of the company were recognized for outstanding service: 1st Lt. Mike Pierson and Sgt. 1st Class Michael Goodsell for training the Iraqi National Guard; 1st Lt. Barren Goves and Sgt. 1st Class Edward Delaney for eliminating ammunition left behind by Iraqi soldiers; Sgt. 1st Class Jeffery Buchheit and 1st Lt. Jared Dement for security of a main supply station; and 1st Lt. Brian Hoelscher for support of a motor pool

The family readiness group, which provided support through communication between family members and soldiers, was recognized with a statue and patriotic print. Outstanding member, Diane Kohm, received a voucher for a bed and breakfast of her choice.

cpagano@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 133

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