Let freedom ring

Residents show their pride at Saturday's Hometown Heroes

Tonee Gingrich smiled as she scanned the spread at Saturday's Hometown Heroes picnic.

"This would have been great for him," Gingrich said, referring to her grandson, former Craig resident Pfc. Chance Phelps. The 19-year-old Marine was shot and killed in Iraq last month during an ambush on his troop's convoy.

"I remember him saying he could hardly wait to get home and get some good grub," she said. "He would have really appreciated this."

With a showing of roughly 550 residents, almost everyone at the picnic knew at least someone in the armed forces, or someone who had fought in a war.

Members of the Veterans of Foreign War Post 4265 kicked off the afternoon with a color guard ceremony, which was followed by Moffat County High School Senior Jori Hollenbeck rendition of the National Anthem.

Stiff hand salutes and a few tears marked a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. A sea of residents in red, white and blue attire matched some desert s created with an American flag theme.

Troops from Craig were announced to the crowd, to the cheers of families excited to hear the names of their loved ones.

Vicky White said she thought her son, Pfc. Joshua White, who is serving in Iraq with the Army's 75th Ranger Regiment, would have enjoyed Saturday's show of support.

"I've heard that our troops can feel our prayers and it makes them feel safe," she said. Tacked to White's back was a flier with a picture of Joshua handling a machine gun under the heading, "These colors don't run" and "Pray for our troops."

White admitted she didn't think much about the U.S. military's contributions to freedom, until her son joined the Army a year and a half ago.

But her attitude has changed.

"I know it's been difficult, even terrifying at times, but that's a way of life after a member of your family becomes part of the military," she said. "I can't say 'thank you' enough to our troops."

Merely three weeks ago, Allen Swenson's environment was a sharp contrast to the deep green grass and budding trees in Craig's City Park on Saturday. Swanson led onlookers through a photo album that documented his year in Iraq.

Swenson showed photos of himself inside Saddam Hussein's many palaces.

He showed projects he worked on as an engineer with the Army's 1457th Engineer Combat Battalion. He said his unit reopened 175 schools and two museums and rebuilt what is now called the Freedom Bridge.

In every photo, Swenson is toting a machine gun.

One year of trying to keep abreast of enemy fire has taken its toll on Swenson, said his wife, Kimberly.

"It's hard to get to him stay out of the center of the road when he's driving because he's so used to thinking there's bombs off to the sides," she said. "He gets scared once in a while because he's not used to not having his gun. There' s a lot that he has to get used to again."

Swenson is working again at the position that was saved for him at Twentymile Coal Co. During his stint in Iraq, the coal company covered the difference between Allen's military income and his full-time position, Kimberly said.

Allen said he feels lucky that no one was killed in his division of more than 420 servicemen and women.

"That's pretty amazing after all the stuff we've went through," he said.

Other families weren't so lucky.

It helps Gingrich to hear that the heroism of her grandson's final actions may have saved up to 50 of his fellow troops. Phelps was manning a machine gun on a humvee when his convoy fell under attack.

Saturday's outpouring of support helps her deal with the loss, she said, so does speaking often about her grandson.

"I'm proud of him to say the least," Gingrich said. "We have to support our American troops. We wouldn't be here if it weren't for them."

The annual picnic is sponsored by the Craig Daily Press and made possible with the help of the Cedar Mountain Lions Club, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the VFW Ladies Auxiliary, the Elks Club and City Market. KRAI provided a public address system and station personality Joshua Fleming played patriotic songs.

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