Spc. Chris Cunningham, right, shows Daezion Turner, 10, the first aid kit in a uniform Saturday during the Welcome Home celebration at Carl Levin Park in Harker Heights.

By Rebecca Rose
Killeen Daily Herald

HARKER HEIGHTS — When J.J. Russell, 30, of Harker Heights, realized she had walked into a free event for veterans Saturday at Carl Levin Park, she began to tear up.

The former Army captain thought it was just another day at the park with her children and their friends, when she discovered the third annual Welcome Home celebration at Carl Levin Park in full swing, as crowds of people took over the park grounds to thank area veterans.

Hosted by the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System from the Veterans Affairs office in Temple, the event served to pay tribute to veterans and returning soldiers from Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and other U.S. military actions in the Global War on Terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The free event also featured live music, vendor booths and several VA benefit booths, which provided materials to interested veterans and their families. In addition, local universities and colleges were on hand to provide veterans information about their educational options.

Guest speaker Brig. Gen. Joseph DiSalvo, III Corps deputy commanding general of Fort Hood, spoke about the important role spouses and families play in veterans’ lives. He thanked all the branches of the military, which he referred to as “a team.”

Addressing the crowd of veterans and area residents who came for the event, DiSalvo said it takes “commitment, dedication and sacrifice to go in harm’s way.”

“What better way to honor our veterans and families,” Harker Heights Mayor Mike Aycock said as he waved to the large crowd of attendees. “I’m here to welcome all of you.”

Attendees were treated to an array of free food, courtesy of organizations such as the Knights of Columbus. Serving up fresh popcorn and colorful snow cones were members of the Squires, the youth branch of the Knights of Columbus.

“We’re here to serve our troops,” said Logan Melvin, 15, a Harker Heights High School sophomore.

The event had special significance for Melvin.

“A lot of the veterans here are our families,” he said. “My dad is in the Army. You really see how the military affects a community when you live in a place like this.”

Melvin said he wished he could personally thank veterans who served their country, and ask them questions about what it was like.

“I want to make them feel welcome,” he said. “Even though I wasn’t alive at the time, I still respect the sacrifices they made.”

“Our community is a military community,” said Harker Heights Councilman Pat Christ. “We need to do all we can to say thank you for what they’ve given and for what they’re going to give.”

Jarrett Lott, 59, served in Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s. The former Army sergeant spoke proudly of the strong community of veterans and their supporters in the area.

“They sacrificed all,” he said, speaking of his fellow veterans.

“Some didn’t come back at all. They did everything for our right to freedom.”

Looking around at the large crowds gathered for the event, Lott smiled.

“It’s good you when you can come out to something like this,” he said. “To see so many people celebrate that you were a veteran.”

For Russell, the event was one more reminder of the meaning of service to her and thousands of others like her.

“People join (the military) because they want to serve. They want to give back,” she said. “They do it because they love it.”

The Central Texas Veterans Health Care System provides outreach and treatment programs designed to better care for a veteran’s mind, body and spirit. The organization treats more than 79,000 veterans annually.