The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of August quickly divided both politicians and the public, but at a parade on Saturday in Newberry, people set politics aside to celebrate the return of local veterans who had been serving in Afghanistan.
The Newberry American Legion Post 149 hosted “Welcome Home Afghanistan Veterans,” an all-day event that began with a morning parade starting at Walker Lee’s Produce Stand and ended with a celebration at Clark Plantation that went through the evening.
Malachai Walters, a junior at Buchholz High School, marched in the parade as a member of the school’s Air Force Junior ROTC. Walters’ father is an Afghanistan veteran, who served three tours as a doctor overseas.
“I’m here to respect what he did and honor the sacrifice that he gave to help our community and help our nation,” Walters said, adding that he wanted to show his support of the veterans, given the focus on negative effects of the withdrawal of troops there.
“I just felt a lot of respect for the people who have served because I know a lot of people who have [served],” Walters said. “It’s the end of a time, but it’s a good way to go out.”
Ron Byler, who served in Vietnam in the 1960s, traveled from Old Town to support the returning veterans. He is a member of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association in Dixie County.
“I know what these guys went through, so I just want to welcome them home,” Byler said.
People of all ages crowded the street to cheer on the parade, shouting “thank you for your service!” and waving American flags. Milton Lew Young Marines and the Color Guard of Gainesville led the parade, and Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe served as Grand Marshall. Other participating organizations included American Legion Riders, Rolling Thunder Florida and the Buchholz High School Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps.
Marlowe said events like this one are why he’s proud to be mayor.
“Seeing all the people at the parade this morning, seeing all the people here at this event…it reaffirms my belief that Newberry loves our vets and we support them,” Marlowe said, adding that he hopes people were able to put their politics aside at the event.
“Today is not about why we went to Afghanistan. It’s not about how long we were there. It’s not about how we left,” he said. “Today is about celebrating the men and women who answered the call of their country. Today is about making sure we welcome them back home…that they know that we love them.”
State Rep. Chuck Clemons, R-Newberry, one of many elected officials also in attendance, echoed Marlowe’s sentiment. “This event is not about politics. It’s about patriotism. And it’s about honoring our country and the rights that we have,” he said. “People are risking their lives every day to come to have what we have here in the United States.”
Alachua County Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler said this event goes the extra mile in ensuring veterans feel appreciated. “It is important that we thank our veterans, but sometimes the ‘thank you for your service’ becomes trite,” Wheeler said. “We want to make sure that our military personnel, when they come home, know that they are coming home to people who care about them.”
That’s important for veterans’ well-being, said Jimmie T. Smith, coalitions director of Concerned Veterans for America, one of many organizations that set up a booth at the event.
“For [people] to have that unique opportunity to look [veterans] in the eye and especially say, for the Afghan veterans, ‘thank you for your service,’ it’s truly a unique thing,” Smith said. “There’s been more people with PTSD, more people have taken their own lives,” she continued, adding that events like the one in Newberry show a community’s commitment to serve veterans after they return home. “I think that would be a great healing moment and I hope that this event is.”