'Operation Salute' honors Pa. National Guard troops

Signs of gratitude for the National Guard troops were everywhere.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) -- A brass band played "God Bless America." Soldiers in camouflage gear feasted on free hot dogs and sodas. Troops gathered in circles exchanging greetings and jokes.
The state honored Pennsylvania National Guard troops Sunday with a tailgate party, ceremony and a free concert featuring the Beach Boys. The tribute, dubbed "Operation Salute," turned the Penn State University campus into a minimilitary outpost.
"This is fantastic," said Staff Sgt. Francis Lacamera of the 107th Field Artillery battalion based in New Castle. "It kind of warms your heart. It really does."
Organizers said the event was meant to give troops a giant show of thanks, especially for their service in the war in Iraq and since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"After that, the president of the United States opened a big old can of [military strength] called the National Guard," said Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, drawing raucous applause from a crowd mostly made up of soldiers.
Honore led federal troops last year who rescued thousands of stranded residents in the days after Katrina ravaged New Orleans. The event Sunday also honored Pennsylvania troops who assisted after Katrina and other natural disasters.
More than 16,000 Pennsylvania National Guard members have been deployed in the war on terrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks. Twenty-five have been killed in action, nine have died on duty under nonhostile conditions and 287 wounded, the state said.
The names of the 34 dead soldiers were inscribed in the centerfold of the program, next to a poem entitled "I Will Fight For You" written by one of the deceased, Sgt. Eric Slebodnik.
"There's nothing that we can ever say or do that will compensate these families for the loss of their loved ones," Gov. Ed Rendell said before the audience gave a standing ovation to the families of the dead.
The arena fell to near-silence when a bell tolled after each of the names of the deceased was read. A lone bugler played taps.
"My son would be proud," said Patricia Geiger, mother of Sgt. Christopher Geiger, who died in Afghanistan on July 9, 2003. "Chris loved the Guard, and he loved his country."
Displays of gratitude were everywhere. Over 1,100 volunteers wore shirts emblazoned with the words "Thank You" on the front and "Serving Those Who Serve Us" on the back. Most food and drinks were donated, including 30,000 hot dog rolls, 5,000 pounds of pork barbecue and 82,000 bottles of water.
Tight security
Security was tight around the athletic facilities where most of the events were based. Bands played at an outdoor track-and-field oval, and religious services were held at an indoor track facility.
A road typically lined with souvenir stands and tailgaters during football games was filled instead with military earth-movers, armored vehicles and other dark-green or camouflaged equipment that attracted wide-eyed children.
Most guard members and their families mingled around the parking lots between the Jordan Center and Beaver Stadium.
"Who's hungry?" yelled workers from a food stand outside Penn State's baseball stadium.
"I am!" responded Sgt. Bruce Curtis, a 14-year veteran based with the 288th Forward Support Battalion in Lock Haven. Holding a tray with a hot dog and pork barbecue sandwich, Curtis went off to look for his family in a crowded lot.
View on the support
Curtis said the show of support was heartwarming, and much different from the response that Vietnam veterans received a generation ago.
"Absolutely, we've been supported. No matter for or against the war efforts, they are always for the troops," he said.
Spc. Nicholas Modesto, 24, based at Fort Indiantown Gap, exchanged a kiss with his girlfriend, Karen Penberth, as they waited to enter the Bryce Jordan Center for the ceremony and concert.
Modesto said he thought the press was not focusing enough on good news out of Iraq, such as the rebuilding of schools or little things such as building soccer fields.
The couple was excited to see country music artist Craig Morgan, a U.S. Army veteran who opened for the Beach Boys.
"My mom is going to be jealous," said Penberth as she locked arms with Modesto, who served in Iraq in 2003.
"It's nice to know that we haven't been forgotten," Modesto said.
Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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