ASHVILLE - Soldiers from Fort Drum intended to thank the community for its support Thursday, but were surprised to find the community instead thanking them.
Around 40 soldiers from Fort Drum arrived at the Chautauqua Children's Safety Education Village shortly before 1 p.m. Thursday. They intended to spend the day with area children and demonstrated their gratitude for the support they received from Chautauqua County while they were in Afghanistan.
"The idea was that the guys wanted to give back to the community," said Kathy Collver, a Blue Star Mother whose son, 2nd Lt. Vincent Fye, helped to organize the event.
"They were going to come and work alongside the safety village kids, and then in the afternoon, work with the vo-tech kids," Collver continued. "That was the idea in their minds, that they were going to be able to give back to us. But, they are the heroes, we need to thank them."
On March 17, the soldiers, who are a part of Fort Drum's third Brigade Combat Team from the 710th Brigade Support Battalion, 10th Mountain Division, returned home from a year-long deployment in Afghanistan. The brigade of about 3,500 soldiers was sent to an area in southern Afghanistan, where few troops had been previously. It was also the birthplace of the Taliban and the home territory of Mullah Omar, the Taliban's spiritual leader.
While in Afghanistan, the soldiers built roads, set up clinics, strengthened local government, opened schools and worked to reduce infant morality.
The unit also conducted 60 air assaults in nine months and lost 36 of its soldiers.
"During their time there, the Blue Star Mothers and Zahm and Mattson sent them many, many packages. So, they wanted to thank us for the support that we gave them during their year-long deployment," Mrs. Collver said.
Due to a busing problem, the 40 soldiers arrived in Ashville several hours behind schedule. However, the Blue Star Mothers were prepared for their arrival, as were hundreds of members of the community, students from Dunkirk School Five, BOCES students and veterans.
"Once the county executive got a hold of it, it blew up. He sent out a press release, and then we contacted a couple of the veterans' organizations. Everybody wanted to be a part of it, which was so amazing. I contacted one fire company, and next thing I knew, we had seven participating," Mrs. Collver said.
Because of the time crunch, the soldiers only had a limited amount of time with the Dunkirk students, but managed to spend 15 minutes with them learning about the safety village.
A picnic lunch for the soldiers was provided by BOCES students. There was also going to be a walking tour through Chautauqua Institution and a late-afternoon cookout at Mrs. Collver's home.
"I received so many donations. There was so much money and food that I literally had to start turning it away," Mrs. Collver said.
Among the donors were Tops, Wegmans, Wal-Mart, Johnny's, Farm Fresh Foods, Vietnam Veterans of America and Masons Mt. Moriah Lodge.
"Our intent was to come back and thank them, but it was once again them thanking us for our service," 2nd Lt. Fye said. "It means so much, it really does. Driving up through the community, seeing the flags, seeing just everyone waving their flags, we have huge amounts of gratitude that we couldn't even express through words. We thank Chautauqua County so much."