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BOCES students, staff welcome soldiers home from Afghanistan


NORFOLK - Soldiers from the 366th Engineer Company, Canton, received a warm welcome home Saturday night with a homemade spaghetti dinner and ceremony where they were honored with plaques for their year of service in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Three soldiers killed in action on Nov. 3 were also remembered for their service.

The affair at Norwood-Norfolk Central School was courtesy of the students and staff at the St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES Seaway Career and Technical Education Center, with the school’s Criminal Justice and Culinary Arts classes spearheading the effort.

“This is our way to give back to those who have given so much,” said Ron Burke, principal of the Seaway Career and Technical Education Center.

Andrea Billings, a Criminal Justice teaching assistant, came up with the idea after her husband, Kevin, a staff sergeant with the 366th, was deployed with the unit to Afghanistan. They left in January 2012 and returned home in February 2013.

Having lost a friend in the U.S. Marines in combat, Mrs. Billings said she was concerned when she began dating her husband, who was subject to deployment at any time. And then that time came shortly after they were married.

“I was angry with him. I hated that he made that choice,” she said. “Jan. 31 came and it was hard to say good bye.”

Mrs. Billings said that, after the initial shock wore off, she was able to get into a routine. And in February 2012 she spoke to her boss about the students and staff adopting her husband’s squad.

Through various fundraisers, they were able to make banners and send care packages to the troops. Among the fundraisers, Culinary Arts students set up a bakery and sold their items.

“We raised enough money to send care packages to the entire company, not just Kevin’s squad,” she said.

Other fundraisers included the sale of wrist bands and Wounded Warrior T-shirts, as well as a golf tournament.

They raised so much money that they were able to present all the soldiers of the 366th with plaques that read, “Freedom Isn’t Free, 2012-13. Our country is proud of you!!! We are all so grateful for the sacrifices that you have made in defending our great nation!!! With our flags waving, we will proudly stand and say ‘Thank You & Welcome Home.’ A gift from your family, community and friends.”

The soldiers also received Wounded Warriors sweatshirts from the students and staff.

“The support of the community here is amazing,” Ms. Billings said.

Along the way, she said, she learned why the soldiers like her husband did what they did.

“My question why was answered. It’s to do what they thought was right. These soldiers didn’t do it for money or glory. They were doing what was right for their family, friends and community,” she said. “I want to thank the soldiers for what you do every day for us.”

The students and staff at the Seaway Career and Technical Education Center decided to do what they could for the soldiers both during and after their deployment. To learn more, they invited a representative from the Canton reserve center in to talk with them about the typical day for the soldiers.

“A lot of them didn’t know much about the military until this,” Mrs. Billings said. “That really gave them the drive to work hard.”

And on Saturday night, as they held a spaghetti dinner in the school cafeteria, followed by a recognition ceremony in the auditorium, they got to meet the soldiers first-hand.

“They’re excited to meet who they’ve been sponsoring and shake their hands,” she said.

“We are joyful that you are home,” Mr. Burke told the soldiers as they gathered in the high school auditorium, many with their families present, as well as a contingent of representatives from local veteran’s groups in Winthrop, Waddington, Ogdensburg, Canton, Norwood and Gouverneur.

“We also recognize the families and friends of each servicemember. For months you have waited for your loved ones to return to your arms,” Mr. Burke said.

He noted that Staff Sgt. Dain T. Venne, 29, of Port Henry; Spc. Brett. E. Gornewicz, 27, of Alden; and Spc. Ryan P. Jayne, 22, of Campbell “gave the ultimate sacrifice” on Nov. 3. They were killed in an improvised explosive device attack in the Paktia province of Afghanistan.

Sgt. Venne, a military member for 10 years and nine months, was on his fourth deployment. He was a graduate of Moriah Central School and was attending St. Lawrence University when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred. He enlisted in the military soon thereafter.

Spc. Gornewicz, who served nearly seven years in the military, was on his third deployment. Spc. Jayne, who had served about two years, was on his second deployment.

They were remembered with a moment of silence.

“I wish there were some words I could share that would bring comfort, but there are not,” Mr. Burke said. “Please know we stand with you to honor their memory and are eternally grateful for their service.”

A large plaque purchased by the students and staff will also remember Sgt. Venne at the Canton reserve center. It reads in part, “Dedicated to the memory of our fallen hero, SSG Dain Venne, May 28, 1983 - November 3, 2012. Operation Enduring Freedom - Afghanistan.”

They also purchased a bench that will be be placed at the center.

“Although they’re not with us, their memory will continue to inspire us,” said Capt. Robert Martin, commander of the 366th Engineer Company.

He thanked the soldiers for their efforts during their Afghanistan tour.

“Thank you. You sacrifice does not go unnoticed,” Capt. Martin said.

He also recognized the families in attendance.

“They shared in your sacrifice the last year,” he said.

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