Troops say farewell to Warrior's Weekend
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PORT O' CONNOR - As the sun went into hiding Saturday, hundreds of soldiers lined up in formation.
The American flag waved with the wind. "Attention, forward march," the commander said. The troops responded accordingly.
Instead of receiving orders, the volunteers extended hugs. Each soldier was given a coin of honor.
For years, the participants had given tokens to the staff and volunteers because of the selfless act of kindness.
This year, organizers returned the favor and created a signature coin for each soldier. The overwhelming support was surreal for some.
"I've never seen anything like this in person, just in movies," said Staff Sgt. Carlos Stewart.
The 30-year-old Nashville, Tenn., native said the Lone Star state greeted him with Texas-sized hospitality. He was stationed in Afghanistan and is based in Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.
Sherry Kocian, whose husband started the project, described the weekend as love in action.
Every year, she said, the event keeps expanding because of the great reports the honorees receive. Kocian, an administrative assistant, said volunteers work with each soldier on a personal level.
A few of the troops have been burned so badly, they could only go fishing at night. Others have been so traumatized by the war, it's a challenge for them to socialize with the public. Kocian welcomed anyone who came in her path.
"We just want to put a crack in that aching heart so it can begin to heal," she said. The weekend-long celebration helped the troops with their recovery.
"Besides medicine, this is one of the best therapies," said Sean Johnson, logistics officer with Brooke Army Medical Center.
Rene Maldonado, who was stationed in Germany and Fort Hood, was finally well enough to attend the festivities.
He suffers from an auto-immune illness that keeps him in and out of the hospital. The 33-year-old San Antonio native brought his sons to bond with them. Although the father of two has not fully recovered, he's learned to manage.
"In the Army, you learn to adapt and overcome for whatever issues you have," he said.
The 14-year veteran said he was eternally grateful to his boat captain for the giving him the opportunity to bond with his children, Marcus Ortega, 12, and Michael Maldonado. The group of three caught several fish.
"This kind of day sticks with you for the rest of your life," said Rene Maldonado.
Although the mood was upbeat, Juan Rodriguez used it as a day of reflection. The father of four looked out on the field and paused. "Each of these flags represents someone who's gone. I can't help but think about that," he said.
The 43-year-old San Antonio native injured his shoulder in Iraq handing over ammunition to a fellow soldier. He's had several surgeries since his 2011 incident and continues to have strength training.
Rodriguez was thankful for the love he received from South Texas. "I didn't expect anything like this," he said.
Stewart said he appreciated everyone who made this weekend possible.
As Stewart's bus departed from the Port O'Connor Community Center, he smiled and waved to the crowd. The crowd responded with air kisses and hugs.
"This love reminds me why I serve my country," he said.