During a short ceremony, Here At Home Committee Chairwoman Kathy Mickle presented Tech. Sgt. Shane Willis with a plaque honoring his service.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — As soon as they saw the sirens coming down Wendell Avenue, the large crowd erupted in cheers: Tech. Sgt. Shane Willis is home safe.
Willis returned to his hometown Friday night, with an escort from state, local, and auxiliary police, after his fifth deployment overseas. He was most recently stationed for seven months in Kuwait with the Air Force.
He had been previously deployed to Iraq three times and Afghanistan once. The 37-year-old Taconic High School graduate has been in the Air Force Reserve for 15 years now, joining when he was 22.
"It took me to about that age to finally to be like, why don't I join the military? I was thinking about it whenever I met someone, I always wanted to be affiliated. I took the leap," Willis said.
"That's the advice I give everybody, make your decisions, go with it and don't look back. That's the mindset I developed at that age and that is what made me sign up."
Now he is married with two sons, ages 10 and 6, and had moved his family to the state of Florida a little over a year ago. He has been commuting back and forth to Westover Air Force Base, with which he has been affiliated since 2002, prior to being deployed to Kuwait.
Now he is making the transition back to civilian life.
"When you are deployed there are so many things you can do, there is certain protocol. You are in a deep routine and you have high responsibility. Now you are back, you don't have to be part of a mission right now. It is all about being reintegrated so I have all this freedom now. It's a strange feeling," Willis said.
Willis has gotten used to that transition somewhat, being that he's done it five times now. But Friday's was the biggest welcoming party he's had. The Here At Home Committee has known Willis for years and has tried to do something for him each time — but none as large as the 50 or some people who were there to greet him on Friday.
"We really had been in contact all of these years. In his second deployment, he came home on a Veterans Day and I was presenting a plaque to someone else on the podium and told everybody that he was home. The next time he came home it was in the middle of winter and there were four or five us met him. But this is his fifth and we felt we needed to tell him, 'we love you,'" Kathy Mickle, chairwoman of the Here At Home Committee, said.
"We've become friends, family."
Willis said such ceremonies can sometimes be difficult at first for many veterans but "when the smoke clears" it is greatly appreciated.
"When we sign up we say an oath to protect the Constitution, protect our way of life, it becomes us and our job. When we come back and people say 'thank you for your service' it is kind of a weird feeling. It feels like that is our duty. We are just doing what we signed up to do," Willis said. "It takes us a while to accept people saying thank you but in the end, it is welcomed."
Willis said he had some tough times returning to civilian life in the past.
"Before when I used to come home it was tough with how quiet everything was. I was used to hearing the aircraft and the heavy equipment going by and mortars. We would get mortar attacked all the time in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kuwait wasn't so hot as far as the danger aspect but we had a lot of occupational hazards," Willis said.
He later said, "Most veterans that come back, especially those on the reserve counterpart, are in limbo. When we come back we'd think everything was paused like a video game or something. We'd come back and hit the unpause button and you left off where you were. But people change. Your kids get bigger."
The Here At Home Committee hopes to help veterans with that transition. But only if the family wants to. The group was formed after local musician Mary Verdi wrote a song called "Here at Home" and the citizen group formed. Now if a family from the Berkshires invites them, the group will send out an email blast to all of their contacts and organize a welcoming party.
Mary Verdi sings a song in honor Willis.
"We just have a well-oiled machine when someone is coming home. We have to be invited by the family. We have no official capacity. When we know they are coming home we just kind of put it in order. I have about 200 on an email list and we blast that out. The veterans groups have their email lists and they blast that out. There are a few churches that send it out," Mickle said.
Not every veteran wants a welcoming party and Willis understands that. But, for him, it was nice to see the familiar faces and it was definitely memorable.
"Most of us when we get back home we want to just go home, see your immediate family, and slowly get back into the swing of things with your friends. And then maybe have a big welcoming," Willis said. "Depending on the stressors they've had over there, they might not want a lot of new faces around them. You are always on guard for new people, it comes with the nature of whatever job you have in the armed forces. But it is nice. It's grounding. It was nice to see everyone here."
The committee gives plaques to returning veterans and the Veterans of Foreign Wars post gives a challenge coin. And now a quilting group from the Senior Center has joined the effort by presenting handmade quilts to thank returning servicemen and women.
Mickle says the Willis family has been a big supporter of local veterans organizations with Willis' wife, Shana, even serving on the committee at one point. The family participates in parades and other events. They've become so close that Mickle sponsored a flag in the Park of Honor, in Park Square, this past November in Willis' honor. Mickle also gave him that flag Friday night.
The people who gathered all lined up to shake the hands of Willis' and his mother and father — Marlena and Jerry Willis — and thank them for their service. Willis says he has no plans to separate from the Air Force but he is going to work on opening a second shop to build drag and rally cars.
"My plan is to open a second shop in Port Charlotte (Fla.). After you work for other people and have people work for you, you are wanting to go out and be your own boss. That's my future — entrepreneurship and have my own shop," Willis said.
pittsfield.com welcomes critical, respectful dialogue. Name-calling, personal attacks, libel, slander or foul language is not allowed. All comments are reviewed before posting and will be deleted or edited as necessary.