Wednesday May 16, 2012

PITTSFIELD - They're ready to rally at a moment's notice.

When word gets to Berkshire County's Here at Home Committee that a soldier is returning from service overseas, it sets off a flurry of emails, phone calls and Facebook messages. The mission? To muster as many people as possible to help provide the returning serviceman or woman the hearty - and surprise - welcome home celebration they believe every soldier deserves. And with only a day's preparation, they deliver - usually with a full color guard standing at attention, a plaque of appreciation at the ready and a crowd of cheering well-wishers and family members.

" It's a powerful moment, standing in front of a soldier's house, and you're watching the parents, and they're getting so emotional and are so ready to see their child.

... I wish everyone could see it, because the feeling of patriotism that comes alive in your heart when you do, I have goosebumps just thinking about it," said Mary Verdi, a local singer-songwriter.

To date, the group has put together 19 welcome back events for returning Berkshire veterans since Verdi founded the group in 2007 with Rosanne Frieri, a veteran herself who at the time had just started her job as the city's director of veterans services.

In addition to the ceremony, the group also sponsors a billboard featuring each returning soldier's picture and a note thanking them for their service.

The idea for the committee was actually born from a song written by Verdi, called "Here at Home." It's a love song to a soldier that Verdi was inspired to write after she heard the story of an Iraq war veteran who was having a hard time readjusting to civilian life.

The song is popular, especially among members of the armed services and their family members. Verdi actually performed it at the Pentagon last year, and she says she still gets emails from people around the country who have come across it and been touched.

But Verdi said she wanted to do more with the song than just sing it. A mutual friend put her in touch with Frieri. Together, they hatched the Here at Home Committee and funded it with sales of Verdi's CD.

Frieri said she immediately appreciated the need to systematically thank Berkshire County soldiers for their service.

" I'm old enough to remember a little bit about Vietnam," Frieri said. "I had friends who served and I heard the stories. They weren't welcomed back. They couldn't even wear their uniforms - people turned their backs on them."

For some local veterans, the negativity surrounding military service isn't just a relic from the '70s.

"I've had rocks thrown at me, I've actually had a woman spit on me - and I'm not talking about in Afghanistan, I'm talking about here in the Berkshires," said Jacob Scace, an Army specialist from Dalton who was the subject of group's latest ceremony in March.

In contrast, Scace said it's difficult to describe how good a simple act of appreciation makes him feel.

"To me, there's nothing that could give you a better high than somebody coming up and shaking your hand and understanding what you've been through," Scace said.

To reach Ned Oliver: noliver@berkshireeagle.com, or (413) 496-6240.

On Twitter:@BE_NedOliver