A family reunion vacation turned into an emotionally charged gathering of veterans outside the Veterans Café and Grill in Myrtle Beach on Thursday, as five veterans were surprised with a welcome home and appreciation ceremony.
Linwood “Woody” Benner, Jr., newly seated state coordinator of the Warriors Watch Riders of South Carolina said his group, which frequently coordinates welcome home events, was contacted by Manny Alfonso and his wife Scharlene recently who said three generations of their family and two additional relatives who served in the military would be together for the reunion.
One of them, the Alfonso’s son Jonathan Carr, is serving in the U.S. Army in Pennsylvania. Other veteran family members included Carr’s grandfather, Martin Caudill and his uncle Joseph Caudill, both of Alabama, his great uncle of Camden who also is named Martin Caudill and distant relative Billy Smith of Myrtle Beach.
Carr and his mother were in on the surprise, telling the group of some 25 family members that they were having lunch at the café to celebrate her 45th birthday. While the rest of the family gathered in the McDonald’s parking lot, Carr came to the café to change into his uniform. The plan was to surprise his grandfather who had never seen him in military attire due to the distance between where they live.
It was only after a group of veteran bikers escorted carloads of the vacationing family into the café parking lot and they saw the lineup of veterans’ groups and American flags did they realize something was afoot.
Joining the Warriors Watch Riders were representatives from numerous patriotic biker groups including Rolling Thunder, Patriot Guard Riders, American Legion Riders, and Veterans of Foreign Wars Riders. Also represented were the Veterans Welcome Home Resource Center, Vietnam Veterans Groups, Military Officers Association, the American Red Cross, and even a young scout from Boy Scout Troop 899. They all joined in to provide a roaring cheer for the visiting veterans.
After an embrace, Carr presented his grandfather, a 1st lieutenant in the Alabama National Guard from 1966 to 1979, with a Warriors Watch challenge coin that carries the POW/MIA emblem and is inscribed, “We have your backs here at home.” It was an emotional moment for both men.
After the ceremony Carr said, “It was an honor… When he [grandfather] served, there wasn’t a lot of gratitude for service.”
Martin Caudill later noted how proud he is of his grandson and said, “It’s quite emotional for me because I have my son, my grandson, and my brother with me. We are four of the five veterans being recognized today.”
In addition, the group wanted to pay tribute to Vietnam veteran Smith, who was stationed at the Myrtle Beach Air Force Base until his retirement in 1990 and received no celebratory welcome home after his tour of duty. A teary-eyed Smith said of his service, which also included a tour in Thailand, “I gave what I could give.”
Of the day’s events, Smith and the others said they were surprised and had no idea what had been planned in their honor.
Manny Alfonso said planning for the event went from an email to a phone call to everyone being there for the event and noted how well all the veterans groups in the Myrtle Beach area work together.
“When our son came home from Afghanistan it was January and two degrees but about eight bikers showed up to welcome him home. My wife and I said we now know how to pay it back,” Alfonso said.
Warriors Watch Riders chapter coordinator and veteran Mike “Bird” McDonald said welcome home events are special because, “We don’t want people to come home to what we came home to. We want them to know their service is an honor and we respect them and appreciate them.”
In addition to receiving challenge coins from a couple of the groups and welcome home certificates, the veterans being recognized were presented with pocket size packets of embroidered stars from retired American flags prepared by Scharlene Alfonso. Members of the Quilt of Valor Foundation wrapped each of the five veterans in a quilt handmade by members of the Grand Strand Quilters and Coastal Carolina Quilters.
Contact Angela Nicholas at 650-0145.