It was a great idea that grew out of a conversation between Hill supporters at an unrelated function, some eleven years ago.
Vickie McCall, longtime Hill supporter, Top of Utah Military Affairs Committee member, and Tom Guinney of Gastronomy Inc., were talking about doing something for the military men and women just coming back from deployment at Hill Air Force Base. With the support of several organizations, people, community members and others, on Dec. 7, 2001 a tradition was born. A welcome home picnic greeted 400 members of Hill Air Force Base at the Hill Aerospace Museum.
"It's been extremely gratifying to see the increase in attendance every year as we continue to have more and more people participate," said Guinney, when talking about how the event has changed since then.
As a former Navy man himself who deployed overseas for three tours in Vietnam, he understood some of the particular challenges the service men and women faced. As a dedicated business person and member of the community he could also appreciate and identify with it from a parent's perspective and even empathize with the spouses and family members, although his service had come when he was quite young.
His first thoughts upon hearing of the idea were to ask McCall, "What can I do?" Entertaining the troops and serving the picnic were right in his area of expertise, and although a first few efforts at holding a formal program in addition to the picnic have long fallen by the wayside, the simple joy of just seeing family members enjoy a meal together has a positive effect on everyone involved in the Salute to Our Nation's Defenders Picnic.
The event to be held this year, Friday, July 13, will be from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Centennial Park, with food service until 5 p.m.
Bob Ekstrom, past TOUMAC president, and current cochair of the organizing subcommittee with Barbara Riddle, said, "It's the right thing to do. We started right after 9/11."
The event grew harder to time specifically to any specific deployment rotation so it was moved to an annual picnic in the summer. It is now just about an institution at Hill Air Force Base, but the volunteers seem to find as much joy out of it as do the participants.
Guinney calls it a terrific morale booster and inspiration. "It is a community organized event and truly is a wonderful event," he said.
He said some of the joy for him is to watch the young service men and women interact in a casual environment with so many top military leaders present and the community representatives as well. Guinney also notes the major contributions of other businesses who have joined in making this annual event work.
Guinney calls it a very emotional experience as a contributor.
Rick Hartle, Air Force Association National Director, and current TOUMAC member, said part of the fun he had serving as chair of the organizing subcommittee in years' past was to watch how the local communities would come forward to help surmount a particular challenge or bump in the road as event planning would unfold.
"The fact that the community is so, so supportive of the military and their families, you just know that the challenges are going to get solved - what's the resolution going to be? You know it's going to happen because of the environment of Northern Utah," he said.
It's one of those great things to be involved in, whether you're eating, serving or just having a good time, he said. "It almost feels like one of those old Norman Rockwell paintings," Hartle said. "The right thing to do."