Students welcome returning soldierPublished 6:46pm Sunday, March 24, 2013
U.S. Army Soldier Joseph Steenbeke received a hero’s welcome home from Brandywine Elementary School Friday afternoon.
Steenbeke, 22, of Granger, Ind., is a family friend of Cindy Boughton, a fifth grade teacher at Brandywine Elementary.
Boughton asks her students to participate in at least one community service project every year, so when Steenbeke was deployed to Afghanistan in the spring of 2012, she had an idea.
Her students could adopt Steenbeke as their soldier.
Operation Steenbeke was born.
“It was something the entire school could participate in,” she said.
Students spent more than a month collecting items for Steenbeke, everything from hundreds of packets of Ramen Noodles to tennis balls for Tess — Steenbeke’s tactical explosive detecting dog.
Brandywine shipped 10 large boxes to Steenbeke in Afghanistan just before Christmas. He shared the gift packages with 160 of his fellow soldiers.
On Friday, Brandywine Elementary held a special welcome home ceremony for Steenbeke, who recently returned home.
He told the packed school gymnasium how much he appreciated their gesture.
“You brought a piece of home to everyone over there, to me and the others when we were going through a rough patch,” he said.
Steenbeke wasn’t able to bring Tess along, but did bring his family dog to the gymnasium — a Belgian Shepherd named Rusty.
The entire gymnasium, including fifth-grader Sam Gerstler, gave Steenbeke a standing ovation when he stepped onto the stage.
“It was really exciting to see him. We really wanted this to be a big deal,” Gerstler said. “They are out there fighting for us and possibly giving their lives for us. We just wanted to do something good for them.”
Steenbeke said he’s done two nine-month tours overseas, one in Iraq and the most recent one in Afghanistan.
Tess even saved Steenbeke’s life — and the lives of many other soliders — when Tess sniffed out a 275-pound improvised explosive device in Afghanistan, he said.