Ten large American flags were staked to the ground along Lewis Road in East Quogue. The estimated three dozen people who had gathered early Saturday afternoon were hoping that the rain would hold off just a bit longer.
At about 2:15 p.m., Faith Erwin, president of the East Quogue Fire Department’s Board of Directors, got the call.
“They’re at Exit 51!” she excitedly shared with those gathered, a mix of family, friends and strangers. “It should only be a few more minutes!”
About 30 minutes later, those in attendance formed a line, flags in hand, patiently waiting for the guest of honor to arrive.
Susan and Gene Frohnhoefer, members of the Patriot Riders motorcycle group, stood in the middle of Lewis Road to direct the oncoming motorcade. The couple from Riverhead are members of the Patriot Riders, a national organization that assists communities in welcoming American soldiers home. They also participate in parades and hold flag lines—where a group stands in a straight line and presents the American flag—at funerals.
Each such event is referred to as a “mission,” and members attend when they are able, by escorting soldiers from the airport, meeting them along the route home, waving flags when they arrive, or standing by during services. They do not attend meetings or pay dues; they simply sign up for their respective district and follow their mission instructions.
Saturday’s mission for members of District 9, which encompasses the eastern half of Long Island, was to welcome home Army Specialist Kyle Brower. The East Quogue native just returned from a nine-month peacekeeping tour in Egypt and will be home for two weeks.
Earlier that afternoon, more than a dozen motorcycles and decorated vehicles surprised Spc. Brower—who was being driven home by his parents, Ron and Marcia—at a pit stop along the Long Island Expressway. They then escorted him for the remainder of his journey home to East Quogue.
“Present arms!” Ms. Frohnhoefer yelled when she heard the familiar roar of the motorcycles.
She and her husband then raised their flags, as did those waiting in the parking lot at the East Quogue Village Green.
“We have to let [veterans and soldiers] know they are not forgotten,” Ms. Frohnhoefer said, referring to the mission of the Patriot Riders.
After exchanging hugs and kisses with family and friends, Spc. Brower confessed that he did not expect such a large crowd. Prior to his arrival home, Spc. Brower was described by friends as the “life of the party,” and most shared that they were relieved to know that he was finally home safe. After his two-week break, Spc. Brower will return to his home base at Fort Hood in Texas.
“This is amazing,” Spc. Brower said. “I feel like I just hit the winning home run in the World Series. I wasn’t expecting this at all.”
The 21-year-old, who graduated from Westhampton Beach High School in 2010, greeted everyone with a hug and a “thank you,” even though many were strangers.
But no soldier is a stranger to members of the Patriot Riders, and those members of the East Quogue community who, in recent years, have planned similar homecomings.
“There are some out there who feel like they’re forgotten,” Ms. Erwin said. “This is our way of saying ‘thank you’ to them.”
She noted that she has worked with the Patriot Riders a few times now to welcome home local soldiers. When helping organize Saturday’s homecoming, she shared that, in her opinion, too often such homecomings are reserved only for those who die while serving their country.
“I don’t think we should just mourn the loss of our soldiers,” Ms. Erwin said in an earlier interview. “We need to celebrate them when they come home.”
In East Quogue, the welcoming home committee usually involves Ms. Erwin and volunteers with the East Quogue Fire Department, the latter of whom typically hoist their oversized American flag from a fire truck as part of the festivities. She explained that the tradition began a few years back when the son of a family friend returned home following his military service. Each time, the gatherings get larger as they attract more and more hamlet residents.
Ms. Erwin said she was uncertain if Saturday’s homecoming was the fourth or fifth organized by the group. Regardless, she has an easy time recruiting people.
“Being such a tight community, they really come out of the woodwork for these events,” she said.
Collaborating with the Patriot Riders enhances the experience, Ms. Erwin continued. Both she and ride captain Karen Wirth of Manorville, who worked with Ms. Erwin on Saturday’s mission, said they were incredibly pleased with the outcome. In her position, Ms. Wirth coordinates missions by communicating with the riders, the family members of the returning soldier and, if necessary, officials at the airport where the soldier is flying into.
“It’s all about honoring and respecting our veterans,” Ms. Wirth said. “They don’t choose to go off to war—they choose to serve the country they love. They need to know that the people in their hometowns and communities will welcome them home with pride and honor for their service.”
She explained that she first got involved in 2009, when she participated in a motorcycle ride held in honor of a fallen soldier. She pointed out that she has not known any of the men or women she’s honored during the 200-plus missions she’s been involved with, explaining that such details are unimportant to her and others in her group.
Ms. Frohnhoefer echoed those feelings.
“They don’t know me and they’re standing for my liberty and freedom,” she said while passing out flags on Saturday, referring to American soldiers. “We need to stand for those who stood for us.”