Grass Valley soldiers cheered by NASCAR fans |

Grass Valley soldiers cheered by NASCAR fans

Fort Lewis’ Stryker crews have always been trendsetters for Army organization and equipment, but they took on a new role May 30, when they were the visible symbols for the Army in front of more than 100,000 spectators and millions on national television.

A Stryker crew from 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, Fort Lewis, Wash., was chosen for a key role in the pre-race activities at the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race in Charlotte, N.C. Spec. Brian Thomas was one of the nine soldiers chosen to represent the Army and Fort Lewis at the race. He said he felt he had won a great prize to take on the role, even though he wasn’t a NASCAR fan.

Thomas learned to be a fan of NASCAR fans, though, over the course of the Memorial Day weekend.

“These people are great,” he said, after yet another person grabbed his hand and thanked him for being a soldier and for doing what he does. He smiled when another one yelled, “Hey man, we’re proud of you. God bless you.”

Even more cheered when he walked by.

That’s how it was wherever Thomas or any of his eight 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment Stryker crewmates roamed during the Coca-Cola 600 race weekend at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. From the time they rolled onto the speedway’s grounds May 27 to become part of an “Army of One Interactive Zone” display and game station, to their departure on May 31, they were assailed by many grateful, and curious, race fans.

“What is this?” one man yelled up to Spec. Brandon Huff as he stood on top of the Stryker helping the man’s son climb up the side. “This, sir, is a Stryker, the Army’s newest armored personnel carrier,” Huff said back.

It wasn’t just the race fans that Huff and his fellow crewmates talked to during their time in North Carolina. NASCAR racing teams, too, came over to see what the Stryker was all about. Sgt. (P) Eric Richardson, Grass Valley, CA, found himself describing in depth the inner workings of his Stryker to four members of Jimmie Johnson’s NASCAR racing team. They listened raptly as he described the chemical detection device located inside the vehicle, then they asked a volley of questions that he expertly answered.

“I’m getting asked everything,” Richardson said. “A lot about the vehicle, but the most common questions are about the war, and have I gone, or am I going soon. I tell them that it’s real hard to be here when a lot of my friends are over there doing their job, and I’m ready to go whenever that might be, especially when I’ll be in the Stryker.”

NASCAR’s 2003 Busch series champion, Brian Vickers, made time to greet and thank Spec. Bernard Edwards and other Stryker soldiers as they talked to the “Army of One” NASCAR crew. Although race fan Pfc. Richard Enevoldsen was the only one who knew who the driver was, all the Stryker Soldiers were impressed and cheered that he wanted to meet them.

Later on in the day, another big name met the soldiers as country singer John Michael Montgomery made his way to the Stryker to talk with them and sign autographs. Spec. Christopher Manikowski was all smiles as he talked to Montgomery about his song “Letters from Home” that he sang at the race.

Pfc. Christopher Waine was also smiles when he talked to everyday people Diana and Bubba Hammond who asked him to autograph their patriotic red, white and blue school bus. He and Thomas talked to the couple for a while in their bus and they were humbled a bit when Diana said, “We painted the bus like this in 1994 to show our appreciation for all of you troops. We have a deep love for our country and for those who make it and keep it safe for us, our children and our grandbabies.”

That deep love for this country and for those who keep it safe was clearly evident throughout the speedway when Platoon Sergeant Sgt. 1st Class Mark Gallegos and his crew slowly drove their Stryker around the track before the race on Sunday.

More than 100,000 people cheered and waved at them as they smiled and waved back. For Squad Leader Staff Sgt. David Hughes and his crewmates, it was a great day to be in the Army and a Stryker Soldier.

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