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Town of Tonawanda honors Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan veterans

The United States’ last three major military conflicts – the Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq wars – are so recent that hose who fought in them are still relatively young and middle-aged men and women.

And some of them can talk in vivid terms about those fresh experiences.

Retired Sgt. Gregory F. Conrad, an infantryman in the Army, served two yearlong tours in Iraq – in the al-Hamdaniya district in 2007-08 and in Sadr City in 2009-10.

He wasn’t stationed at a base, but “lived out in sector,” where he was out on constant patrols working to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis and stop attacks with improvised explosive devices.

“We took over areas, put walls up and operated out of there,” said Conrad, 30. “You’ve really got to trust the guy next to you to be able to work in that kind of situation.”

He was medically discharged and needs double hip replacements. “I got blown up five times,” Conrad said.

Meanwhile, Patrick E. Johnson, a Navy petty officer, second class, served in Afghanistan from December 2007 to July 2008 along with the 3rd and 7th Special Forces Groups.

“They were doing a lot of good things out there, working with the local kids, among some other things,” said Johnson, 27, a 2006 Kenmore West graduate.

And Andrew P. Biondo II signed up for the Navy about the time of the Gulf War in 1990-91 and served seven tours in 20 years, serving on three guided missile frigates in his military career. He was stationed in Kuwait for his last tour in 2007-08.

“We did a lot of protecting high-value assets, cargo ships coming in,” said Biondo, 46. “We did escorts – just trying to keep our country safe.”

They were among 39 residents of the Town of Tonawanda and Village of Kenmore honored Sunday for their service in those conflicts at a ceremony at the Veterans Memorial in Kenney Field.

Related item: Photo Gallery of ceremony

For the last four years, in the days leading up to the Fourth of July, the town has been recognizing resident veterans of each of the country’s major conflicts, beginning in 2013 with World War II.

Councilman William C. Conrad III, Gregory Conrad’s older brother, said the ceremony and recognition of veterans with certificates of appreciation is “a small thing we can do.”

“He was put in some extraordinary situations for four years of his career,” Conrad said of his brother. “He had some struggles coming back, and I’m just glad he’s here today and got that certificate. It’s hard to see a loved one go overseas.”

The struggles returning veterans can face were the focus of the event’s keynote speech by Chris Kreiger Sr., president and co-founder of Western New York Heroes.

“Every veteran that comes home doesn’t need the same thing,” said Kreiger, who was seriously injured in Iraq. “We’re all different. We all suffer from our own injuries. But the one thing that keeps us all the same and keeps us close as a family is that we all wore that same uniform.”

He outlined several initiatives by his nonprofit veterans’ assistance organization, including one that works with troubled veterans who might become involved in a standoff with police. “Whenever they have a run-in with a veteran, we are the first ones that they call,” he said.

The Pawsitive for Heroes program has connected 31 veterans with service therapy dogs since 2013, he said.

“It’s exciting because we’re there to meet the need for our veterans who come to us,” Kreiger said. “But it’s sad to see that there’s so many of them still hurting and turning to somebody for the help.”

His organization is trying to educate the public that the dogs are working and shouldn’t be interacted with.

“If you run into a veteran with a dog, just ignore the dog,” he said. “Everybody wants to get down and hug the dog and play, but that’s not what these dogs are for.”

The veterans said they were grateful for the recognition on the eve of America’s Independence Day.

“It’s nice seeing this because it really lets us know that people do care and they do think about us,” said Johnson.

“It’s not just a ‘We Support the Troops’ bumper sticker.

“It’s people out here saying ‘Hi’ and giving thanks. It means a lot to me.”

email: jpopiolkowski @buffnews.com