Operation Yellow Ribbon, which honors vets, is now a hero itself

Operation Yellow Ribbon's welcome home ceremony for Air Force Lt. Col. Sally Stenton when she returned home to Cherry Hill from Afghanistan after eight airmen and one civilian she worked with were massacred in 2011. Stenton is on the left, next to her elderly mother, Dolores, who served in WWII in the Women's Army Corp.

Sarajane “Sally” Stenton had just finished breakfast at a Cherry Hill restaurant with her mother and siblings, soon after she returned home from Afghanistan, where she served in Operation Enduring Freedom. When they walked out, a surprise awaited her: a crowd that burst into applause.

Then she was taken to a big welcome-home event, escorted by members of the motorcycle group Warriors’ Watch and police officers.

But Stenton recalls that day, May 29, 2011, as bittersweet.

A month earlier, Stenton, an Air Force judge advocate general, was at an Afghan air force base where eight airmen and a civilian contractor were killed, execution-style, by a trusted Afghan air force colonel inside a building just 100 yards away. Many of the victims had been dear friends.

“I was a mess, but the welcome home was wonderful,” said Stenton, who retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2012 after 21 years in the Air Force.

Now Stenton practices law, teaches at Rutgers Law School in Camden, and frequently volunteers with Operation Yellow Ribbon of South Jersey, which had organized her welcome-home ceremony. The group’s other mission: shipping 30-pound care packages to troops stationed in war zones.

On Tuesday, at Philadelphia’s Fourth of July Wawa Welcome America celebration, Operation Yellow Ribbon of South Jersey got a surprise of its own: It was announced as the winner of the Wawa Foundation Hero Award. The group was chosen by popular vote.

David Silver, president of Operation Yellow Ribbon, accepted the award and a $50,000 check from the foundation on a stage filled with dignitaries, before a crowd of about 1,000 people. He said the all-volunteer group would use the money to continue to support the troops. “It guarantees more smiles for our brave men and women overseas,” he said.

David Silver, president of Operation Yellow Ribbon of South Jersey, accepts the Wawa Foundation Hero Award at Philadelphia’s Wawa Welcome America Fourth of July celebration on Tuesday. Silver is surrounded by the group’s volunteers; to his left is Sally Stenton, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who received a special welcome home ceremony from the organization in 2011.

Since 2009, when Silver joined the organization, there have been more than 300 welcome-home ceremonies for troops who return to South Jersey after deployment. The highlights include a motorcycle ride and a police escort to a place where a flag-waving crowd awaits and speeches are delivered.

The group also boxed up more than 50,000 pounds of supplies last year for the troops. Among the items tucked inside are Tastykakes, Jim’s Jarhead Jerky, protein bars, and toiletries.

Silver, a Marlton father of two who’s never served in the armed forces, said he began volunteering with the Yellow Ribbon Club, the predecessor organization, eight years ago. When the club’s founders retired, they passed the mantle on to him.

“I was mad at myself for taking my freedom for granted and ignoring what was going on in the Middle East and the sacrifices that our troops are making,” he said. “I love my freedom and I get up every day, have coffee, and at night I tuck my kids in. But the troops can’t do that.”

Silver, 42, a business analyst with TD Bank, said he devotes 20 to 30 hours a week to Operation Yellow Ribbon. He said that no one in the organization receives wages and the group relies heavily upon volunteers, fund-raising, and donations. The $50,000 check from the Wawa Foundation is the largest lump sum it has received, while the Ravitz family-owned ShopRite chain has also been a big supporter, he said.

The welcome-home ceremonies and the care packages are provided when a family member or friend of someone who’s deployed overseas makes a request. The care packages are brimming with so many snacks that recipients often share them with other troops stationed with them, according to Silver.

After facilitating hundreds of the welcome-home ceremonies, Silver said the one for Stenton was the most memorable.

“Up until then, the welcome-homes were joyous,” he said. “But after the tragedy, which happened after we scheduled the event, we didn’t know whether she would be up for this, and didn’t know how to handle it.”

But there were no regrets.  “Looking into her eyes, it was clear she appreciated what we did, and then later she became a volunteer with our group,” Silver said.

Stenton, 57, of Winslow, said the day she met the Operation Yellow Ribbon volunteers, she experienced a flood of emotions. The day had started with a reunion with her mother, Dolores, since deceased, who had served in WWII with the Women’s Army Corps, and with her brother and three sisters. “After what happened, I know they were happy that I was home safe,” she said, her voice cracking.

Sally Stenton, a retired Air Force JAG officer, with her mother, Dolores, a former WWII Women’s Army Corps soldier, at Stenton’s 2011 welcome home ceremony in Cherry Hill after returning from deployment in Afghanistan. The ceremony was organized by Operation Yellow Ribbon of South Jersey. (Provided by Sally Stenton)

She was still grieving, and recalled “crying through the whole” welcome-home event. But many of those tears, she said, were tears of joy.

“It’s nice to know people care and that you’re not forgotten,” Stenton said. “They were complete strangers, but they cared and I consider them my family by love.”