As part of its focus on helping the community, Cleveland Elk’s Lodge No. 1944 has created a Hometown Veteran of the Year award.
U.S. Army Sgt. Earnest Peels was honored as the first recipient of the award during a banquet Saturday.
“Peels has been an exemplary soldier,” said Daniel Koob, second vice commander of amvets Department of Tennessee, a veterans advocates group.
A Bradley Central High School graduate, Peels joined the military in 2002.
“When I first joined the Army, I kind of knew where I was headed. My mom was scared. Before I left, I just had a feeling that I was going to war. I wasn’t ever really afraid, to be honest. I was trained so I was ready, and if it took giving my life, then that’s what I would have done,” Peels said.
He served three tours of duty in Iraq. His longest deployment was 15 months.
“He has received the Combat Action Badge, three Army Commendation awards, three Army achievement awards, a driver badge, Good Conduct Medal and many other awards,” Koob said.
He is currently in the U.S. Army’s 240th Quartermaster Company in Germany.
“If it wasn’t for the veterans, we would not be a free country right now,” Koob said.
Koob and Peels spoke of the sacrifice veterans make while deployed because they have to be away from their families.
“The hardest part about being in the military is being away from my friends and family,” Peels said.
Another difficult aspect has been losing friends in combat. With evident emotion, Peels said he has served “with a bunch of great soldiers, since I have been in [the military] for 12 years.”
He said his friends and family have been supportive throughout his career. He admits it has sometimes been a challenge to be able to communicate with family in the States.
Peels said being a solider is not just a job, “it consumes your life.”
“I couldn’t do what I’ve done without my family,” Peels said.
He said he was not sure how much longer he would stay on active duty. He has considered becoming a reservist or possibly a civilian police officer.
Soldiers are often the only Americans people in other countries see, Koob said.
“Whether in the war zone or anywhere else in the world, the military is what the rest of the world looks at when they define ‘American,’” Koob said. “We are the ambassadors of the United States when we go to these foreign countries.”
Koob encouraged those present to thank veterans for their service, whenever and wherever they see them.
“If your in a restaurant, buy them lunch,” Koob said.
Lodge secretary Amanda Whitley-Baliles said she nominated Peels for the recognition.
The veterans committee of the lodge selected a recipient based on merit and service accomplishments, she said.
The lodge plans to have the recognition be an annual event.