A warm welcome home on a cold day

Gwen Chamberlain
Rich Conklin hugs his mother, Marietta, in front of the family's Dundee home. When Conklin, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army arrived in his hometown Saturday, he was greeted by a small army of grateful and thankful neighbors and friends.

When Rich Conklin pulled his family van into Dundee Saturday afternoon after a three-hour drive, he thought he’d come upon an accident scene.

Patrol cars from the New York State Police and Yates County Sheriff’s Department and a Dundee fire truck were staged at the intersection in front of the school.

That was until a friend approached Conklin’s car to tell him the scene was all in his honor. Then he and his family — wife, Dianna; daughter, Madison; and son, Austin — noticed the U.S. flags and smiling and waving neighbors along the street.

The community had come out on a frigid day in February to greet Conklin, a U.S. Army Staff Sergeant, upon his return from his fourth tour of duty overseas.

“I’m still blown away that it was all for me,” said Conklin the next day.

The Conklin’s car was escorted along Main and Water Streets of Dundee by the patrol cars, fire truck, Warrior Watch riders and a line of cars and pick-up trucks with joyfully honking horns. The parade turned onto Bigelow Avenue, where family and neighbors waited with bundles of red, white and blue balloons and signs greeting him.

The festivities were a welcome celebration that was like a balm for a tight-knit community that still feels the sorrow of the loss of Christopher Scott, who was killed in action Sept. 4, 2011. A portion of Conklin’s trip home traveled along the route that was designated as the Christopher Scott Memorial Highway last September.

Conklin says he never looks for special recognition for his work, but the cheering neighborhood made him feel wonderful.

“For me, it’s just the job I chose to do. I didn’t want to chase down the spotlight, but it does mean a lot,” he says, adding, “The kids loved it too!”

“That kind of warm welcome. I just can’t thank everyone enough for taking time out of their busy days to stand in the cold,” he says, later adding, “Even if it had been three or four people, I would still be blown away.”

Conklin, who graduated from Dundee Central School in June 2001 had planned on joining the Army since sixth or seventh grade. His plan began to take shape when he joined on Jan. 3, 2002.

Based in Fort Drum, he is responsible for maintenance on multiple types of aircraft. While he specializes in sheet metal work, as a staff sergeant, the aircraft maintenance non-commissioned officer, he is more of a manager — supervising other maintenance platoon specialties, such as electronics and engine mechanics.

His first tour of duty overseas was in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2004. He then went to Iraq for a tour from 2008 to 2009 before returning to Afghanistan in 2010-2011 and 2013-2014.

Overseas, his work took on a different tone than when he’s stateside. When there was a malfunction in the field, he coordinated a maintenance crew, parts and equipment to get to the aircraft. It is an unplanned yet critical part of a mission.

Conklin now has his eyes on the rest of his Army career, having just recently signed documents to keep him in the service until at least his 20th anniversary, just eight years away. Then, he might pursue work at the state or federal level until he can retire for a second time.

For now, he’s enjoying a few days with family, friends and neighbors in Dundee, and he says he’s tremendously grateful to everyone who helped with the welcome home event, especially the American Legion, VFW, Martini’s grocery, Yates County Sheriff’s Dept., New York State Troopers, Dundee Fire Department, Warrior Watch Riders, Joyce and Norman Knight, Sandra Earl, and Gary and Jennifer Davis, and more.

He especially thanks all the other veterans who shared their stories with him about their service. “I like to be around all those who have stories to share, because when they are gone, all we’ll have is textbooks,” he says.

Conklin is the son of Richard and Marietta Conklin of Dundee. He and Dianna (Andrews, a 2002 graduate of Dundee Central School) were married 11 years ago, after dating since high school.

To see more photos from the welcome home, scroll down to the "Our Photos" section at the bottom of The Chronicle-Express home page.