Steamboat Springs Every day since Hayden Police Chief Ray Birch left for his tour of duty with the Air Force Reserves, his Hayden officers affixed special pins to their patrol uniforms. Their gesture of supporting the troops - and their chief - took on a special meaning Monday when Sgt. Gordon Booco presented the set of pins to Birch during a welcome home ceremony in his honor.
Birch, welcomed home by American Legion Post 89, where he is the senior vice commander, said he still was in culture shock after only three days at home. Birch left in August 2008 for training in Oklahoma before spending 191 days in Kirkuk, Iraq, where he was charged with protecting an air base from insurgent attacks.
"It seems like he's been gone forever," Booco said.
Birch, 51, previously served in the U.S. Marine Corps, and he enlisted in the Air Force Reserves after Sept. 11, 2001. He said he now plans to remain in the Air Force Reserves as long as his health allows.
"I just felt a need to get involved in what's happening globally," he said.
Birch's wife, Marlene, said although he had served overseas before, this tour of duty was especially difficult.
"It was hard this time because we became empty-nesters. He's also my best friend, so having him away was really hard," she said after the presentation Monday evening at The Haven Assisted Living Center.
Birch served in Afghanistan and Baghdad in previous tours but said he has no plans to return to the Middle East anytime soon.
"It's not like I'm going to volunteer to go back, but if they call up and say 'You're activated,' I'll do what I have to do," he said. "It would be fine with me if I stayed in the Yampa Valley for the rest of my life."
In Kirkuk, Birch was in charge of protecting the air base from 43 mortar and rocket attacks and many more incidents of small-arms fire and improvised explosive devices. He also was in charge of protecting dignitaries during that time, including Vice President Joe Biden, who visited 10 days before the November presidential election.
Honored by veterans
During the reception Monday night, Birch was honored for his service by the American Legion and the American Legion Ladies Auxiliary.
"He is the senior vice commander, and we missed him quite a bit while he was gone," Legion Commander Bob Hayes said, fighting back tears. "It's a great honor to welcome him home."
Marlene Birch said the most emotional part for her was the drive home as her husband returned.
"The biggest thing was coming over Rabbit Ears (Pass) and seeing the valley, because that's what he was fighting for," she said.
Ray Birch said the joy of seeing Yampa Valley was not lost on him.
"You don't realize until you're away what a great place this is to live," he said.
- To reach Zach Fridell, call 871-4208 or e-mail email@example.com