Children and adults held banners and flags in their Waxhaw neighborhood on Friday night to welcome home a wounded veteran for Christmas.
Mike Verardo had no idea of the surprise in store when he boarded a flight to Charlotte from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
The 33-year-old 82nd Airborne veteran came from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he faces his 120th surgery in May. He was just happy to spend Christmas and a few months with his wife, Sarah, and their daughters, Gigi, 4, Mary Scott, 2, and Elizabeth, 1.
He knew something was up only when several siren-blaring Union County sheriff’s patrol cars pulled in front of and behind the pickup truck he was riding home from the airport in on nearby Rea Road.
Through trees, he saw a huge American flag flying high on a fire department truck ladder in his neighborhood, he told The Charlotte Observer outside his home later.
As the truck and sheriff’s cars pulled onto Calumet Farms Drive in the Providence Downs subdivision at dusk, neighbors and friends cheered the procession to Verardo’s home.
“Hero #1 Welcome Home,” read 10-year-old Rielyn Lavalle’s handmade sign.
“We Hope You Feel Better,” the Lawson family’s banner read. “Welcome Back Mr. Mike and Welcome Hero.”
Marines, a local cheer team, Waxhaw Fire Department and the Marvin Ridge High School marching band joined in.
“Welcome home, Da Da,” his daughters said as Verardo left the pickup and kissed and hugged them.
“Da Da, you grew a beard,” Mary Scott said.
Verardo stood with his family and saluted as a band played the national anthem. Verardo, who has a prosthetic left leg, then walked down the street to greet everyone.
“Thank you for your service,” neighbors told him as he passed.
“You are a hero, Mike,” others said.
“Just happy on so many levels,” Verardo told the Observer later. “Going to be home with my kids at Christmas, the whole community coming out to support me. Feels great.”
The idea behind the welcome home started after Verardo’s wife, Sarah, mentioned to friends Margot and T.J. Guy that her husband would be home for Christmas.
“What can we do to make it special?” T.J. asked.
Sarah Verardo said her husband never had a homecoming since being wounded in southern Afghanistan in 2010.
Sarah Verardo, 34, has since become chief executive officer of the Independence Fund, which helps wounded veterans and their families with such needs as all-terrain wheelchairs, adaptive bicycles, family programs and adaptive sports.
Mike Verardo’s armored vehicle hit an improvised explosive device, hurling him about 30 feet and knocking him unconscious, according to an account of his war experiences by the Independence Fund. He was medically evacuated to the city of Kandahar.
On Verardo’s first patrol back with his unit, an IED tore off his left leg and most of his left arm. A field blood transfusion kept him alive. He also suffered traumatic brain injury, Sarah Verardo told the Observer at the ceremony.
“It took nearly 30 minutes for a medical evacuation to occur, and Mike was considered most likely dead on arrival,” according to an account by the Independence Fund. “Mike clung to life aboard the medical flight ... and in Kandahar and Germany, where he remained in a coma.”
He awakened eight days later in the intensive care unit at Walter Reed.
Verardo “remained on imminent death status for many weeks” before being transferred to Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas “to treat his burns and heal his wounds,” according to the summary.
After Friday’s ceremony, Verardo said many soldiers suffered more severe wounds than he did. They are paraplegics and quadriplegics, ”guys a lot worse off than me,” he said.
Friday night, however, was their chance to tell Verardo how he is a hero, too, neighbors and other friends said.
“We said, ‘Rain or shine, we’ll be here,’” Lynne Lavalle said in the frigid rain awaiting Verardo’s arrival. “It’s a privilege.”