published: Sunday, December 23, 2012
No place like home for the holidays
By CHRISTOPHER TUFFLEY
SEBRING -- Here is a story for Christmas. The kind of true-life tale that brings memories of reunion, joy, and love flooding back into the mind. The kind of story that inspires faith.
Tray Hill belongs to Highlands County. An only child, he entered the world here, growing up in Sebring and graduating from Sebring High School in 1999. He was in one of Sun 'N Lake Elementary School's first classes.
Tray's father, John, is part owner of the Depot Restaurant in Avon Park. His mother, April, is a hair stylist working a few doors down from her husband.
When he graduated from high school, Mrs. Hill said, Tray needed to find his way.
"There was no war on and we tried to talk him into enlisting, but instead he tried his hand at a lot of different things. He ended up at Strato.net for several years.
"Then, when he was 28 he came to us and said he wanted to join the Army.
"I cried for days, because now there was a war on. We tried to talk him out of enlisting," she said.
Not for long.
The Hills chose to support their son every way they could. Even when their hearts were in their throats after Hill deployed to Jalalabad, Afghanistan on March 12, 2012. Even when he re-enlisted recently.
"He blossomed in the Army," said Mrs. Hill, pride resonating in her voice. "I knew he would do well. He graduated with honors from basic training, and just before he came home he was named Soldier of the Month."
A specialist, Hill repairs small arms, which means everything from hand-guns to howitzers. His role is absolutely critical. He is the man who makes sure every soldier's weapon fires every time the trigger is squeezed.
When faulty weapons could not get to Hill, he went to the weapons, including those in distant, dangerous places. His tour of duty lasted nine months.
Assigned to the 4th Battery, 4th Infantry Division, Hill and his fellow soldiers returned to the United States in December. They landed at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs to process through the Army's re-integration program. A formal welcome home ceremony was planned. Mrs. Hill was not going to let her son walk off the plane from Afghanistan without somebody waiting with a warm hug, so of course she flew out.
The ceremony "took your breath away," Mrs. Hill said. "It was 2:30 in the morning, but the place was packed, including children. There was a Santa Claus and bounce houses and all kinds of food."
The returning soldiers began to march in (to the large hangar), four abreast. "Smoke came in from underneath the doors and the song 'Proud to be an American' was playing loud," Mrs. Hill said, unable to keep the emotion out of her voice. "They really did it up right."
The Hills are grateful Tray is back home, with all his fingers and toes. They couldn't think of a better Christmas gift.
He's in the United States and I'm sleeping a lot better," Mrs. Hill said.
Tray arrived home Saturday -- to a massive surprise party in his family's yard. Family, his friends, his parents' friends, and neighbors got together, all eager to say, "Thank God you're back, safe and sound."
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