HUNTINGDONSHIRE has been hailed as the first district in the country to sign up to a new scheme aimed at giving serving men and women of the armed forces a warm welcome.
Community leaders are calling on businesses and shops across Huntingdonshire to join the Heroes Welcome scheme by pledging to show a sticker and offer a smile to servicemen and their families who enter their premises.
The launch comes just days after two thugs were jailed in Peterborough for mugging a soldier who had just returned from a tour in Afghanistan.
Jeff Dutton, chairman of Huntingdonshire District Council, said: “Huntingdon is home to so many armed forces bases and has been the centre of UK intelligence strategy for years.
“This scheme will show our serving and ex-service personnel how much we appreciate them and how much we owe to our men and women.
“I hope we can take this right the way through and make sure every commercial building has the sticker before long.
“What I would ask is that you support the scheme and that every soldier living in Huntingdon will receive the warmest possible welcome.”
Huntingdon MP Jonathan Djanogly added his voice to supporters of the scheme.
He said: “Like many ideas the best ones are the simple ones, and it’s such a simple yet powerful message contained in this idea. I am very proud, and I speak on behalf of the vast majority of my constituents to say how proud we are to support a campaign like this.”
Heroes Welcome is the brainchild of Afghanistan veteran and Territorial Army major John Senior, and was first launched in April 2008 in Scarborough.
Mr Senior, a restaurater, felt compelled to act following the treatment of Corporal Tomos Stringer who, while helping to organise the funeral of a friend killed in action in Afghanistan, was turned away from an hotel in Woking.
Mr Senior said: “I walked into a staff meeting, a lot of my staff are ex-servicemen and one of them was just about to go into the RAF, and they said to me ‘John, What are we going to do about this?’
“We knocked up that morning a Heroes Welcome sticker. Within hours we had them in all five restaurants I own along the sea front. I had people coming into the restaurants after seeing the stickers and saying ‘Thank you, I have a cousin, daughter or friend away on ops and this means so much.’”
The idea captured the support of Scarborough’s mayor and was soon rolled out across the town, before going national. Now 37 towns have joined the scheme, including York, Blackpool, Weymouth and Weston-super-Mare.
Speaking at the Huntingdonshire launch on Thursday at Pathfinder House, Mr Senior, said all that was required from participants was a smile and a sticker.
“We are just a group of communities who have decided they would like to show their support to the very brave young men and women in an open and demonstrative way.
“Sometimes people think there is a catch. There is no catch and no charge for it. The smile is up to you and the council produce the sticker.
“People often say to me ‘Why don’t you do the same for the emergency services?’ But the difference is you can go up to a firefighter, a policeman or ambulance crew and say thank you.
“It is very difficult for me to go up and hug a squaddie. It would be inappropriate and, when they are not in uniform, you do not know who they are.
“Heroes Welcome is a genuine and quiet scheme. It has to be done in a way that is appropriate for the young men and women risking their lives so we do not have to.”
Colonel Timothy Cashdollar, the American commander of the 501 Combat Support Wing, based at RAF Alconbury, hailed the scheme as a “good opportunity” for USAF servicemen to engage with the local community.
He said: “We are going to publish this to our airmen throughout the base. We have always felt welcomed and proud of the town and this is just one more step.”
George Redhead, chairman of Huntingdonshire branch of the Royal British Legion, said: “Service personnel are not really in it for any personal gain, but this just shows people are thinking of them and appreciate what they do.
“We are delighted to support any local government initiative like this as a small token of appreciation for our troops. It is important they do not feel out of sight is out of mind.”
INFORMATION: The Hunts Post will print a regular list of all the businesses and groups that sign up to the scheme. You can sign up to the scheme by contacting Karen Pauley by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Stickers are also available at The Hunts Post office at 30 High Street, Huntingdon.