DEWITT — Several DeWitt residents rolled out the red, white and blue carpet for a man who they do not know and had never met.
The man was returning from a U.S. Navy deployment in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa. His soon-to-be neighbors planted more than 100 small flags to adorn the neighborhood. They were a sight for sore eyes.
“That’s why I like small towns,” said Petty Officer 1st Class David Charlson. “People just get along better.”
Earlier this summer, while Charlson was patrolling the seas in Africa, his wife purchased a home that is a few blocks south of DeWitt’s downtown area.
His wife emailed him information about the home as they discussed the possibility of buying it.
“I like it,” Charlson, said about his new home. He was raised in Cedar Rapids, while his wife was raised in Park View. “We’ve lived here in the area before, so we knew it would be a nice place to live.”
A neighbor got the inside scoop on Charlson’s military career and spread the word to others. The neighbors got busy, placing dozens of the small American flags along area sidewalks to greet Charlson upon his arrival.
“The ground was so hard that we had to use a drill to make the holes in the dirt for the flags,” said Jerry Purcell, who lives in the vicinity.
“We just thought it would be a nice way to welcome him and show appreciation for his service,” Purcell said. He planted dozens of flags along his own sidewalks and still more in front of his neighbors’ homes, including Charlson’s.
“We received a different kind of welcome when we returned home from Vietnam,” added Purcell, who spent four years in the U.S. Navy aboard an aircraft carrier during the war.
So, did Charlson feel welcomed? Mission accomplished, he said of the symbolic greeting.
“It’s really cool when people care when someone’s loved one is gone, and especially when they are in a foreign country,” he said. “You never know what might happen.”
Charlson was working up a good sweat while he was sorting through a garage full of belongings, but he was quick to say he can handle this heat.
“In Djibouti, (the temperatures) are always in the 100s, and the humidity is between 60 and 70 percent, making it feel like 120,” he said. “America needs to have a presence in every country to be ready when called upon.”
In fact, the tiny East Africa country of Djibouti has the dubious distinction of being the hottest country on Earth, with an average daily temperature of 86 degrees. The record low in Djibouti: 61 degrees.
Charlson was a U.S. Marine for 12 years before transferring to a relatively new U.S. Navy unit three years ago. His unit was developed over several years after the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, a guided-missile destroyer. Seventeen Americans were killed and 39 were wounded.
The bombing was carried out by a small fiberglass boat manned by al-Qaida suicide bombers. The Navy realized it needed its own fleet of small, quick boats to defend large Navy vessels. The Navy did not merely seek a defensive posture. Rather, it wanted this unit to be the point of the sword when trouble presented itself in coastal areas.
The Coastal Riverine Squadron was born. The Navy put out the word that it was seeking a diverse group of fit, fierce daredevils.
So, just five years left to go before retirement?
“Yeah, but I might do more,” Charlson said. “I like being in the military.”