The history of Victory Corner can best be described by the inscription on the monument there: “At this site during all hours of the day and night, people cheered and proudly waved flags and banners as over 26,000 soldiers passed by on their way home to their waiting units and to their loved ones.”
Photos of the dusty U.S. Highway 190 and Clarke Road intersection from the spring of 1991 — just after the Gulf War ended — depict cars lining the street and people standing and waving American flags. In one, a man riding a horse can be seen in the background and on the hill is a van, broadcasting each plane’s landing as if it were a hometown football game.
Always present were wooden cutouts of Uncle Sam and a camel named Clyde. A sign read, “Hope this is the last camel you see.”
A leading force behind Victory Corner
“Big Joe” Lombardi was a leading force behind Victory Corner. A radio host at the now-defunct KOOV in Copperas Cove, Lombardi broadcast live from the intersection, and invited others to come out and join him.
“There were three plane loads on that (first) Saturday, and I thought it would be cool to broadcast the arrival of those troops,” he recalled. “We did two more on Sunday and then we thought it would be a cool deal to meet all the flights that we could. We met all the incoming flights. I only missed two of them.”
When the last group of 1st Cavalry Division soldiers landed, Lombardi recalled announcing live on-air, in the middle of the night, “The 1st Cav is home.”
Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Theron “Sarge” Johnson welcomed 133 of the 134 flights at that corner. “We wanted to give the troops a welcome home that our Vietnam veterans did not receive when they came home,” he said.
Lombardi never served, having failed the pre-induction exam of the 1960s draft twice.
“People asked me why I did it,” he said of the Victory Corner effort. “I had a lot of friends in those days who fought, and I can remember people I knew telling stories of being spit on when they arrived back. I said, ‘Well, these people, it’s not going to happen to them.’”
In May 1992, the corner was dedicated as “Victory Corner” with a ceremony. A V-shaped marker was placed at the corner and later, Johnson and Lombardi raised the money to install a flagpole.
Two plaques were placed before the marker: One describes the history and the other, added in 1997, lists the names of the 12 Fort Hood soldiers who lost their lives during the nearly seven-month-long military operation.
Today, Victory Corner stands silent, even as busloads of Fort Hood soldiers continue to pass by on their way to the main post from the airport.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t realize Victory Corner is out there and what it is,” Johnson said.
He once called III Corps, the unit from which he retired in 1970, to ask about replacing the flag at the corner, and the soldier Johnson spoke to said he’d never heard of it.
In 2009, efforts were made for the community to greet returning soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division, but it just wasn’t the same. Lombardi, now retired from radio, was on an out-of-town radio station, so there were no live broadcasts to accompany it.
The days of people hanging out, barbecuing and celebrating the returning troopers were gone. The war wasn’t over, and it was very likely those same troopers they welcomed have since returned to the Middle East.
“We tried to continue on, but it got to the point when we didn’t have anybody show up,” Johnson said.
While there may not be cheering crowds and flags waving, once a month a local veterans organization places a wreath at Victory Corner.
“Laying the wreath is in recognition of all the soldiers who are returning home and also those who weren’t able to return,” said Phyllis Metcalf, chair of the Central Texas Area Veterans Advisory Committee, which began the practice in 2003.
Metcalf said she never deployed during the Gulf War, but she did go to Bosnia during her time in the Army.
“I also recall getting off one of those buses from a deployment, and I recall how I felt really honored how people came out to welcome me home,” she said. “Especially being a soldier who didn’t have somebody to welcome me to the base. ... It meant a lot to have people to welcome me home.”
Johnson and Lombardi both agree the site holds many fond memories for each of them.
“First thing I do is look at the flag,” said Lombardi of driving past the corner. “That’s something Sgt. Maj. Johnson and I did. We raised money for that flagpole. I look at the flag and I can remember what it was like back in those days in 1992 — how good I felt to be an American.”
Contact Rose L. Thayer at email@example.com or (254) 501-7463. Follow her on Twitter at KDHmilitary.