Pictured: First Lt. J.C. Tiller and Staff Sgt. Stephen Dunne Garcia converse with each other Thursday just before the Walk of Honor presentation honoring them. Photo by OFELIA GARCIA HUNTER

Ofelia Garcia Hunter, Alice Echo-News Journal

About 70 family members, friends and veterans gathered at the Walk of Honor Ceremony Thursday morning to welcome soldiers Staff Sgt. Stephen Dunne Garcia and 1st Lt. J.C. Tiller, who both returned recently from the Middle East. Garcia served with Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion 7th Special Forces Group Airborne ODA744 in Eastern Afghanistan since deploying from Fort Bragg, N.C., in March.

First Lt. J.C. Tiller, who served in the U.S. Marine Corp. in Iraq with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, was deployed from his home base of Miramar in San Diego, Calif., in April. Both are Alice natives and have family residing in Alice.

During the Walk of Honor ceremony Thursday, the two soldiers were presented with a flag that had flown in their honor until they came home safely. The flags were flown proudly in CHRISTUS Spohn Hospital-Alice's Walk of Honor.

"The Walk of Honor is dedicated to the brave men and women in Alice, Texas, and surrounding communities who are on active duty with our Armed Forces overseas," said Spohn Vice President Chief Operating Officer Mark Casanova to those in attendance. "However, they were not forgotten. In their absence, an American flag flew in their honor. The flags serve as a constant reminder to each of us - that while we enjoy our country's many privileges and freedoms, there are brave men and women, like Staff Sgt. Garcia and 1st Lt. Tiller, who are fighting to protect those freedoms."

Abelardo Gonzalez sang the National Anthem to start the ceremony and Chaplain Efren Cruzada gave the Blessing. After the presentation of flags, the soldiers expressed their gratitude for the homecoming celebration.

"I don't have a joke," Tiller said. "When I came back and found out that this ceremony was going to happen, it really means a lot."

Garcia agreed.

"I want to thank everybody," said Garcia with tears in his eyes. "It's a dream come true to be back in Alice. This is an honor."

Garcia is the grandson of the late Steve Dunne who served in World War II and Omelia Dunne. Accompanying him at the ceremony was his wife, Sofia; their two daughters, Mila and Allie; his parents, Ramon and Priscilla Dunne Garcia; his other grandparents, Luciano Garcia, who also served in World War II, and Maria Lucia Garcia; his sisters Melanie Hernandez, Helen and Heather Garcia and other family and friends. In Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Garcia received the Combat Infantry Badge as well as a Bronze Star. He also received a personally signed certificate from Hamid Karzar, president of Afghanistan, for securing and protecting him.

First Lt. J.C. Tiller is a pilot assigned to HMM 163 "Evil Eyes" Squadron. He flies the Marine Medium Lift CH 46-E Helicopter. The 13th MEU was originally set for a western Pacific deployment, but were redirected to the Al-Anbar Province in Iraq in support of the surge operation ordered by President George W. Bush. While in Iraq, the squadron flew in excess of 5,000 combat flight hours. Tiller was accompanied by his parents Travis and Judy Tiller; his grandparents, W.J. and Martha Tiller; and his fianc/e, Kristie Knapp, along with other family and friends. Along with the presentation, the soldiers were presented a proclamation and keys to the city from Mayor Pro tem Juan Rodriguez and councilman Shane Valverde. The United Veterans Burial Association presented the colors and performed a 21-gun salute. After the ceremony, the soldiers and their families were treated to refreshments in the hospital's cafeteria.