Every soldier wants to get back to their family.
And on rare occasions they get off the plane, bus or boat in such a hurry that they forget something.
Sgt. 1st Class Mike Chirdon, with the Pennsylvania National Guard, knows what it’s like. After being deployed around the world to places like Germany in 1999, Kosovo in 2003 and Iraq in 2009, he lost his helmet after a five-week tour in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He didn’t think he’d see it again.
That is until about five years ago, when someone from his unit told him it was in Beaver Stadium. Chirdon wouldn’t have it in his hands until he took his family to a tailgate party before Penn State played Army on Oct. 3.
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“I never would have had any idea,” Chirdon said. “He said it was an old one. He was washing windows at the stadium and saw it in a suite. It was always a big mystery to me how it got there.”
No one was sure what to do with the left-behind camouflage helmet that made the 1,100-mile trek from New Orleans to central Pennsylvania on a Fullington Tours bus.
The company, Fullington dispatch manager Doug Rossman said, drove about 20 busloads of soldiers down to the The Big Easy when Hurricane Katrina struck and brought back about 30 busloads of soldiers a few weeks later.
Rossman spent his time in New Orleans with dozens of Fullington bus drivers and took turns shuttling evacuees, soldiers and supplies. They were on call 24/7.
“Everyone looked forward to going down there to help, but no one knew what to expect,” Rossman said. “There was terrible damage everywhere.”
Chirdon, who is used to helping people in foreign lands, found himself lifting up American civilians.
He patrolled areas to make sure they were vacant and provided security for evacuating people, moving people back into the city and at distribution sites for handing out water, food, ice and supplies.
“It was pretty horrible to go to New Orleans,” Chirdon said. “It was the worst natural disaster I’ve ever seen. The people there were dealing with devastation, and they were all really friendly in such an unfortunate situation. It was nice to be helping Americans. Usually, we’re overseas.”
Chirdon, who never knew exactly where the helmet was in Beaver Stadium, found out the Fullingtons had it in their suite from a friend who watched a game from behind the glass.
Lory Fullington, who said a driver found it after dropping off soldiers, unsuccessfully looked for its owner for years.
Chirdon called Fullington Tours to ask if they had it, and she invited him to a tailgate before the Army game to give it back.
“It’s really heartwarming,” Fullington said. “There was a lot of excitement to meet him and to give him his helmet.”
Chirdon gave the Fullingtons a soft cap as a token of his appreciation.
“Having it back is sentimental,” he said. “It’s amusing how it all happened.”
The helmet, Chirdon said, won’t be lost again.
It’s on a shelf with other old gear and awards he has earned in his 23 years of service.
“If I feel like I can make a difference and can keep doing good, I’ll keep plugging along,” Chirdon said.