PENNSAUKEN, N.J. -- Like many soldiers returning from the Vietnam War, First Sergeant Arthur "Sonny" Wimberly never received much of a homecoming.
Though it was long overdue, the Phillies teamed with Toyota and a number of other organizations to surprise Wimberly -- along with his wife, Roxanne, and his service dog, Juno -- with a special ceremony in his own neighborhood on Thursday morning. Along with Phillies great Milt Thompson and an appearance by the Phillie Phanatic, the presentation featured students from local Delair Elementary lining the sidewalks of Wimberly's cul-de-sac as fire trucks, ambulances and police cars drove by to salute the local hero. They were joined by an entourage of motorcycles from Warriors' Watch, a group that uses its bikes to draw attention and show its support for veterans.
"This is absolutely amazing," Wimberly said. "I can't say enough about all of this. Just the handshakes, just being close and understanding that everybody is here for me -- that is a whole lot. A whole lot to digest."
And that was just the beginning.
After knocking on his door to surprise him with his own personal parade of sorts, Wimberly was invited to throw out the first pitch at Friday's "Salute to Service" game against the Red Sox at Citizens Bank Park as the Phillies continue to celebrate "Military Appreciation Month."
"This whole thing is incredibly heartwarming," said Thompson, who caught a practice first pitch in Wimberly's driveway as neighbors and other onlookers erupted in applause. "There's something my mom used to always say: 'Give me my flowers while I'm alive.' Basically it's just a reminder to tell people how much you appreciate what they've done and what they keep doing. So all these service members who put their lives on the line every single day, I have nothing but respect for them, and it's really my honor to be here for this."
It should come as no surprise that Wimberly delivered a strike in his practice toss to Thompson. The veteran continues to participate in sports, including baseball, as a para-athlete. Wimberly often mans the right side of the infield, and while he noted that it's typically a great pitch in wheelchair baseball if you can drop it right on the plate, he'll be trying to avoid doing that in front of the crowd at Citizens Bank Park.
"I'll do the best I can. I'll be practicing between now and [Friday] night, I'll tell you that much," Wimberly said. "That mound is a bit further than what I did here today, but I'll be working on it, you can bet that."
Wimberly enlisted in the United States Army for his 18th birthday. After graduating high school at the age of 17, he made the decision to join the Army after watching many of his friends either get drafted or venture out to different places. Within five months, he was sent to Vietnam for a 12-month tour.
Serving as a combat engineer, Wimberly participated in multiple critical missions. Following the conclusion of his first enlistment, he joined the reserves, where he spent the next 22 years before retiring.
"The biggest mission was to return home to my family, especially my mom," Wimberly said. "At that point, I was a soldier every day, all day."
Wimberly was nominated to receive this honor from the Phillies by Nick Liermann, the founder and executive director of Team Foster, an organization that provides service animals to veterans, including pairing Wimberly with Juno, a husky-shepherd mix.
"I couldn't think of a better representative of our organization than Sonny Wimberly," Liermann said. "He is eternally optimistic. He's always on the go, and just getting things done. He's a fantastic ambassador not just for our organization, but for all human beings."
Liermann developed Team Foster in honor of his friend, Eric Foster, who was killed in combat in 2007. All of the money raised goes to obtaining, training and providing service dogs for injured and disabled vets, though Liermann admitted he never could have imagined being part of an event like this one when he founded Team Foster.
"Not even a little bit," Liermann said. "To have partners like the Phillies and Toyota -- and to have this absurd level of community support -- it's beyond anything I could have imagined. But I tell our team this all the time: When you give folks an opportunity to do good, they will take advantage of that opportunity. We start telling people we're going to do something and just look at this -- the police department, fire department, the rescue, the Air Force, the media, the school, the Warriors' Watch, everybody. Just give them the opportunity and people will impress you."
Along with the recognition and first-pitch invitation from the Phillies, Wimberly received an honorary coin and certificate from the Warriros' Watch riders. The students who lined the street all held handmade signs, thanking Wimberly for his service, and his neighbors waved American flags. Fire trucks, ambulances and police cars from local agencies blared their sirens and honked their horns while circling in front of his home, nestled at the end of a usually quiet street. Members of the Air Force were on hand, including one who played bugle calls.
To cap it all off, Wimberly was presented with not only a personalized Phillies jersey for himself, but also one for Juno.
"I can't thank the Phillies enough. And the VA, I can't say enough about them. I can't say enough about Team Foster. I can't say enough about this day, and everybody who's here," Wimberly said. "It's been unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable. I'll never forget it, that's for sure."