Paul Herdener didn't just thank the community that backed him through "Operation Shaving Cream."
He tipped his hat to the Marines who fought with him for seven months in the parched landscapes of Afghanistan.
Most of them "signed up after ... Sept. 11, 2001. All these men knew what they were getting into," said the 26-year-old Marine and 2004 North Hall High School graduate.
Herdener was speaking on behalf of Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, based in Camp Pendleton, Calif., as part of An Evening of Thanks and Remembrance: How a Community Makes a Difference, taking place at Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville.
The event, sponsored by Riverside, The Times, Willis Investment Counsel and Matthews Printing Co., was intended as a show of appreciation for an effort by area residents and businesses to send shaving cream cans to Marines, who used them to mark suspected roadside bombs.
It also served as a reminder of the sacrifices of men and women in the armed forces who have served and are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Patriotism flowed through the event, with the singing of the national anthem, recognition of military about to deploy to the region and the playing of taps. Rain canceled the Riverside Corps of Cadets' evening pass in review and the lowering of the colors in the Lanier Quad outside the theater.
"I think, as you look around tonight, you'll be convinced you're sitting with patriots and people who support our great military," said Jim Benson, Riverside's president and a retired Marine colonel, to the 100 or so gathered in the Sandy Beaver Center Theater.
Much of the evening belonged to Herdener, who talked about his war experiences through a slide show and took part in a panel discussion about counterinsurgency and covert tactics used by the enemy in wars ranging from Vietnam to Afghanistan.
He also presented awards to Dennis Stockton, The Times' publisher, and Darrell Wiley, president and CEO of J&J Foods, for their efforts as part of Operation Shaving Cream. Herdener presented them with a framed picture of Charlie Company.
Herdener also recognized Danny Sears and Darrin Lee of Kipper Tools, which helped in shipping the shaving cream.
The campaign began with an email Herdener sent his parents about how effective the cream was in saving Marines' lives. The cream is typically sprayed after someone carrying a minesweeper spots a possible bomb site.
The Taliban has stepped up using roadside bombs, often referred to as IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, as a weapon in its war against the U.S. and its allies.
Also participating in the community effort was the Gainesville-based North Georgia Community Foundation, which accepted donations. And people dropped off shaving cream cans at Milton Martin Honda, Northeast Georgia History Center and The Shipping Depot.
J&J Foods set up displays at its stores showcasing the effort, enabling shoppers to buy a 12-can case for $12 and pay no additional charge for taxes or shipping.
"It was an unbelievable outpouring of support ... and it did make a difference in the war effort," said Herdener's father, Tony Herdener.
His son, describing his mission in the Sangin district of Afghanistan, told the Riverside audience, "Our company was dedicated to patrolling 24/7 ... and to continue to expand our security bubble.
"This is where Operation Shaving Cream began to help our efforts. Everywhere we went, we faced the threat of IEDs. ... With proper techniques and marking and using the shaving cream, we were able to patrol (continually)."
Herdener, who returned from deployment in October and arrived from Camp Pendleton for Thanksgiving, will remain in the area before returning to the Marine base.
The shaving cream effort, meanwhile, continues, said Tony Herdener, who has a contact in the unit that replaced his son's company.
"We have about 800 to 1,000 cases that we need to get over there," he said.