I spent Veteran’s Day, 2005 at the Hartsfield Airport USO greeting servicemen and servicewomen arriving on R&R flights from Iraq & Afghanistan (via Kuwait & Frankfurt) and assisting others who were assembling for their return flights to the theater of operations. What a great group of Americans!
Four of us representing the West Point Society of Atlanta arrived at the Hartsfield Airport USO at 0800 and donned the bright red aprons with USO emblazoned across the front. We took orders from Peggy who is a full-time USO volunteer. She asked Pat, a wife of a ’57 grad, to help out in the kitchen and serve snacks and drinks (yep, non-alcoholic) to Servicemen (inclusive of women going forward) who might enter the small waiting room on the 2nd floor of the atrium. Peggy’s husband, John, came and stood by the USO door to secure the exceedingly heavy duffel bags, rucksacks and briefcases so the men and women could wander the concourse unencumbered. Linda and Bette Rose (wives of ’63 Grads) pushed the purple (the color of joint units…combining green, tan, white, blue and OD!) podium from its storage spot in the USO into a nearby elevator. On both days, when the door reopened, the elevator had not moved an inch. The trick for Bette Rose was to momentarily ignore the excitement of the moment and simply push the button for the 1st floor ! Once laughter had subsided and the requisite button had been pushed, the elevator finally arrived on the lower level whereupon the volunteers pushed the podium around the corner into its designated spot.
That spot was in the center of the greeting area opposite the escalators hustling arriving passengers up from the concourse trams. The two wives and two Grads who joined them (West ’63 and Regis ’73) were responsible for greeting each arriving serviceman and assisting in their transition to R&R by pointing out baggage pickup, ground transportation, restaurants, etc. Each serviceman headed for two weeks of R&R was handed a hand-sized bear, a calling card and a CD with patriotic songs. Servicemen were also given a big hug by the two wives and on occasion the Grads gave a hug to a servicewoman; but not often! Occasionally we had to quickly cease efforts to offer a hug as family members burst from the waiting area into strong, uniformed arms. The fatigue etched on many faces following the 12-hour flights from the war zones was quickly erased by signs of the pure joy of their reunion. Below are some of the scenes on those mornings.
Arriving for R&R:
- A darling little girl about three years old was comfortably on her hands and knees drawing in her coloring book. She was given a stuffed snowman by the volunteers and it was at that moment that she stole the hearts of all who saw her. As she took hold of the snowman and held it in her arms she had a smile stretching across her face that lit up the greeting area. When her dad topped the escalator she scrambled under the restraining barrier and ran into his arms with a smile even brighter than we thought possible. Mom was not far behind with her smile and obvious joy. It was your typical family reunion; and it was just simply breathtakingly awesome.
- An arriving, young, E-4 from Eastman,GA looked back down the escalators for an explanation for the loud applause that broke out as he walked into the greeting area. It took a while for him to appreciate that he was the reason for the applause. He responded with a bashful, endearing smile.
- A Georgia 48th Brigade Soldier arrived smiling with his digital camera flashing while his wife approached, smiling, with her video camera rolling. When the minimum focal point for both cameras was reached there ensued a grand hug.
- A young, handsome Soldier with his digital camera in hand asked for his picture to be taken with the USO volunteers; instead he got his picture taken by the USO staff while he was surrounded by the Miller Lite girls who were delighted to pose with him even though they were present just to greet Miller Lite conference attendees.
- A middle-aged Soldier’s wife stood off to one side patiently waiting for well over an hour for her husband. When he finally arrived long after the first Soldier had topped the escalator, we told him his wife was waiting off to his right. He looked at us quizzically; how could we possibly know who his wife was? Obligingly, he looked to his right and with a broad smile appearing across his wrinkled face he strode quickly to her – and she to him. In the middle of the walkway he abruptly dropped his 100-pound rucksack and held his wife of many years in a long, long embrace while all other travelers stopped and admired. For most there was a touch of empathy; then again, their empathy could not have measured the pain of a 6-month separation the two had experienced and they would experience again in two weeks.
Returning to Theater:
There was a flip side to the excited greetings of those arriving on R&R; a comparable number of servicemen and were being greeted as they headed back to the war zones. You might be surprised at the expressions on their faces; they were not the glum looks you would expect. They were the faces of those who confidently support the mission, their commanders, their commander-in-chief, and their many comPatriots. They were the faces of Americans young and old who believed in the relevance of their chosen profession. If families were present, the situation certainly could be different. Even then, so many of them expressed delight when told that the outbound flight would not depart until early evening; that simply meant 6 more hours to share. But make no mistake, there were some whose pending separation from family was very difficult; they found some solace in knowing that they weren’t going back alone and that they were generally more than halfway through their 12-month tour and that the Country is overwhelmingly behind them and their mission.
Having assembled at the USO by the appointed 1300 time, the returning servicemen were marshaled towards the flight check in station. As they are moved down the escalator from the USO, through the Atrium, to the check-in counter at Jamaica Airlines (that gave them a jolt of humor), there invariably was a standing ovation offered by admiring travelers in the Atrium and surrounding shops who were heading to less difficult destinations.
- A pretty, Navy petty officer arrived for her flight to Kuwait with an effervescent smile. When I inquired about her morale she continued to smile and told me how she had moved to South Carolina last May for a new job only to be activated into the active Navy. Instead of a first day at her new civilian job, she had to place all her personal items into local storage. And now to complicate matters, instead of looking forward to returning to the States in April 2006 at the scheduled end of her normal tour of duty, she had been extended until August…she said all that with that big smile. She was not complaining, she was simply stating the facts of her life. I surmised that her boss probably extended her to keep morale of the rest of the Team high with her as an example of positive spirit. I saw her later in the day just as she was entering the final security screening gate. I gave her a heartfelt hug and my eternal thanks for a job well done. She hugged me back, smiled, and entered the security line to join her buddies.
- As the troops were assembling at the USO for flight manifesting, the senior person in the file of 70 or more was a tall, lanky brigadier general. From farther back in the file that was arranged by rank came the muttered remark; “first time I ever saw a general as an acting squad leader!” Up and down the file was a smiling, laughing acknowledgement.
- An infantry second lieutenant, a USMA graduate, was in a veritable hurry to get back to his men in Iraq. While home on R&R one of his men had become the platoon’s first causality and he was going straight from his intra-theater flight to see him in the hospital. The lieutenant was responsible to, and for, his men. He had left his young bride at home.
Upon reflection, the common denominator in all those USO encounters was one item: a smile. Those smiles reflect that which the servicemen see; they see us supporting them, supporting their mission and supporting their purpose. They also see that we want them all back home safely. They have earned our respect, admiration and support as they conduct the mission our elected officials have sent them to perform. Let us not fail them.