Cheers, All Around

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The volunteers gather by the dozen, hang their "Welcome Home" signs on the wall and transform Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport into something akin to the red carpet at Cannes. Cameras flash. Strangers stop and stare, and sometimes join in the applause for the troops coming home from war.

Several times a month, the service members -- Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines -- emerge from the arrivals gate in ones and twos. Some are sheepish about all the hoopla, ducking their heads and smiling shyly. Others embrace it. Navy Lt. Tony Davis of Tampa, who returned Monday evening from a tour in Afghanistan, worked the line of greeters like a celebrity, shaking hands and accepting hugs.

"This is awesome," he said.

Since the wars began, BWI has become a hub for those going into and out of Iraq and Afghanistan. And since last year, the volunteer group Operation Welcome Home, Maryland has welcomed more than 12,000 of the camouflaged warriors who passed through the airport on their way home. The volunteers are lined up on weekends and late at night, making sure the troops "feel welcome," said Larry Shipley, one of the group's organizers. It is a duty made even more important, volunteers said, around the holidays.

Some of the volunteers who greet the incoming flights are Vietnam veterans who want to "show the troops the support they didn't receive," said Shipley, a former serviceman whose son is in the Army Reserve. Others say they think that at a time when the burden of war is carried by a small percentage of the population, service members should be given the same royal treatment as movie stars and ballplayers.

"I think people forget we're at war," Shipley said. "And this is one small way we can draw people together."

The group does not have a presence at Dulles International or Reagan National Airport, which do not see nearly as many troops as BWI, but maintains a Web site, an e-mail database that has grown to 1,600 contacts and a flight arrival hotline.

On Monday, about 100 volunteers turned out to welcome the troops at the airport's international terminal. Some wore American flag shirts. Others carried red, white and blue balloons. "God Bless the U.S.A." blared from a CD player. Girl Scouts gave the soldiers high-fives. One woman in an elf hat occasionally planted kisses on the cheeks of young sailors.

BWI is also home to one of the USO's busiest lounges, where more than 60,000 service members this year have been treated to first-class accommodations: a big-screen television, free snacks, WiFi, phones and cots to sleep on. This week, some of the 190 volunteers arrived in Christmas hats and passed out candy canes. Small touches, perhaps, but after someone spends a year at war, the details matter, volunteers said.

Soldiers lounged on the chairs, appearing tired but excited by the prospect of being home for the holidays. Senior Airman Keith Wilcox said he could not wait for home cooking, "my grandmother's turkey and ham." Others said they were looking forward to a hot shower and a warm bed.

"It's weird to think that just a few days ago you were in Iraq and now you're here," said Air Force Capt. Chris Kleinhenz, who was waiting in the lounge for a flight home to Las Vegas.

Arriving in Vegas, he said later by telephone, was satisfying and surreal. The air was unusually crisp and cold, and for the first time he saw the mountains around Las Vegas covered in snow. The slot machines in the airport and the tourists "dressed up all glitzy and glamorous" were as different as you could get from his base in Balad, Iraq.

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