Until Monday, Timothy Ramsey was planning to join his family for a Thanksgiving feast at his grandmother's house in West Virginia. Then the Air Force informed him that he'd be headed instead to Germany -- and possibly much farther afield.
"We're devastated," said his aunt Sheila Natale, saying goodbye yesterday near the entrance to the USO International Gateway Lounge at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. "We're really going to miss his lovely smile."
"I'm going to miss Grandma's turkey!" Ramsey, 32, said with a laugh.
Patrick Quenga, 29, had expected to spend his Thanksgiving on a locked-down Army base in Kuwait, going to the gym and biding his time until he could see his fiancee in Colorado Springs again.
Six days ago, the Army let him know he'd be home for the holiday. Waiting for a connecting flight in the USO lounge, he munched on snacks and savored being back on U.S. soil.
"It's scary being in Kuwait," the Army warrant officer said. "I'll tell you that right now. I'm not one of the phony brave -- I admit it. I might be depressed at Christmas because I'll be there doing what I have to do. But I'm going to enjoy being home for Thanksgiving."
The same USO that brought Bob Hope and home-baked care packages to troops is offering them a little hospitality as they pass through the busiest airport for military travel.
The lounge is a 5,000-square-foot haven for the 250,000 U.S. military members and their families who move through the airport each year.
BWI, one of four military Air Mobility Command centers, serves 99 percent of the U.S. armed forces members traveling to and from duty stations in Europe, Southwest Asia and within the United States, said Adrienne Trout, director of airport services for USO of Metropolitan Washington.
The $1.1 million lounge opened three years ago, a gift from the state of Maryland. The lounge includes a hospitality desk, where volunteers do everything from finding hotel rooms for those who missed a connecting flight to contacting relatives in case of emergencies. It also includes a baggage storage area, a snack bar and a lounge with a 72-inch television screen and plush, upholstered seats.
Also available are a children's room with cribs, changing tables, a TV/VCR combination and a library of children's videos. And a sleeping room with leather recliners where military members can catch a little shut-eye and even get a wake-up call before their flights.
There's a technology center with computer terminals linked to every military base in the world and computers where troops anxious to hear from loved ones can check their e-mail.
In the wake of the anthrax scare -- with care packages and letters from civilians curtailed -- the USO lounge has also become a major repository for gift-giving to troops headed abroad. Each month, volunteers dispense 1,000 care packages, which contain such things as 100-minute calling cards, disposable cameras, shampoo and sunscreen. Each also contains a postcard greeting from a donor.
"We started asking companies to donate items, and none said no," Trout said. "We were going to do 1,000 care packages, but some companies would send 3,000 or 4,000 items."
Besides the care packages, the lounge provides volunteers willing to help the troops during their few hours passing through. Pat Hollenbeck dispenses hugs, advice and has even shed a tear or two as the servicemen and women board their planes. Her husband, Leo, and his partner Ronald Ford work a weekend shift at the USO giving out humor with information, cookies and coffee.
The lighter moments occur during reunions. Sorrowful ones occur frequently as well, such as on a recent Saturday night when a mother sobbed as her son prepared to board a plane for Kuwait. "We just can't talk now," the mother said. "It's just too difficult right now."
Several soldiers said the lounge is a very welcome sight in the bustling airport. "I was surprised to find something this nice just for us," said Eric Calkins, 19, of Gregory, Mich.
On a recent night, Roberto Martinez of Fort Worth and several members of his Army platoon from Fort Sill, Okla., waited in the lounge for a bus to take them to Aberdeen Proving Ground near Baltimore, where they have been sent for four months of training.
Over Doritos and fresh coffee, the soldiers pledged to have dinner together on Thanksgiving night to help assuage their loneliness. They brooded just a little about being detailed such a short time before Thanksgiving and contemplated where they might be for Christmas.
"We just don't know much," said Martinez, 18, the only son of his close-knit family. "My family is afraid of me being deployed to Operation Enduring Freedom because there would be no one to carry on the family name if something happened."
Matthew Hodges, 18, of Waterloo, Iowa, father of a 5-month-old daughter, said, "There are a lot of people who are turning their backs on us now." He chatted with his friends while listening to a recording of his own rap music on a portable CD player.
Angel Frias, 19, of Las Vegas, one of the mechanics from Fort Sill, chatted about his apprehension over going to war. A USO volunteer who overheard him shook his head.
"They are so young," said the volunteer, who did not want his name used. "They've got the security of this entire country on their shoulders and they are barely old enough to vote."
Quenga knows what it's like to be close to war. Since he's been in Kuwait, he's lived through 145-degree days, lost colleagues and felt the fear of dying young.
He'd needed a break. He hadn't been home since he was deployed to Camp Doha, Kuwait, for Operation Enduring Freedom three months ago. Two Doha soldiers -- guys in a Toyota going about their regular work -- had been shot by Kuwaiti traffic police the day before. Six weeks earlier, Doha had been locked down after two Marines were hit by enemy fire.
He'll return to Camp Doha in two weeks, but he'll savor his time in the states. "Home for Thanksgiving. I can hardly believe it," he said.
Staff writer Nurith C. Aizenman contributed to this report.