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The extraordinary story of the grandmother who committed her life to hugging soldiers

In this 2010 picture, Elizabeth Laird, aka Fort Hood’s ‘”Hug Lady” greets Sgt. Michael Flanders coming home from Iraq. (Photo by Ralph Barrera/AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Since the first months of the Iraq War in 2003, soldiers deployed from Fort Hood knew they’d always be sent off and welcomed home with a hug.

She’s known to them as the “Hug Lady,” and for the last 12 years she’s been a calming, constant presence for men and women for which little else is certain. Not quite five-feet tall she’d wrap her arms around the ones leaving for overseas, and offer words of faith and encouragement. When they came home, she was there waiting to hug them again.

Elizabeth Laird has given hundreds of thousands of hugs. Now she needs them herself.

Laird, 83, has quietly battled breast cancer for the last decade, something most of her soldier family didn’t know. Her cancer has spread and she’s been in the hospital since last week. Her son, Richard Dewees, said dozens of soldiers have filtered through her hospital room to return her words of faith and encouragement, and of course, her hugs.

[This 93-year-old veteran reconnected with his wartime love after 71 years apart]

What’s more, Dewees set up a GoFundMe page to help with the medical costs. He asked for $10,000. It has raised $72,316 from more than 2,000 people in just three days. Dewees, 64, knew his mother was beloved –he’s shared her with her military sons and daughters for years now — but he said “he’s stunned.”

“They just want to thank her, for encouraging them, for giving them something to look for … they knew when they went over there, when they came back, someone would be waiting,” he said. “A lot of them say they don’t have families, but they have her.”

It’s reflected in their comments on the fundraising page:

“What a true blessing you are sweet Lady. You hugged me on the way out in November 2011 and you were my first hug home August 2012. Praying for God’s healing angels to surround and comfort you. Thank you for all that you have done and continue to do for us…”

“Ms. Elizabeth, you gave us just an ounce of humanity before we spent the next year of our lives in a place that was tantamount to hell and devoid of humanity… The gift you gave us upon departure is immeasurable.”

“I love her, I deployed teary eyed and scared, (secretly) worried my almost two year old daughter would forget me [sic] she whispered in my ear that everything would be ok [and]  meant the world to me. I wish I had millions to give her.”

“Deployment is never easy, but you helped us all smile when we met you there at the airport. That final goodbye hug from the sweetest woman has stuck with me over the years and I hope more than anything you’ll be better soon. Thank you for everything and I hope we can all help.”

In 2010, the Austin-Statesman profiled Laird. She’d been volunteering at the airfield through the Salvation Army. One day a soldier asked for a hug. Since then, she never stopped.

Her husband died suddenly from a blood clot in 2008. After his funeral she drove straight to the Fort Hood airfield to greet soldiers coming home, according to the article.

“They come back and are smiling from ear to ear because she said she would be there and she was,” Dewees said. And the parents of the ones who don’t make it back have shared that they were comforted knowing their child had a warm hug before going off to war.

Her condition now is tenuous, and Dewees has spoken to Fort Hood about using one of its chapels for her funeral. If she’s able to leave the hospital, she’ll have to go into an extended care facility. She wants to get back to the airfield, but if she can’t, he hopes to at least connect her there via Skype so that the soldiers will still be able to see her there.

“She won’t be able to hug them,” he said, “but she’ll still be there with them.

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