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Veterans Welcome R&R-Bound Troops

By K.L. Vantran
American Forces Press Service

BALTIMORE, Nov. 14, 2003 – The moonlight dances with the lights on the tarmac at Baltimore-Washington International Airport as the winds blow rustling leaves across the runway. It's 4 a.m., or "o-dark thirty" as those in the military like to say.

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Carolyn Self, a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Ladies Auxiliary, shakes the hand of a soldier just off a rest and recuperation flight from Iraq. The plane landed at Baltimore-Washington International Airport around 11:30 a.m. Nov. 14. It was six hours late due to fog in Germany. Photo by K.L. Vantran
  

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Inside, custodians busily mop floors around passengers who have sacked out on airport chairs. The area is silent, save for a handful of people quietly talking as they wait for the next flight from Iraq in the military's rest and recuperation leave program.

Bill and Carolyn Self move from person to person. Carolyn hands out Veterans of Foreign Wars red "Buddy Poppy" flowers, while Bill says the flight has been delayed and will not arrive until around 11:30 a.m. six hours later than originally anticipated.

The flight was grounded in Germany due to fog, according to Army Maj. Cynthia Flynn, commander, Personnel Assistance Point at BWI. "We can control a lot of things," she said. "But weather is not one of them. We'd rather they get here safely."

Although disappointed, the group of family members and friends agreed, then made plans on how to spend the waiting hours.

Bill and Carolyn spent their time talking with troops who had just completed their R&R leave and were heading back to the war-torn country. They wished them well and handed out phone cards.

Members of the VFW have been on hand to welcome troops since the program began Sept. 26, said Carolyn, who serves with the VFW's Ladies Auxiliary. She said she and Bill have been at the airport almost every day for the last two weeks.

The great grandparents leave their home in Mount Airy, Md., in plenty of time for the 45-minute drive to BWI. "Sometimes, it takes us a little longer to get started," said Bill, who belongs to VFW Post 10076 in Mount Airy. "But we get rolling and get over here."

When asked why they get up before the sun and maintain such a schedule, the couple who has been married 52 years, have the same answer to ensure there is someone there when the soldiers come home.

VFW District 7 Commander Richard S. Udoff said his post, 521 in Owings Mills, Md., has veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. "They didn't have any 'welcome homes' - - especially for those who served in Vietnam. We want to make sure that doesn't happen to these soldiers."

Bill is a Vietnam veteran, added Carolyn. "He wasn't welcomed back like this," she said. "We don't want any other troops to go through something like that."

All of us remember when we came home, added Bill. "No one turned out to welcome us home," he said. "We don't want to see them come home and no one be here to meet them."

Carolyn said the soldiers are often surprised and grateful that someone is there to greet them especially at the early hour. Typically flights arrive around 5:30 a.m.

"It's very rewarding," she added. "They can't believe we're here. They thank us but we're grateful to do it. It's our pleasure to be here to greet them."

As the soldiers enter the terminal, the VFW members shake their hands and give them a phone card. Most of the soldiers are getting connecting flights, so Carolyn encourages each to use the phone card to call "their mama" or let someone know that they made it this far safely.

The VFW folks also steer the soldiers to United Airlines to see about getting an earlier flight. "United has been extremely helpful," said Udoff, who served as a flight engineer in the Air Force. "If someone had a flight for say 11 a.m. they got him one for 9."

For soldiers who do have time between flights and want to "shower or shave," Bill said they could take a shuttle to the Comfort Inn, which has donated rooms for use by the troops.

Carolyn said she believes the R&R program is a good idea but has its downside. "It's good to get the kids out of there and get them a break," she said. "The hard part is when they have to go back and knowing the dangers they will face. It's heartbreaking."

Although she can't bring herself to go to the departure area of BWI, Carolyn has plenty of hugs for those in uniform she passes in the corridors. "If a soldier is walking by, I'll give him a hug and tell him to 'be safe,'" she said as she wiped away a tear.

The Defense Department began the R&R program Sept. 26 to give service members a break from duty in Iraq. The program provides free travel to designated ports of entry in the United States Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth and BWI and Rhein-Main Air Base in Germany for 15 days of leave in addition to travel time. Any connecting flights or additional transportation costs are the responsibility of the soldier.

However, travelers can donate frequent-flier miles to help troops reach their destinations. Seven airlines AirTran, Alaska, American, Delta, Pan Am, Southwest and United participate in Operation Hero Miles.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageRichard Udoff, Veterans of Foreign Wars District 7 commander, greets a soldier just off a rest and recuperation flight from Iraq. Soldiers participating in the R&R leave program have 15 days' leave. The plane landed at Baltimore-Washington International Airport around 11:30 a.m. Nov. 14. It was delayed six hours due to fog in Germany. Photo by K.L. Vantran.  
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