Holiday Well-wishers Greet Redeploying Servicemembers
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
BALTIMORE, Dec. 23, 2010 Christmas came early last night as more than 300 servicemembers arrived here on special flights from deployments to get them home in time for the holidays.
Operation Welcome Home volunteers greet a U.S. airman upon his arrival at the Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, Md., Dec. 22, 2010. DOD photo by Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Joshua Chadwick, 7, and his brother, Colby, 5, could hardly contain themselves as they waited beneath a giant Christmas tree at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport for what they called the best gift of all.
Disa Chadwick had told her sons she was taking them out to dinner. But as miles stretched out from their home at Dover Air Force Base, Del., her precocious, freckle-faced boys knew something was up. Only at the airport terminal did Disa break the news she had learned just that morning: Air Force Staff Sgt. Scott Chadwick was to arrive last night from his six-month deployment to Iraq.
“I’m excited to have him home for Christmas!” exclaimed Joshua. “I can’t wait to see him. I’m going to jump all over him!”
Like many military children, Joshua knows how it feels not to have Daddy around for the holidays. Chadwick has served six combat deployments, several at Christmastime.
That made last night’s arrival of two specially scheduled Air Mobility Command “Patriot Express” charter flights, with more slated over the next couple days, the ultimate holiday gift for hundreds of military families.
About 200 well-wishers -- families, friends and volunteers for the “Operation Welcome Home” project – reflected that holiday spirit as they assembled just outside the airport’s Customs area to greet the arriving troops. Many had donned festive sweaters and Santa’s hats. John Poisal, a retired National Security Agency employee, went all out in full Santa Claus regalia and a long, white beard he challenged people to tug on to prove it was real.
As word spread that the first inbound flight was on the ground, Gary Woods, an Operation Welcome Home team leader, added an extra dose of patriotism to the mix as he called on the well-wishers to turn to the American flag and collectively recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
Then, almost as if on cue, the terminal doors slid open and the well-wishers erupted with hoots, cheers and hand-clapping as 261 servicemembers, most of them airmen, entered the terminal, one by one.
Many looked bleary-eyed after traveling from Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Kyrgyzstan and countless other locations throughout the combat theater. But their faces quickly lit up with ear-to-ear smiles as they took in the throng of people assembled to greet them.
Santa Claus, a.k.a. Poisal, positioned himself at the terminal door to deliver the first official “Welcome Home!” Junior Army R.O.T.C. students from nearby Patapsco High School helped carry bags for the arriving troops. The well-wishers formed a gauntlet, shaking hands and offering goody bags and appreciation to the new arrivals.
Woods is a regular volunteer for Operation Welcome Home and has personally welcomed 120 of about 200 AMC flights the group has brought home so far this year. Every arriving flight feels special, he said. But he called the opportunity to welcome servicemembers home just before Christmas the icing on the cake.
“There’s nothing I’d rather do than be here,” he said. “These troops do so much, and they all deserve anything we can do for them. Getting to shake their hand and say ‘thank you and welcome home’ makes it all worthwhile.”
At the AMC passenger counter, Air Force Master Sgt. Anthony Martinez said he, too, gets an extra boost knowing that the additional flights he and his fellow airmen are supporting mean more servicemembers will get to spend Christmas with their loved ones. “It definitely makes it special,” he said. “We take pride in what we do every day, getting them home safely. But it means even more when you know they’re coming home for the holidays.”
Last night’s arriving servicemembers said they felt overwhelmed by their hero’s welcome.
“Wow. It’s amazing,” said Air Force Master Sgt. Omar Zermeno-Rubio, as he pushed a cart laden with duffle bags that had sustained him during his six-month deployment to Balad Air Base, Iraq. “I never expected this. But it feels good being appreciated. It really means a lot, especially at Christmas.”
“It feels really good, really welcoming,” echoed Army Sgt. 1st Class Bruce Wallace. After a year in Iraq with the 33rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, he was looking forward to a good night’s sleep at a local hotel, then a connecting flight tomorrow to join his family at Fort Hood, Texas.
Air Force Special Agent Aron Nikula called last night’s homecoming celebration the perfect beginning to what he hopes is a great holiday in New York with his girlfriend and her family. “This is a real surprise. I wasn’t expecting it at all,” he said as he surveyed the crowd. “Having something fun like this is a really good start to my coming home.”
Surrounded by his family, Air Force Staff Sgt. Gursimran Shergill said the best part of the BWI celebration after his seven-month deployment was seeing patches of snow rather than sand. “It’s awesome to be home for the holidays and to get to go home and spend time with my family,” he said. “I guess you could say, ‘It’s party time.’”
Meanwhile, Air Force Staff Sgt. Travis Morris and his wife, Julia, were already off snuggling in a corner, getting a head start on their own private party.
“It feels so amazing to be home. It’s not even real,” said Morris, who spent seven months at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, with the Fort Meade, Md.-based 22nd Intelligence Squadron. “Right here, I’ve got myself the best Christmas present in the world.”
“I asked Santa and got exactly what I asked for,” agreed Julia. Looking into her husband’s eyes, she said, “I’ve got the only Christmas present I could ever want.”