, January 27, 2013 – On any given day, at any given time, the Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport’s terminals erupt with rambunctious roars, billowing American flags, and tears of pure bliss.
“Sometimes I tear up; I’m unable to speak,” Ken Madison, Operation Welcome Home Maryland volunteer team leader and Facebook page administrator, said. “The middle-of-the-night flights get the most surprised faces.”
About four times a week, Operation Welcome Home Maryland volunteers of all ages congregate along the vibrantly decorated BWI international terminal’s “hero’s line” to grandly welcome members of the United States Military as their flights land home on American soil.
“It is a feeling of happiness and joy for everyone – the volunteers who are there to greet, cheer, and thank our troops, the families who are present, and the service members themselves,” founder Kathy Thorp said. “It’s great to witness a reunion, an engagement, a young scout receiving a high-five from a service member, or a young child leading the whole group in attendance in the pledge.”
Since it’s conception in March 2007, OWH (MD) has greeted more than 1,400 flights safely carrying home 304,526 military personnel from overseas operations.
“I developed this organization as I realized there wasn’t anyone greeting our service members at Baltimore International airport, which was receiving the highest number of military members returning from theater operations,” Thorp said. “Our main mission is to give our service members the hero’s welcome they greatly deserve.”
According to OWH (MD), the organization has greeted 301 flights with more 78,170 military members on board this year.
OWH (MD) tracks when troops’ flights are scheduled to arrive at BWI and plans a welcome home event equipped with teams of volunteers to welcome service members after they process through customs and claim their bags.
“The last thing we expected at the airport in the middle of the night was a crowd of friendly people, hugging us, thanking us, and welcoming us back home,” referred to as Rachel S., wife of a United States Air Force member, said.
As the admirable men and women make their way down the patriotic terminal, the jittery sea of anxiously awaiting supporters knows exactly what to do.
“I walked through the doors and could not believe the number of people there to greet us, the cheering and clapping, and the smiles on everyone’s face,” Technical Sergeant Joseph Fiedler, Jr. of Maryland Air National Guard, said. “I was expecting to see family members and friends, but there were people that I did not know greeting me, cheering for me, and shaking my hand telling me how happy they were to have me home.”
The men and women of the armed forces have expressed immense gratitude for the support of OWH (MD) on the organization’s Facebook page and the website’s guest book, but the volunteers say they participate as a way to show their mutual feeling towards the military and their hard work.
“We need to show our service men and women that we are appreciative for their sacrifice, their service to our country,” Thorp said.
Dressed patriotically like the American flag itself, volunteers arrive at the terminal an hour prior to the flight’s estimated arrival time to decorate the area in a wash of red, white and blue flags, signs and banners. They also fill goodie bags with snacks and water for each service member who walks down the hero’s line.
“These volunteers of Operation Welcome Home Maryland are true American patriots and we are so thankful for what they do every day in welcoming home our military men and women,” Fiedler’s wife, Mallory, said.
Ask the beloved volunteers, though, about the effort put into each welcome home event and their opinion may be a little bit different.
“I do this because I really enjoy it; it’s addictive,” volunteer team leader Anne Church said. “They carry so much with them, so if I can help make the transition easier by giving them the best way to their next flight, calling a hotel shuttle, or finding a hotel room, I am glad to do it.”
Volunteers not only provide an exciting, cheerful welcome, but also have the opportunity to be a part of the most touching moments one could experience.
“We have the many spontaneous but planned proposals, daddies seeing their babies for the first time, mommies being reunited with their children, grandparents greeting grandchildren, and the smiles just go on,” Church said. “I always say each event is like Forrest Gump and his box of chocolates – you never know what you are going to get.”
Each event fosters overwhelming emotions as memories are created for the volunteers, families, friends, and service members themselves, building a bond between the military and those they choose to fight for and whose rights and freedoms they defend every day.
“One [story] that stands out is about a young wounded Marine who was at Bethesda Naval Hospital and heard when his unit was coming back,” Thorp said. “He somehow managed to get a day pass out of the hospital with his wounded leg and surprised his fellow Marines; there was not one dry eye that day.”
Every sailor, airman, soldier, Marine, and Coast Guard member who walks through BWI’s international terminal receives a high-five, handshake, pat on the back, hug, or salute from the volunteers lined up, anxiously awaiting the troops departing the plane.
“It was probably one of the proudest feelings I had in my military career,” United States Air Force Master Sergeant Steven Jurgilanis said. “Right now being deployed [I am] looking forward to my next homecoming.”
In addition to attending the events, volunteers also participate in various tasks vital to ensuring that each welcome home will be astounding for the heroes who steps off the aircrafts.
Every week volunteers carefully read through hand-made cards. Every week volunteers pick up the water bottles and snacks and haul the supplies to storage areas.
Every day volunteers check the phone line for any incoming flights that need greeters. Every day volunteers circulate emails to communicate events being added to the calendar.
“I am so humbled to have a wonderful group of team leaders who are dedicated 24/7 to help greet flights,” Thorp said. “There have been some who religiously greet the wee early-in-the-morning flights with only a handshake to give, but boy, are the troops grateful.”
According to an October press briefing by US Press Secretary Jay Carney, the White House has a “policy to withdraw our forces [from Afghanistan] by 2014.”
With this push to get a vast number of troops home, the organization is constantly looking for help from the community.
“All donations for the 7,000 snack bags put together each month purely comes from a very caring and compassionate community of individuals, church groups, schools, Veterans groups, businesses, and organizations who desire in their own way to help the group greet our military heroes,” Thorp said.
These groups donate monetary funds, bottled water, pre-packaged cookies, chips, crackers, candy, granola bars, and handmade cards, which go directly into the hands of military members at the time of their arrival.
“Many of our service members are getting connecting flights, so a snack bag filled with goodies and a hand-made card surely makes their day and brings a smile to their faces,” Thorp said.
As the volunteers witness safe homecomings, pride and relief in American’s eyes, and tears streaming down loved ones’ cheeks, all of the dedication, time, and effort is proved worth it in the end.
“I do this as I have two young adult children and a husband in the service,” Thorp said. “I hope someone greets my child one day if I can’t be there to do it.”
For more information about ways to volunteer or donate to Operation Welcome Home Maryland, visit OWHMD.org, their Facebook page, or call the event line at 410-630-1555.
Meredith Spencer is a guest writer to Communities at Washington Times.
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