- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 29, 2011

Each time the frosted-glass doors leading out of the international customs area opened, a crowd of more than 200 people broke into cheers, waving handmade signs above their heads and jangling cowbells.

As military men and women carting piles of camouflage-colored bags emerged, leather-clad bikers and Boy Scouts alike clamored to shake their hands and welcome them back from military deployments.

Operation Welcome Home Maryland at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport has organized similar welcomes for more than 190,000 military personnel since 2007, but with the withdrawal of troops from Iraq over the past three months, it has never been busier.

“With the drawdown in Iraq, we saw an increase in flights,” Welcome Home volunteer Barbara Flanagan said. “I think I was up here six times last week alone, including Christmas Eve.”

When Kathy Thorp, a member of the U.S. Navy Reserve, first started the Welcome Home project, the group assembled about four times a month outside the airport’s international-arrival gate. But since President Obama’s October announcement that all troops would be out of Iraq by the end of the year, the number of returning charter flights has skyrocketed to between 25 and 30 a month, volunteer Ken Funk said.

The increase in flights, some of which return in the middle of the night, has meant the all-volunteer group has had to step up efforts in order to staff arrivals and to solicit donations for “goodie bags” consisting of snacks, thank-you cards and water, which they distribute to each returning soldier, Marine, sailor and airman.

But as volunteers explained before greeting a recent charter flight of 262 Air Force and Army personnel who flew in from Ramstein Air Base in Germany, people coming to greet for the first time often get hooked.

“It’s heartwarming to do this,” said Ken Dunshee of Glen Burnie, Md., a retiree who estimates that he has attended more than 100 Welcome Home events at BWI.

For others, personal experiences such as prior military service or the loss of a loved one serve as catalysts to volunteer with the program.

“When I came back in 1969, there were not nice welcomes,” Mr. Funk said of his return from the Vietnam War. “I just want to make sure they get a welcome back. I know I missed that. It was a difficult time back then.”

Husband and wife Bob and Carol Roddy began volunteering with Welcome Home after their son David was killed in Iraq by an improvised explosive device in 2006.

“After our son was killed, we just wanted a connection, a connection with the young men and women who were still over there,” said Carol Roddy, of Bel Air, Md. “We didn’t want to sit and cry our eyes out. We knew this would be something that Dave would be proud of.”

The extra “mothering” that Mrs. Roddy said Operation Welcome Home offers to returning troops can go a long way toward making their return home more comfortable.

“Most often, when they come off a flight, they are tired, they are exhausted, they just want a safe place to stay,” she said. “If they can find somebody to help them with their cellphone or help find their keys or little things … this is something that you know is like a friendly face, a trusting face.”

The cheering and handshakes from complete strangers at the arrival gate is always a welcome sight for U.S. Air Force member DeJon Franklin, who was returning from his fifth deployment and stopped at BWI on his way to Dallas.

“The first one is the best one, but it doesn’t get old, because you know you’re back,” he said, adding that it was especially touching to see Vietnam veterans among the line of people who reached out to shake his hand.

The fact that many of the returning troops who fly through BWI don’t have family to greet them because their final destinations are elsewhere is exactly what prompted Mrs. Thorp to start Operation Welcome Home.

“It is really close to my heart, understanding the struggles that a military family goes through,” she said, describing how her husband, son and daughter have all served in various branches of the military.

Although the number of military flights returning stateside will trail off with the American withdrawal from Iraq, volunteers from Operation Welcome Home say they won’t be going anywhere.

“We’ve got our folks still over there in Afghanistan and in other locations that deserve a welcome home,” said Mrs. Thorp, of Arnold, Md. “Our numbers will decrease, but we will still be there to greet our troops until every one of them comes home.”

Looking down at the greeters from a second-story terrace was a stark reminder of that. A line of Army soldiers bound for Afghanistan wound in a long queue around a flight check-in desk, and outgoing soldiers watched quietly as returning troops happily accepted goodie bags and stopped for pictures with flag-waiving children.

Pausing to admire the festive crowd, U.S. Army member Traci Cheney smiled.

“It’s like, it’s going to be us in a few months,” she said.

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