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“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.