- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 11, 2003

LINTHICUM, Md. — Hugh Hastings had just seen his 87-year-old mother to her flight from Baltimore-Washington International Airport back to her home in Maine when he saw a group of U.S. soldiers in their desert fatigues and combat boots. He charged straight into their midst.

“You guys coming or going? Going? Thank you,” said Mr. Hastings, 64, shaking each soldier’s hand and looking them in the eye. “Don’t think we don’t think about you. We think about you every night.”

Mr. Hastings, a Vietnam War veteran, then walked 50 yards down the concourse to thank another soldier, a young man who stood alone studying a Burger King menu for his last American meal before re-entering Iraq.

U.S. soldiers coming home from Iraq on leave or returning there attract plenty of attention at BWI. Middle-age and older men frequently walk up to them to shake their hands and thank them for their service. Teenage boys stare in awe and curiosity. A young black woman stops to talk with a black female soldier who is her age about new hairstyles. Military veterans make sure incoming soldiers are able to find their connecting flights.

Things sure have changed since Vietnam.

“I can remember being spit on, having ink thrown at me, and being called a baby killer,” said Staff Sgt. Carl Bourne, 53, a National Guardsman from Montville, Conn., who was a Marine stationed in the Philippines during the Vietnam War. “Now it’s a whole different ball game. … It’s so much different than the Vietnam time frame.”

A fellow guardsman, Staff Sgt. Michael Butterworth, 49, chimed in, “Now they support the troops. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s better than even during Desert Storm,” he said.

Both men, fathers with teenage children, were part of the group that Mr. Hastings thanked last week as they stood waiting for their flight back to Iraq after two weeks of rest and relaxation.

The soldiers were returning to Ramadi, about 60 miles west of Baghdad, to rejoin the 248th Engineers Company attached to the 82nd Airborne Division. Ramadi is located in what has been dubbed the “Sunni Triangle” where most of former dictator Saddam Hussein’s supporters live and where many of the attacks by insurgents on U.S. troops have occurred.

The military’s R&R; program began on Sept. 25 and allows soldiers and Department of Defense civilians who have been in Iraq for a year to take 15 days of leave not counting travel time. Every day almost 500 U.S. soldiers arrive in Baltimore and Atlanta for their leave, and catch connecting flights to their hometowns. Soldiers with families or family emergencies are given priority.

At BWI, soldiers arrive early in the morning and disperse to different gates, while soldiers returning to Iraq arrive near midday to wait for an evening flight. In their desert camouflage and short haircuts, they are a stark contrast to civilians going about their daily business.

“It just reminded me. … Wow. … Freedom has a cost, and they’re paying it,” said Jim Schultz, a Baltimore businessman on his way to Orlando, Fla. Mr. Schultz was one of those stopping soldiers to thank them for their service.

While civilian travelers rushed to catch flights, Sgts. Bourne and Butterworth sipped coffee and chatted about improvised explosive devices (IEDs) — artillery shells that insurgents detonate by remote control — the main weapon used in ambushes.

On the way to Baghdad to catch their flight home two weeks ago, the soldiers’ convoy was ambushed by insurgents who detonated an IED and fired at them from both sides. The soldiers returned fire until no one was firing back, they said, and then left without any Americans being injured.

Sgt. Bourne and other U.S. soldiers arriving from and returning to Iraq said they had experienced nothing but support from both strangers and friends during their time stateside.

“People look at you and say ‘Hi’ and smile,” said Sgt. Stephanie Baldwin, 20, a National Guard engineer from Plainfield, Conn., who is stationed in Ramadi.

Mr. Hastings, of Hanover, Md., served two tours in Vietnam on an Army tank crew, and has been retired for 20 years. “Nobody ever came up to me and shook my hand. I’m trying to do what I wanted people to do for me,” he said.

“That goes a long way in helping a guy. A long way,” said Mr. Hastings. “Whether the cause is right or not is immaterial. What’s material is that they’re willing to go over there. And they’re over there for a much better reason than we were.”

Laurence Driggs, 65, a retired TWA pilot and Air Force veteran, also stopped to thank soldiers.

“A lot of people say they don’t support the president or the mission, but they support the troops. Well, I support the whole thing,” he said.

Tamisa Brooks, a 27-year-old education student at the University of the District of Columbia, said veterans of the current war will not be treated like “second-class citizens,” as were Vietnam veterans.

Just after 6 a.m., Miss Brooks stopped to talk to Spc. Amanda Skaggs, 22, of Boron, Calif., and Spc. Capacine Pryor, 24, of Richmond, who had arrived from Iraq two hours earlier. Their boots, unlike those of the outgoing troops who would come later, still had Iraqi dirt on them, and the two female soldiers looked dazed from their long flight.

Spc. Skaggs’ skateboard, which she lugged from Iraq, sat on top of her duffel bag. Airline passengers studied the soldiers as their long line snaked past their Starbucks table.

“I see everybody in this line. I wonder what their thoughts are,” said Spc. Pryor. “I don’t think they understand the reality of what’s going on.”

Miss Brooks, who was catching a flight to New Orleans, tried to understand. She and Spc. Pryor talked about their children. Spc. Pryor had not seen her 3-year-old son since April.

“My inspiration every day is to get home to my child. I don’t care what other people think,” Spc. Pryor said.

Miss Brooks, who has a 4-year-old daughter, could not imagine the separation. “That would kill me. … My daughter’s been crying because I’m leaving for three days,” she said.

After saying goodbye to the two soldiers, Miss Brooks said, “I’m impressed with their integrity and their strength.”


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