IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

'Welcome Home' program for soldiers comes to an end

By Charles Hadlock
NBC News

DALLAS --  A volunteer program that has welcomed home thousands of U.S. soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan at the Dallas-Fort Worth International airport has come to an end.  The last flight bringing soldiers home for two weeks of rest and recuperation landed Wednesday, greeted by a cheering crowd. 

As the drawdown of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan continues, the military is consolidating future R&R flights to the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where the general public will not have access to greet returning soldiers.

The end of the flights is bittersweet for Donna Cranston, the volunteer coordinator for DFW’s “Welcome Home a Hero” program.

“These troops are sacrificing and serving for us and I want them to know we are grateful,” said Cranston.  “The other side is, it means we don’t have as many troops that are deployed.  And that’s a good thing.”

Every day for the last nine years, a sort of patriotic flash mob has gathered at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.  Like clockwork, people from all over north Texas arrived at Gate B23 carrying signs, banners, balloons and, of course, American flags.

They stood quietly in a line near baggage claim until they saw the first soldiers emerge from their long plane ride from Iraq or Afghanistan.

Suddenly, the crowd erupted into applause and cheers.  A boom box played John Philip Sousa marching music.  The soldiers, who were still bleary-eyed from a 24-hour flight, seemed pleasantly stunned by it all.

Volunteers have welcomed home soldiers from each of the 2,700 chartered R&R flights since the very first one on Nov. 2, 2003.  The airport estimates that 920,000 soldiers have been personally greeted by volunteers.   The flight arrival times varied day by day and so did the number of volunteers who greeted each flight.  Sometimes there were as few as 30 greeters; sometimes there were more than 300.

Sgt. Hank Slaughter, 47, who returned from Kuwait earlier this month after serving in Iraq, smiled and shook hands with each of the 50 strangers who had come to greet his flight.

“This is great.  This is definitely more than I expected to see,” said Slaughter.

When Slaughter mentioned that he didn’t have a ride to his home, volunteer Pat Brown, 80, offered to take him.  “He’s from Fort Worth and I’m from Fort Worth, so I’m going to take him home,” Brown said, laughing.

Brown has been cheering soldiers at the airport every week for six years.  If she missed a week, she’d make it up by going twice the next week.

“It makes you feel great,” said Brown.  “I feel like it’s a blessing that I live here where it’s happening. They don’t do this anyplace else like this.”

DFW International Airport made it easy for the volunteers, providing them space and free parking each day.

“I’ve never met a more giving people in my life,” Jim Crites, executive vice president of operations at DFW, said of the volunteers.  “What they do is from the heart.  What they’ve given is off the charts.  This is what America is all about.”

Tom Downey, 71, arrived each day at the airport with flowers.  He would hand each female soldier a red or yellow rose.  “Many of these soldiers haven’t smelled flowers in months,” Downey said.  “You have to look at their faces.  There was one colonel who lifted me off my feet she was so surprised.”

Adam Sage came to surprise his fiancé, who was arriving on one of the last flights. Just a few months before, Sage had experienced the same welcome home greeting when he returned from Iraq.

“People just honestly don’t know what it means to all the soldiers who come back, especially single ones who don’t have a lot of family here,” Sage said.  “It means the world to them.”