Homecoming Central

At BWI, where soldiers arrive on leave from Iraq, families aren't the only ones waiting to say welcome - - and thanks

October 09, 2003|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

The soldiers come through the frosted glass doors behind the U.S. Customs agents and spread out through Baltimore-Washington International Airport, bound for flights to Austin, Chicago, Denver, New York, San Diego and all points in between.

And every time another appears, someone cheers.

While airports have always been the site of homecomings, not since the Vietnam War have so many servicemen returned on furlough, and at such a pace. They arrive every day at BWI, as early as 6, as late as midnight.

When they left, there was no guarantee of a reunion, nothing that said they would make it this far. Fifteen days of R&R lie ahead, and then the uncertainty of the war in Iraq looms again. But for now, one thing is guaranteed.

At any time, on any day, there's someone waiting with a welcome home - sometimes even a stranger.

The veteran of World War II and Korea is easy to spot in the throng of people who fill the atrium for arriving flights late Monday afternoon. He wears a white, button-down shirt, a navy tie, a Veteran of Foreign Wars cap; he holds a stack of phone cards in his age-spotted hands.

When the doors open and the crowd cheers at the sight of a soldier in desert camouflage, the veteran, Raymond Shipley, steps forward. Along with three other volunteers - two Vietnam veterans and one of their wives - Shipley aims to make sure each arriving soldier receives a card to phone his or her relatives - for free - and say he or she has landed safely.

What Shipley does is a little thing, he says, but the least he can do to thank these soldiers for their service.

Shipley, commander of the Maryland Veterans of Foreign Wars, has come to BWI from Bowie almost every day since soldiers began arriving on R&R flights from the Middle East on Sept. 26.

He didn't have a face at the dock waiting for him in San Francisco when he came home on leave as an infantryman in the 1940s. There were no television crews, no veterans distributing phone cards for that matter, either. It was just the USO and the Red Cross handing out coffee and doughnuts.

The U.S. Army gave him $64, and the Greyhound ticket to Baltimore cost $63. He got lucky when the bus stopped in Reno, Nev., and the silver dollar he dropped into a slot machine turned up two cherries and $20 - twice.

Shipley, who is 75, has been surprised by much of what he has seen here at Homecoming Central: the gear soldiers carry, their "baby faces," the number of women in uniform.

The one thing that hasn't changed since Shipley went on leave is the emotion that surfaces with each arriving flight. He knows from experience why these men and women come through the doors smiling, regardless of how tired or hungry they are. Some wave. Some blush at the attention. Some throw their arms in the air.

They walk in this old soldier's footsteps, and every one makes him proud.

Waiting in the wings

Early on a Saturday morning, the airport is empty and quiet compared with other days. Business is slow enough that noise from the arrivals floor attracts the attention of ticket agents on the departures floor. They wander to the railing to see what's happening down below.

When they see soldiers coming home from Iraq, they clap. Curious travelers join them, drawn by the drama of families reuniting. A few ticket agents and travelers will stay at the rail until the doors close, to clap for the last soldier off the plane, to make sure she, too, is welcomed.

The first family to arrive in the waiting area last Saturday morning had been there three days before. The family of Spc. Michael Fisher - his mother, stepfather, in-laws, wife, and the 7-week-old daughter he hasn't yet met - had come down from Lancaster, Pa., and waited 10 hours last Wednesday before returning home disappointed.

Two days later, on Friday night, Fisher called his wife, Jon-Anne, and said he was finally on his way: He would be at BWI at 7:30 Saturday morning. Then he told her his unit was in a convoy en route to Kuwait when a soldier was killed. The soldier had been going on leave, Fisher said, like him.

Fisher's family got up the next morning before 5 a.m. and drove back to BWI. The benches around them filled as they waited. Other families brought red, white and blue balloons, small American flags on sticks and homemade signs: "We love you, Daddy!" and "Freedom Isn't Free: Thanks, Mikey!"

The Fisher family passed the time looking at the mural on the wall, a painting of the bombardment of Fort McHenry, and walking around. They glanced at the replicas of historic documents - President George Washington's inaugural address, the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation - on display behind the glass.

They talked about ordering pizza, Fisher's favorite food; how he'd probably want to soup-up the minivan the way he'd done his Camaro; how he'd never changed a diaper.

And they waited.

They predicted Fisher, who is 23 and has been working at checkpoints and walking night patrols in Baghdad, would cry when he saw little Sofie and held her for the first time.

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