Bob Rankin of New Market, right, greets returning soldiers… (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy…)
He dragged his camouflage duffel down the long, sterile corridor, thinking only of getting a shower, a chance to stretch his legs, the moment he'd see his family again.
Cmdr. Eddie Ha had been in Baghdad for nine months as part of the Iraq war effort, and the flight from Ramstein Air Base in Germany - the third leg in a two-day journey - had taken eight hours. His shoulders slumped.
Then he heard the roars.
As Ha, 39, of San Diego, stepped through double doors into International Baggage Claim at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, he found himself amidst 150 cheering, clapping strangers. Many waved U.S. flags. "God Bless America and Those Who Protect It" screamed the words on a poster in red, white and blue. And his eyes grew wider as he made his way down a 100-foot receiving line, swatting palms, bumping fists and acknowledging every "thank you" and "welcome home, brother."
"I'd like to thank all of them," said an evidently still startled Ha just before hugging his teary-eyed mother, Gullan Kass of Annapolis, at the end of the line.
Four decades ago, American fighting men and women returning from an unpopular war in Vietnam were infamously greeted by curses, catcalls and worse. Now, an organization with roots in Anne Arundel County is doing its best to ensure no such indignities happen again.
"We want these men and women to know they were missed and that they're our heroes," says Kathy Thorpe of Arnold, a captain in the Naval Reserve who founded Operation Welcome Home Maryland in March of 2007 and serves as a team leader in the growing organization.
Over the past 32 months, Operation Welcome Home has greeted more than 75,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen as they returned to U.S. soil at BWI, the most frequently used point of entry for troops coming back from Iraq, Afghanistan and other locations overseas.
As of last week, the all-volunteer organization had welcomed 176 flights with 36,340 passengers this year.
"When you see these young men and women arrive here, often with tears in their eyes - well, this is a very addictive hobby," says Chip Flowers of Sunshine in Montgomery County, one of the group's team leaders. "It's the least we can do, to thank these troops in person."
Flowers and more than 70 compatriots did just that Tuesday afternoon, offering 240 returning servicemen and women smiles, tears, pats on the back, gift bags full of snacks, help with luggage and directions and best wishes for a happy Thanksgiving as they returned to their homeland.
The other 80 greeters were family and friends, people who had come from as far away as New Jersey, Alabama and Texas to be there when their loved ones returned.
'He's my hero'
Leland and Sallie Blank of Austin, Texas, looked downright nervous, standing opposite the double doors with their daughter, Allison McKay of Springfield, Va.
McKay's husband, Lt. Cmdr. Joshua McKay, has been at Camp Victory near Baghdad since mid-April, and he was due to step through the doors shortly.
He has kept in touch with his three children - Grace, 8, Ben, 5, and Abbie, 3 - by Webcam, but nothing compares to personal contact.
"Welcome Home, Daddy! Your The Greatest!" read a handmade sign Grace holds up. "He's my hero," she says.
Such emotion gave birth to Operation Welcome Home Maryland. Still on active duty, Thorpe was with Total Force Support at the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in Washington, where her job was to select medical personnel for six-month deployments to EMF Kuwait, a medical hospital.
"Having to 'tag' people, and knowing the sacrifice they have to make with their families to go overseas, is a humbling place to be," she says. "It was emotional."
Thorpe e-mailed others in her command and spread the word among friends that she wanted to have a welcome home. About 40 people joined her, and the welcome home dissolved into a sobfest.
Word spread as Thorpe contacted a variety of community groups including churches and schools, and as word of mouth about the events grew, so did Operation Welcome Home Maryland.
Over the next few weeks, Thorpe kept in touch with Air Mobility Command at BWI, apprising people through a growing e-mail list of the dates and times of incoming flights. At first, they just made as many as they could. Last December, the organization finally greeted every flight coming into BWI, two to three per week, and it continues to maintain that pace.
Today, 17 group leaders pair off to organize the events in a rotation system. The e-mail list contains nearly 2,000 names, and Operation Welcome Home Maryland funnels its announcements through houses of worship, Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, schools and other organizations as well as maintaining a 24-hour hot line.
"We've developed a more efficient working model," says Thorpe.