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Airport Volunteers Give Warm R&R Welcome

November 14, 2003

LINTHICUM, Md. (AP) _ The young soldiers arriving from Iraq for two weeks’ R&R have become a familiar sight at Baltimore-Washington International Airport since the military launched its leave program Sept. 26.

Equally familiar are the volunteers from the USO and veteran’s organizations who are there to greet the soldiers.

The soldiers land in groups of 200, usually after a grueling 16-hour flight. They arrive dressed in sandy-colored desert fatigues with huge knapsacks on their backs. Some are with a buddy, but most wind up sitting alone, looking very tired, confused and anxious.

The volunteers arrive solo or in pairs, wearing jackets, vests or caps identifying their organization. Generally two generations removed, the volunteers bustle about the lonely soldiers like loving grandparents, offering coffee, advice and a smile.

``When the first flight came in, we looked at each other and said ’My God, they’re babies,‴ said Richard Udoff, 72, of Owings Mills.

Udoff, a VFW district commander, felt moved to come down by the memory of how he felt as a young soldier in 1949.

``You know, at our post meetings and district meetings, guys are saying: `Nobody did anything for me after World War II or Korea or Vietnam,‴ Udoff said. ``And I say, ’Isn’t that the point?‴

The Pentagon launched the R&R rotation program, the largest since the Vietnam War, this summer. Baltimore’s airport, already a major military gateway for troops stationed overseas, handles two flights a day _ one arriving and one departing. Volunteers have met every flight.

Adrienne Trout, director of the USO International Gateway Lounge, said volunteers have logged over 1,600 hours since October. Early in the program, they had so many volunteers she had to place them on a waiting list.

``They’ve really stepped to the plate,″ she said.

The USO lounge, built in 1999, offers a 60-inch television screen, usually tuned to a sports channel. It has a sleeping room, Internet connections and telephones. Volunteers have donated coffee and doughnuts. A nearby motel offers soldiers a place to shower and nap.

``It makes me feel good to get out here. I feel we do a lot of good,″ said Raymond Shipley, 75, the state VFW commander. ``Anything we can do to make their time here more pleasant, we’re glad to do. I hate to see them going back though. They ought to be home, falling in love or helping with the chores instead of going back to war.″

Many of the soldiers passing through the airport Tuesday said they are grateful for the attention _ especially after the weekend attack that downed a military helicopter, killing 15 and wounding 20.

``I think they’re wonderful _ it made me want to cry,″ said Specialist Amanda Veech, 21, of the 123rd Military Support Battalion. ``This is the first time I’ve been in the states for two years and just seeing them smile at me was special.″

Veech said she was just boarding a military transport plane in Iraq for her trip home when she heard about the tragedy.

``This war brings you closer to people _ the people you work with and to your family. I never felt very close to my family until I got deployed,″ said Veech, who said she planned to visit her mother in Pennsylvania and her father in Illinois. ``Now, we’re closer than ever.″

Brenda Holmes, 21, a private from Philadelphia who was rejoining her unit, the 69th Chemical Battalion, said the attack made her think twice about boarding a plane.

``Every day, people die,″ she said. ``I really didn’t want to go back.″

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