A Hero’s Welcome

HERO'S PASSAGE A soldier receives high-fives after landing at the Military Door 37 R&R Arrival Area at the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. Photos by Hailey

Parades throughout the streets of America presented veterans returning from WWI and WWII with a hero’s welcome. Government programs sprang up to help them readjust to life back home and reward them for their sacrifices. Veterans arriving home from Vietnam, however, were greeted by benefits dramatically less than those offered in the past. They received a lack of both public and institutional support.

I consider it a privilege that our generation gets to help define the next bit of history.

While we did not (and rightly so) get a say in entering and handling the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we do get a say in how we welcome back and support the soldiers who fought in them.

Over the past 10 years, we’ve looked on as our nation has become further polarized by disagreements over the present wars. But in contrast to the negativity prevalent among the American mood, the United States still stands extraordinarily powerful, remarkably resilient. It’s a nation capable of accomplishing things no other nation could.

Take, for example, the successful endeavor of tracing Osama Bin Laden within the depths of Pakistan without losing a single American. It’s the latest reminder that provoking the United States typically doesn’t bode well, the latest reminder that we are a nation blessed with an undying faith in our belief in freedom.

Children, standing in front of the corporate sponsored signs, showcase their own handy work.

And this is thanks to a group of Americans who receive an extraordinarily deficient amount of expressed appreciation: the United States Armed Forces.

But no amount of accolades could sufficiently laud them for their service—service that is arguably even more demanding than in the past. The average soldier in WWI and WWII fought 10 days out of the year. The average soldier in Afghanistan fights about 200.

For the past few weeks now, I’ve been heading out when I can get the chance to the United Service Organizations R&R Arrival gate at DFW Airport to see these heroes for myself.

I watched a soldier rip a patch off of his sleeve as he walked out of the gate and hand it to an eagerly cheering Boy Scout. It was the soldier’s moment in the spotlight, his proud arrival into his country, yet he was thinking about the happiness of the little boy cheering him on.

I watched another soldier sidle through with a Texas Rangers blanket rolled up and fastened to his camouflage backpack. Mutters rose up on either side of him of “how ‘bout them Rangers” and “what a Texan.”

And I watched a female soldier stoop to pick up a small girl’s poster, which had slipped through the child’s fingers in her excitement. I glimpsed the letters EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) embroidered on the woman’s sleeve—it means that she’s part of a team that fearlessly approaches live explosives and disarms them to protect the lives of civilians and fellow soldiers.

Examining the scene around me, I was struck by the fact that a clear majority of the greeters were high school age or younger. Maybe it’s because the hordes of Girl Scouts and Boys Scouts wanted the “Support Our Troops” patch. Maybe it’s because high school kids need service hours. But I’m hoping it’s because our generation feels a connection to the soldiers fighting in the wars we grew up with—the wars we watched evolve as we evolved ourselves.

This holiday season, we’ll gather with friends and family to kick back and celebrate, to savor good company and good food. We’ll relish in the extra time to enjoy a few good movies and a few games of football.

But this December, let’s also take time to be thankful for the men and women who make all of this possible—the men and women who on Christmas Day, on every day really, may be sleeping on a tarp, firing at enemy lines or burying their companions.

These are men and women who, at an age as young as the seniors’, have already made the conscious decision to lay their lives on the line for us to live ours freely. I can’t imagine doing anything in the next two years that would amount to so much.

But I can imagine that this holiday season I will be thankful for sharing a nation and a home with the men and women willing to sacrifice so much for me and for my fellow Americans. I am truly proud to be an American this December.

I can also imagine that I will be making the trek several more times to DFW airport Terminal B Military Door 37 R&R Arrival area. Because being there makes me feel like I can do something, however small, to say thank you to our nation’s heroes, protectors and preservers. Because it presents an indescribably powerful experience.

And because the President promised “another season of homecomings” during the holidays, stating in a press conference that “our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year.” This December will present the final arrival home from Iraq, the culmination of homecomings, for hundreds of soldiers.

Each day through the end of the year, over 100 heroes will arrive and over 100 will depart from DFW. For exact times and gates, call the USO Support Services Hotline at (972) 574-0392.

– Hailey