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Soldiers, families not alone after deployment

FORT BENNING, Ga. — When Soldiers returning from deployment exit the aircraft at Lawson Army Airfield and march through the doors into Freedom Hall, their families aren’t the only people they see.

The USO, American Red Cross, Operation Homefront Georgia, and Association of the United States Army are among the community support organizations that rally every time there’s a troop movement through the Fort Benning terminal. Primarily made up of volunteers, the nonprofit groups offer everything from free candy, coffee and doughnuts to coloring books, U.S. flags and the occasional hug.

“Those are the big players we normally have out here,” said Mr. Steve Hesler, vice president of programs for the Chattahoochee Valley/Fort Benning chapter of AUSA and a Red Cross volunteer. “In AUSA, we’re a lot of retired military guys. We served, and we’re continuing to serve. These other folks do it because they know the families have given so much This is a reflection of the community saying ‘thanks’ for sending your husbands, wives, sons and daughters into harm’s way over there to defend our freedom.”

AUSA acts as an umbrella outfit for the different community groups, coordinating efforts with units and seeking out volunteers from local businesses, he said. This occurs at each homecoming or deployment, including the weekly rotations handled by the CONUS Replacement Center.

The 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team is sending its Soldiers home after a yearlong deployment to Iraq. The unit’s advance party returned in mid-August, and several more flights have arrived in the past two weeks.

Mr. Hesler said AUSA and the other organizations don’t want companies selling items to family members waiting at Freedom Hall. They all rely on donations, but rarely does he have trouble finding people to give money or time.

“It’s heartwarming when you ask and these groups say, ‘OK, when should I be there?’” he said.

On Friday and Saturday evenings, AUSA arranged for about 75 pizzas to be delivered to dozens of families at Freedom Hall ahead of 3rd HBCT return celebrations. The Red Cross also handed out fruit, brownies and other snacks.

Ms. Linda Rias, a Red Cross staff member, said taking care of Soldiers’ loved ones is a major focus. Some families drive in from all over the country and even sleep in their vehicles to offset transportation costs, she said.

“This is a way to show our appreciation for the sacrifices they’ve made,” she said. “The Red Cross was born on the battlefield. This is part of our mission. We love doing it.”

The USO gives out care packages to Soldiers and other Department of Defense personnel during deployments, said Ms. Brandi Smith, the area organization’s activities director and volunteer coordinator. Items available to family members at a homecoming include candy, magazines and American flags.

“We do whatever we can,” she said. “Sometimes, people forget that service member is somebody’s child, or father or mother — somebody loves ‘em somewhere. If we can make things easier for them after what they do for us, we’ll do it.”

Glenwood junior Katie Warr was among three students from the Phenix City school who turned out Friday to read to and color with the kids of Soldiers returning from the desert.

“We came out here to entertain them through this stretch right here and to greet the Soldiers,” Warr said. “We’re very involved in volunteer work. I want to work overseas in the mission field. This is a great program for me to start in.”

Ms. Danise Barry and her daughter, Lauren, make the drive from metro Atlanta to set up the Operation Homefront Georgia booth. She’s been a volunteer with the group for the past five years.

“We are continuously doing events every day and raising money, and that’s good,” Ms. Barry said. “But being with families and giving little things like crayons to the kids is just as important. Morale is such a big thing.

“We talk to them and offer support, try to ease their minds. As a volunteer, I feel I get much more out of this than they do.”

The support organizations often provide emergency assistance and grants to Soldiers and families in times of crisis and work to aid wounded warriors when they return home.

Ms. Lakeisha Todman was waiting Friday at Freedom Hall for her husband, SPC Ejahama Todman — while looking after the couple’s 5-month-old baby, Cristian. She said the family readiness group helped out and kept her informed during the deployment.

“Until I became a military spouse, I had no idea how many programs were out there,” she said. “When I went over there to get pizza, I thought I had to pay for it. I didn’t know they did this much.”

After formation breaks apart and families rush toward their Soldier, the Red Cross volunteers have one more mission: the HUGGEX, Mr. Hesler said. They’ll stand off to the side and pick out the young men and women who don’t have anyone there to share in the reunion.

“The single Soldiers with no one here are not hard to spot,” he said. “They’re kinda down, and everyone else is feeling the love. The Red Cross ladies will rush over and hug them. They’re the ones who don’t have family or a girlfriend or boyfriend to greet ‘em. But we want to thank the kids for what they did, too.”