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US airport volunteers welcome troops on holiday

 USO volunteer Pat Solomon, right, of Sandy Springs, Ga., greets U.S. Marine Pfc. Sean Gable, 19, of Perry, Ga., as he comes home for the Thanksgiving...
 USO volunteer Pat Solomon, right, of Sandy Springs, Ga., greets U.S. Army Pfc. Damien Snow, 20, of Rochester, N.Y., as he returns to his base at Fort...

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USO volunteer Pat Solomon, right, of Sandy Springs, Ga., greets U.S. Marine Pfc. Sean Gable, 19, of Perry, Ga., as he comes home for the Thanksgiving...

Troops Banner

USO volunteer Pat Solomon, right, of Sandy Springs, Ga., greets U.S. Army Pfc. Damien Snow, 20, of Rochester, N.Y., as he returns to his base at Fort...

Several times a month, Pat Solomon spends a few hours with the crowd at the top of the escalator where all arriving passengers emerge at the Atlanta airport. She's looking for strangers in uniform.
In eyeglasses decorated with American flags, she's ready to applaud and hug some of the thousands of soldiers, Marines and other service members who pass through the world's busiest airport each week.
"I grab `em and say, `Welcome to America!'" Solomon said. "I just feel such a connection with them. I want to tell them how I feel."
Solomon and her fellow volunteers at the United Services Organization can expect to get busier. Last month, President Barack Obama announced that after nearly a decade, the war in Iraq would be over by year's end and that all U.S. troops "will definitely be home for the holidays" _ meaning nearly 40,000 are returning home to their families over the next several weeks.
Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport already sees more than 250,000 service members each year returning or heading to deployments across the globe, headed to or from basic training or just passing through.
Each day, as many as a couple dozen volunteers stand in a crowd that includes family members and airport employees holding signs and flags. On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, there were about 100 in all.
Army Reserve Sgt. 1st Class Charles Crouchman nearly teared up as he arrived to their cheers and applause. It was a warm welcome after seven months in Afghanistan. After clearing customs, he headed for the USO, where he was grateful to be able to call his wife and daughter in New York for free.
"You always know with the USO, you've got a phone to use, Internet to use, a place to sit down and relax or watch a movie," Crouchman said. "That's a blessing."
The clapping volunteers and other amenities started in 2003 when the USO began its "Operation R&R" program, which serves U.S. military personnel going to and from Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait. The program's other location, at an airport in Dallas, is scheduled to end early next year.
Troops passing through the USO on Tuesday were greeted with turkey and chili dogs. The USO also provides free Wi-Fi, a children's play area, a sleeping and computer room, a television room with theater-style seating, job listings, toiletries and care packages for troops headed back into the field.
USO Council of Georgia President and Chief Executive Officer Mary Lou Austin said people are eager to volunteer during the holidays. The USO Council of Georgia moved to its location at the airport in 1976 and has over 900 volunteers.
"It's another way for people to show their appreciation for those that have been serving," she said. "People fight to come on holidays. So many people pay attention to the spirit of giving. It's a nice gesture as a gift, of saying thank-you."
Back at the escalator, Solomon watched excitedly for uniforms.
"There's nothing like it, and I never feel better than when I'm out here," Solomon said. "Being able just to give something back to these men and women. ... They're coming home. I'm terribly excited."
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Updated : 2021-10-18 03:51 GMT+08:00