The celebration was boisterous but bittersweet, on the last day of DFW Airport’s Welcome Home A Hero program. KERA’s Bill Zeeble reports that after eight years, the program is ending because fewer troops are returning to the states for some R&R.
They’ve done this thousands of times before since the program began in 2004. Dedicated volunteers - this time hundreds and hundreds of them - lined up outside Gate 20 in Terminal D. Some wore red, white and blue. Others held little American flags, or cookies and candy as gifts. Veterans in wheelchairs strategically sat where the soldiers would emerge. As patriotic music played in the background, they waited to thank and greet soldiers returning home for R and R. And when they emerged, the crowd erupted. Colonel Michael Zick, Wing Commander of the 386th Air Expeditionary in South Asia, has been through here before.
Zick: Every time I’ve come back through here, unfortunately, this isn’t my first time, there’s always been an outpouring of just love, affection and support. I can’t say enough about what they do each and every time soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, coast guardsmen come through here.
The Welcome Home A Hero crowds aren’t always this big, but they’ve always been here when troops return. Officials say there’s nothing like this anywhere. Family members, like Charleen Sprabary, are grateful. With two teenage daughters, she’s waiting for her husband’s return from Afghanistan.
Troops being greeted by 'Welcome Home A Hero' at DFW Airport
Charleen Sprabary: It’s been wonderful that the USO and the entire DFW community has stepped up for so many years to welcome home the soldiers. And I know it’s really meant a lot to them. I think we’ve come so far since the Vietnam era that just to see this number of people coming out is just amazing.
Harvey Jones is one of those Vietnam War Veterans. He’s here with his children and grandchildren to offer these soldiers the welcome he never received decades ago.
Jones: We had no welcome at all. Vietnam veterans were very unappreciated. That’s one of the greatest things I’ve seen in America in the last 10 years, probably since 9-11 is that we’ve come to appreciate our troops.
Jones loves these Welcome Home A Hero events. So does Salvatore Giunta. Years before he won his Medal of Honor for extraordinary heroism in Afghanistan, he came through DFW Airport for R&R.
Giunta: And I didn’t’ know what to expect. And I walked through those doors and came out into a room filled with people on a week day, in the middle of the day, standing there with cell phones ready for you to use them. They would give you the shirt off your back if you asked for it. That was my first experience with this. I felt like a true hero walking through those doors.
Ret Stansberger hoped troops would feel that way when she came up with this idea years ago. She says it grew way beyond whatever she imagined.
Stansberger: And it was that everyone you went to said yes. There wasn’t anyone who said, “Mmm, let me think about this.” It shows the heart in our area. It shows what the people that live here are all about.
For eight years, some 10,000 North Texas volunteers felt it their honor and privilege to welcome home nearly half a million incoming troops. As one 15 year-old in the crowd said, it’s really cool that people who don’t even have family members overseas come out to support all the families that do. With fewer soldiers deployed, Atlanta now becomes the sole airport for troops returning for R&R. DFW maintains its USO Center for active duty and retired military and authorized family members.