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WARM WELCOME

THE BALTIMORE SUN

He dragged his camouflage duffel down the long, sterile corridor, thinking only of getting a shower, a chance to stretch his legs, the moment he'd see his family again.

Cmdr. Eddie Ha had been in Baghdad for nine months as part of the Iraq war effort, and the flight from Ramstein Air Base in Germany - the third leg in a two-day journey - had taken eight hours. His shoulders slumped.

Then he heard the roars.

As Ha, 39, of San Diego, stepped through double doors into International Baggage Claim at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, he found himself amidst 150 cheering, clapping strangers. Many waved U.S. flags. "God Bless America and Those Who Protect It" screamed the words on a poster in red, white and blue. And his eyes grew wider as he made his way down a 100-foot receiving line, swatting palms, bumping fists and acknowledging every "thank you" and "welcome home, brother."

"I'd like to thank all of them," said an evidently still startled Ha just before hugging his teary-eyed mother, Gullan Kass of Annapolis, at the end of the line.

Four decades ago, American fighting men and women returning from an unpopular war in Vietnam were infamously greeted by curses, catcalls and worse. Now, an organization with roots in Anne Arundel County is doing its best to ensure no such indignities happen again.

"We want these men and women to know they were missed and that they're our heroes," says Kathy Thorpe of Arnold, a captain in the Naval Reserve who founded Operation Welcome Home Maryland in March of 2007 and serves as a team leader in the growing organization.

Over the past 32 months, Operation Welcome Home has greeted more than 75,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen as they returned to U.S. soil at BWI, the most frequently used point of entry for troops coming back from Iraq, Afghanistan and other locations overseas.

As of last week, the all-volunteer organization had welcomed 176 flights with 36,340 passengers this year.

"When you see these young men and women arrive here, often with tears in their eyes - well, this is a very addictive hobby," says Chip Flowers of Sunshine in Montgomery County, one of the group's team leaders. "It's the least we can do, to thank these troops in person."

Flowers and more than 70 compatriots did just that Tuesday afternoon, offering 240 returning servicemen and women smiles, tears, pats on the back, gift bags full of snacks, help with luggage and directions and best wishes for a happy Thanksgiving as they returned to their homeland.

The other 80 greeters were family and friends, people who had come from as far away as New Jersey, Alabama and Texas to be there when their loved ones returned.

'He's my hero'

Leland and Sallie Blank of Austin, Texas, looked downright nervous, standing opposite the double doors with their daughter, Allison McKay of Springfield, Va.

McKay's husband, Lt. Cmdr. Joshua McKay, has been at Camp Victory near Baghdad since mid-April, and he was due to step through the doors shortly.

He has kept in touch with his three children - Grace, 8, Ben, 5, and Abbie, 3 - by Webcam, but nothing compares to personal contact.

"Welcome Home, Daddy! Your The Greatest!" read a handmade sign Grace holds up. "He's my hero," she says.

Such emotion gave birth to Operation Welcome Home Maryland. Still on active duty, Thorpe was with Total Force Support at the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in Washington, where her job was to select medical personnel for six-month deployments to EMF Kuwait, a medical hospital.

"Having to 'tag' people, and knowing the sacrifice they have to make with their families to go overseas, is a humbling place to be," she says. "It was emotional."

Thorpe e-mailed others in her command and spread the word among friends that she wanted to have a welcome home. About 40 people joined her, and the welcome home dissolved into a sobfest.

Word spread as Thorpe contacted a variety of community groups including churches and schools, and as word of mouth about the events grew, so did Operation Welcome Home Maryland.

Over the next few weeks, Thorpe kept in touch with Air Mobility Command at BWI, apprising people through a growing e-mail list of the dates and times of incoming flights. At first, they just made as many as they could. Last December, the organization finally greeted every flight coming into BWI, two to three per week, and it continues to maintain that pace.

Organization, dedication

Today, 17 group leaders pair off to organize the events in a rotation system. The e-mail list contains nearly 2,000 names, and Operation Welcome Home Maryland funnels its announcements through houses of worship, Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, schools and other organizations as well as maintaining a 24-hour hot line.

"We've developed a more efficient working model," says Thorpe.

The operation depends on the dedication of members willing to arrive on short notice and spend up to six hours per event. Some are driven by powerful memories. Ken Funk, a retired Xerox executive from Pasadena, recalls the day 40 years ago when he came back from his Vietnam-era duty, an extended tour aboard a Navy submarine.

He had spent months monitoring the signals of Russian subs in the North Atlantic. All that time, he says, he thought of himself as a hero, but when he returned to Baltimore, he was greeted by cries of "Murderer!" and a taunt that still haunts him: "Kill anybody today?"

Only his mother was there to give him a proper greeting. "I don't want anybody to go through what military people [went through] back then," he says.

Other team leaders - most but not all are retirees with links to the military - have similar stories.

Flowers' uncle was spat on when he got back from Vietnam. "That kind of thing ain't happening here," he says. "Not if any of us can help it."

Organizing the events is as tricky as some military operations. BWI recently gave the group permanent use of an upstairs storage room in which to keep posters and cards (handmade by area students) and shelves of cookies, water bottles, candy packets and other materials donated by Walmart, Old Navy, Johns Hopkins and other organizations. Volunteers put the items in individual gift bags.

Team leaders arrive two hours before a plane touches down and start loading up carts. Volunteers begin filling the baggage claim area an hour later, hang dozens of posters, festoon the rope line with flags.

One team leader, Judie Ritchie of Owings Mills, takes command. Megaphone in hand, she mounts a stairwell, where she exhorts her charges to "cheer and holler as loud as you can" when the heroes come through.

"Huggers," she says, should stand at the end of the line lest they slow down anybody trying to make a connecting flight.

Funk tells of "many, many fathers" who step through those doors to greet children they've never met before. One man drove all the way from Hattiesburg, Miss., to greet his girlfriend, who was returning from Iraq. As she stepped through the doors, he fell to his knees and proposed.

"That one brought the house down," Thorpe says.

Many servicemen and women, astonished that fellow Americans come out to greet soldiers they don't personally know, take down names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses and stay in touch.

Some post thank-yous on the Operation Welcome Home Web site, which recently recorded its 100,000th hit. The stories reflect the emotional nature of a soldier's return.

"Thank you to all the people who came to BWI on 22 Jul 09 to welcome all of us home!" writes Col. Mike Kelly of Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. "After being deployed for two years, you all made me very proud of everything we'd accomplished, and we appreciate your support. After 6-plus years, your support is as strong as ever and will continue to be appreciated."

Tears and joy

On Tuesday, as always, families on hand to greet loved ones were moved to the front. They were here from Fredonia, N.Y., from Paramus, N.J., from Virginia and Washington and South Carolina.

Ha, one of the first to come through, made his way down the cheering, high-fiving gantlet like Cal Ripken after breaking a record. As more flow through, the crowd roared.

By turns, they appeared looking grim, weepy, relieved. By the time they were halfway down the line, nearly all are smiling.

McKay appeared and spotted his family. He dropped to one knee, and they engulfed him. He was expecting Allison, but not the three children.

Eventually, he broke away, took the handle of his overloaded luggage cart and started it down the line. He couldn't look up or even shake a hand. Hewas crying too hard.

The words of a familiar folk song echoed from a boom box: "This land was made for you and me," and volunteer Flowers leaned far across the rope to tell McKay something that too often went unsaid during a less appreciative time.

"Thanks for your service, man," he says. "Welcome home."

Operation Welcome Home Maryland

For schedules of coming welcomes, for other information or to make donations, go to operationwelcomehomemd.org or send an e-mail to webmaster@owhmd.org. For up-to-the-minute information on the day's incoming flight, call the 24-hour hotline at 410-630-1555.

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