A Heartfelt Welcome for Returning Troops
Wednesday, June 06, 2012
By Malini Wilkes
It’s a long way home from the battlefield.
The trip often starts with a helicopter ride from a combat outpost in Afghanistan or Iraq to one of the major airfields like Bagram or Camp Victory. Then you squeeze into the belly of a cargo plane for a flight to Kuwait, spend a few days camped out in a transient tent in the desert, and eventually board a plane for the final ride home – sometimes a 20-hour flight with additional stops in Europe and the U.S.
When soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division finally step off the aircraft at Fort Drum, N.Y., USO volunteer George Barton is among the first to greet them.
“All they do is thank you and thank you and thank you,” said Barton, a 61-year-old Vietnam vet, “And you try to say, ‘No, we’re thanking you. You don’t have to thank us.’”
Even after landing, the soldiers don’t get to see their families right away. They spend about four hours in a hangar, clearing customs, turning in weapons and sitting through safety and medical briefings.
Barton heads a USO team that welcomes the troops and sustains them with coffee and snacks as they go through that final phase of their deployment. He passes out toiletries and shaving kits so they can clean up for their families. He offers a smile, a handshake or a hug and sees the exhausted young men and women slowly come alive.
“They finally realize, ‘I’m home for good now. I don’t have to worry about going back tomorrow,’” says Barton. “They just perk up, and you sugar them up with all the candy and goodies, and it gives them that little bit of energy to go greet their families.”
Fort Drum recently named Barton its Installation Volunteer of the Year for helping create and expand the USO’s “There When They Land” mission. The team has welcomed more than 50 flights over the past 18 months at all hours of the day and night.
Barton uses his skills and connections from 21 years in the Air Force and 22 years with U.S. Customs to help track changing flight times, facilitate USO access to restricted areas and uncover hidden resources.
Lt. Col. Erick Sweet of the 10th Mountain Division says the USO volunteers greet every returning flight enthusiastically – whether it’s 3 a.m. or 3 p.m.
“When you get off [the plane], you’re physically and mentally and emotionally exhausted. You’re coming down from the rigors of combat. You’re excited because you’re about to see your family,” says Sweet. “No words can describe how it feels to have someone welcome you home with such sincerity, how it makes you feel that your efforts in combat are worthwhile.”
Barton’s wife Alice, also a USO volunteer, says sometimes the mood is somber. She remembers greeting a unit that lost several soldiers just before coming home.
“They were so quiet, and when they got off the plane you know something’s wrong, and you just try to sit beside them, and maybe they reach out to you and maybe they don’t,” she says. “It tears your heart right apart.”
When the Bartons are not on the flight line, they’re at the Fort Drum USO center, stocking shelves or cooking hot dogs. They spend winters in New Mexico and now volunteer three months a year at the USO in Fort Bliss, Texas.
But for George Barton, nothing compares to the privilege of welcoming a returning soldier.
“It’s probably one of the best feelings you can have, to see them come home in one piece,” he says. “You sit there and you thank them. What else can you do? You thank them for everything they’ve done.”
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Photo caption: USO Fort Drum volunteer George Barton stands ready to greet soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division as they return home from Afghanistan. (Photo credit: USO Fort Drum Staff)
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