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USO of Georgia Volunteers Pack Atlanta Terminal to Welcome Final R&R Flight From Afghan War

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

By Eric Brandner 

It’s the friendliest form of hunting you can imagine.

“Here comes another soldier!”

The shouts echoed through the atrium Monday at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport as a few dozen USO of Georgia volunteers and long-time staffers welcomed military passengers on the final mass inbound rest and recuperation (R&R) flight of the Afghan War.

More than 100 troops trickled up the escalator Monday afternoon. Some into the arms of loved ones. Others making a quick turn to find their connecting flight.

All were thanked – and many hugged – by well-meaning strangers.

“Today is a bittersweet day,” said USO of Georgia President Mary Lou Austin. “You see the wonderful volunteers who came out because this meant very much to them.”

Austin, who has worked at the Atlanta airport USO since it was established in 1977, estimates USO volunteers have served more than 1.3 million troops during the nine-plus years of R&R flights from the Mideast to Atlanta.

The last outbound R&R flight of the current wars left Atlanta on Saturday.

“It was a tradition we started almost 10 years ago of bringing the USO cart down here,” said Austin, who was in the thick of greeters shaking hands, giving directions to connecting flights and passing out donated Chick-fil-A coupons. “It’s been an honor and it’s been a privilege.”

As the war in Afghanistan winds down, the Department of Defense’s R&R program is moving toward individual commercial ticketing for the mid-tour leave stints. The change – which comes on the heels of the discontinuation of R&R flights to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport last year – means deployed troops can take more direct routes home, squeezing out a few extra hours with their families before heading back downrange.

While it’s the end to a significant chapter in the airport center’s history, Austin and her volunteers will stay busy.

The airport center coordinates and hosts Operation Holiday Block Leave for troops based at Fort Benning and Fort Gordon in Georgia and Fort Jackson, S.C. It participates in customized Operation Enduring Care programming like the Feb. 1 River Dinner Cruise for the warrior transition battalions at Benning, Gordon and Fort Stewart, Ga., assistance for families of the fallen in transit (one such family was escorted through the airport Monday), USO/Hire Heroes USA workshops and sponsorships for children from military families to attend camps conducted by USO partner organization TAPS.

There’s also the traditional USO hospitality, like free drinks and snacks for troops and families in transit and free tickets to local sports and entertainment events when donated seats are available.

The Atlanta airport USO is also the first step in the military careers of many young troops. New enlistees reporting for basic training at Benning and Jackson walk into the center daily asking for directions to catch the bus to basic training.

“Each and every night, we have new enlistees who come from all over the world to await transportation to training,” Austin said. “What happens 14 weeks later is unbelievable. The buses unload them and we have brand new soldiers that head to the USO.

“We are not going to be lacking for any type of military population [at the airport center].”

* * *

Photo caption: USO volunteer greets a soldier at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Monday. The final mass rest and recuperation flight of the Afghan War arrived in Atlanta on Monday, marking the end of an era for the USO there. (USO photo by Mike Clifton) 

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