Cheers, hugs, handshakes and smiles greeted a soldier earlier this month as he arrived at the Tyler Pounds Regional Airport, returning home from duty in Afghanistan.
What made the enthusiastic homecoming unusual was that the ranks of the greeters were filled with not only loved ones, but people he had never met.
Welcome Home Soldiers members, as they have countless times in recent years, came to roll out the patriotic red carpet for a returned armed services member.
Tyler resident and Welcome Home Soldiers founder Anne DeLaet, 73, and her fellow members sport red, white and blue and carry American flags when they greet the military men and women coming home or visiting the Tyler-Longview area.
Once a soldier’s family invites the group to turn out, Ms. DeLaet has a network of 500 volunteers to tap into via e-mail. The typical turnout is between 30 and 50.
“Our mission is to welcome every military man and woman, who comes in the East Texas area, and let them know how much they are appreciated, and how proud of them we are,” Ms. DeLaet said. “It means a lot to have friends and family there, but it means even more to see total strangers come out to welcome you.”
They’ve welcomed home more than 900 military men and women in addition to large groups of National Guard members since the group’s start in November 2007. They go to the Tyler and Longview airports, houses, restaurants and just about anywhere the family wants them to go.
“We welcome them from anywhere in the world, they don’t have to be coming from a war zone,” Ms. DeLaet said. “We caught one man, he was almost embarrassed because he was coming from Key West.”
Not every soldier returns smiling.
“We had one young man who was wounded his first day in Afghanistan,” Ms. DeLaet said. “He was angry because he wanted to be there helping. We were there in Longview (when he returned home), and when he came through the door the look on his face told us we shouldn’t be there, but by the time he went through the flag line and shook all the hands, he got relaxed and was smiling by the time it was over. His father called and said, ‘You have no idea how much good you did him, because he knows he was appreciated. He couldn’t help being wounded the very first day.’”
Polly Morman, 65, of Tyler, is Anne DeLaet’s right-hand woman and founder of her own patriotic organization: Adopt-A-Box.
Ms. Morman and group members gather food and hygiene items, box them and mail to soldiers overseas.
She started Adopt-A-Box in 2008 after communicating with an Army soldier’s mother whose son asked her for help providing toys and supplies to children in Afghanistan.
The soldier’s mother told Ms. Morman that her son was training national police in Afghanistan. During the training, police were called to a hospital to investigate a Taliban acid attack on girls.
The soldier, and his men, gave the girls plush toy Beanie Babies, but they did not have enough for all the children.
Ms. Morman felt called to help. She went to all the Tyler Walgreens locations, bought out all of their plush toys and sent them overseas, but then she had another idea.
“It dawned on me (the soldiers) didn’t ask for anything for themselves,” she said. “So that’s when I started doing stuff for them.”
The days spent sorting the food and hygiene items, building boxes and preparing them to ship are known as packing parties.
Sometimes the packing parties are large; sometimes they are small.
Occasionally, Polly Morman and her husband, Walter Morman, 65, do it all themselves at home. Sometimes she buys things herself to put in the boxes.
At a medium-sized party on June 10, more than 50 boxes were made and sent to Army soldiers and chaplains in Afghanistan. Each soldier gets an entire box, but Ms. Morman also sends boxes to chaplains who can divide out goods to soldiers who never receive gifts or care packages from home.
Bullard resident SPC Justin Sanchez, of the 41st Infantry Division currently in Afghanistan, received one of the June boxes.
“Getting a box from Polly’s group is always a welcome site and very much enjoyed and appreciated,” Sanchez said. “It’s nice to know that someone is taking time out of their day to send something from home to me, or any soldier that they have never met. She is a special lady.
Another group complementing Welcome Home Soldiers is the Patriot Guard Riders.
Patriot Guard riders is a group mostly composed of, but not limited to, motorcycle enthusiasts, who share a deep respect for U.S. military members.
Patriot Guard Riders is a national organization with regional chapters — 11 in Texas alone. Respect is the only requirement.
Members do not have to be veterans or have military ties. Some members don’t even ride motorcycles.
The group started in 2005 after a group of cyclists in Kansas were appalled to hear about the Westboro Baptist Church members there picketing soldiers funerals.
The Patriot Guard Riders was born out a need for families to feel protected and respected at funerals, and now riders nationwide stand shoulder-to-shoulder forming flag lines at funerals for fallen soldiers and veterans.
The East Texas chapter has 1,500 members, covering missions in 35 counties.
Longview resident Shelia Manning, 54, is deputy state captain.
“People say ‘thank you’ to me, and it’s odd because when I go and stand, and when I go home at the end of the day, my heart is full,” Ms. Manning said. “I think I get more out of it than they do, but it’s not about us. When we go to these missions, we ride in, we get off, we stand, we don’t talk; the mission’s over, we get on our bikes, and we go home. We don’t expect thank-yous.” Manning said.
Rick Crabb, 57, of Waxahachie, occasionally serves missions with the East Texas group as part of a “crossing borders” program, where members can participate with other groups in the state. He said that Patriot Guard Riders is perfect for patriotic people who need an outlet.
“I’m retired Navy, and I want to feel like I’m still contributing, like I’m still participating,” Crabb said. “The smaller the town, the greater the patriotism. It’s remarkable.
“Wherever we go with the flags flying, the cars pull over, people get out and put their hands over their hearts. It’s very encouraging. People say all kinds of bad things about our country, but we see the good.”
Charlie George, 60, of Lindale, is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to her volunteer record serving military members and their families.
Ms. George is an Adopt-A-Box volunteer, a member of Welcome Home Soldiers, a Patriot Guard Rider and also a peer mentor for the Tragedy Assistance Program, a national organization that hosts a 24-hour hotline to help anybody who has lost a military loved one.
Through the peer mentor program, Ms. George is placed in contact with those who need someone to talk to about their loss. She mentors four women through phone calls, email and social media such as Facebook.
Ms. George said that military deaths can be especially hard, and extenuating circumstances where soldiers are killed overseas outside of combat can make it even harder to cope with the grief.
“Two o’clock in the morning is sometimes when it’s the hardest, and that’s part of being a mentor,” Ms. George said. “You are just available whenever they need it.”
Ms.George felt called to serve after experiencing her own grief when her husband passed away in 2007 from colon cancer and possible complications from Agent-Orange exposure.
He served just short of 20 years with the Marine Corps and completed three tours of duty in Vietnam. It wasn’t until after his death that she obtained his medical records and learned of his diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I lived with a PTSD vet for 28 years and didn’t know it,” Ms. George said. “I made so many mistakes, that it’s just vitally important to me that I help some of these women.
“The young women don’t understand what they are dealing with. Had I known, there are certain triggers that you can avoid. I feel the guilt of not knowing and doing a lot of things wrong that I can’t make up to him, so it’s just been my driving passion to try to make a difference somewhere else.”