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Weekend Pass

A Hug on the Way Home

Julia Barton

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(Julia Barton)
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The old international arrivals gate is walled off from the rest of Terminal B at DFW Airport. So most travelers never see this hall covered with banners like "Highland Village Elementary says Welcome Home!" and "God Bless Y'all." A small crowd of nervous relatives, veterans and other volunteers has been milling around, waiting for an incoming plane-load of soldiers to get through customs and claim their bags. The bugle call suddenly blasting over the loudspeakers makes it pretty obvious about when they're finally headed our way.

The soldiers are still in desert camouflage. They go down the line shaking hands. But around the corner, before they see anyone else here, they get hugs from two women waving red-white-and-blue pom-poms.

Linda Tinnerman and Constance Carman live in nearby Grand Prairie. They've been coming to the airport nearly every day for the last three years. Somewhere along the way they transformed from volunteers into icons.

"You know, after we started coming, it seemed like they were all so young," Connie Carman says. "And we have grandchildren. [The soldiers] would come and hug and us, because they were just so happy to see us. And so we said, oh we'll be the huggin' and kissin' grandmas for all of these kids."

Connie's wearing a red t-shirt that actually says "huggin and kissin grandma." She's the softer-spoken one, with silver-gray hair. Her long-time church friend and fellow widow Linda wears a matching red t-shirt. Linda's whoops pierce even the bombastic music over the speakers.

"We're a little loud sometimes," Linda laughs. "I've tried to tone myself down--but I'm just so happy when they come in, and I really want to greet them. But I've tried to tone it down a little bit because it alarms some of them."

About 120 soldiers run the gauntlet of greeters today. Ian Pounds of the 82nd Airborne Division stands outside looking a little dazed in the mild sunlight, not sure what to make of his first R&R leave.

"It's overwhelming," he says. " Just everybody clapping and stuff, it's a little too much."

I ask him his plans for his break.

You want the truth or the public relations thing?" he laughs " I'm gonna study the Bible, hang out with family, and hang out at the park also."

Or not.

"I wanna drink some beer, that's what I wanna do. That's the truth," Pounds admits, as he heads onto a shuttle bus to grab a flight to Austin, the last leg of his four-day journey from Iraq. Down the sidewalk, Sergeant Matthew Hibberd is waiting to go to Kansas City. He's been in the military for nine years, so he knows that Rest and Relaxation leave isn't always relaxing.

"You expect everything to be put on hold when you got back," Hibberd says. "As far as you're concerned, wherever home is--you're expecting that not to change. But everything does. So when you get home, it's like, 'Wow, they tore down that old place there.' Or, 'Oh, my wife dyed her hair again.' Just little things that you're not quite expecting."

Hibberd's happy to have the warm welcome when he flies into DFW Airport. And it seems like a lot of soldiers cherish the huggin and kissin grandmas. Some are on long layovers here, so the grandmas take them out to lunch or dinner. They're kind of a neutral way-station between the fraught worlds of family and military life.

"There's a lot that they're going through. And they are happy to see a grandma image when they come back--they really are," Connie Carman says. "Sometimes they will kid around with us, and sometimes they have serious things on their minds that they want to talk to us about."

Like the soldier who called his wife to pick him up from the airport, only to find out he was being divorced. Connie and Linda say they're constantly urging young soldiers not to get married while on leave, because they've seen so many of these relationships crash later.

Most of the soldiers they only see briefly, but twice: First, when they fly in, and then two-to-three weeks later just down the terminal, when they reassemble and are put back on military duty.

The soldiers line up in uniform for manifest at noon every day. A sergeant reads them a list of rules and regulations now that they're back under military law. First and foremost, no drinking in the terminal while they wait for their flight out.

It's not so festive here. Connie and Linda have stashed their pom-poms away.

They line up with a few other volunteers to say goodbye to the soldiers. They're standing in for a lot of anxious moms, like one who tracked them down to send an email later.

"She was so thankful that we were here, and could not believe that we would wrap our arms around her son, a total stranger, to send him off," Connie says.

Some of the soldiers have teddy bears--souvenirs from loved ones--strapped to their military-issued backpacks. They look pre-occupied and sad. Handshakes and hugs seem like a choreographed consolation in the face of casualties, extended deployments, or the isolation of life on base. But no one turns them down.

"Sweetheart, can grandma get a hug?" Connie asks over and over.

"Aw, yes you can, thank you," says one soldier, and gives her a big embrace.

  • Music Bridge:
    Artist: Swod
    CD: Sekunden (City Centre)
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