A soldier returning from Iraq gets a big hug from his young son Saturday at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.


Four VetDogs in training were on hand to greet soldiers returning home from Iraq Saturday.


A Soldier Returns Home


By DONNA HUNT/Herald Democrat

           Saturday was a special day for the Hunt family and at least 150 other families across the country. A military plane brought 151 soldiers into Dallas-Fort Worth Airport on their way home for a 15-day leave from their duties in Iraq.

            On hand to welcome E-3 (soon to be E-4) Casey Hunt home was his mom, Vicky Weaver, sister, Nicole Hunt and nephew, Dakota, all of Durant, and of course this writer, his grandmother of Denison.

            Excitement began building more than an hour before the plane arrived from Atlanta, GA, by way of Munich, Germany and by the time the plane arrived, the USO’s greeting room was filled with family members, VetDogs and their trainers, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and others who find pleasure in saying “Welcome Home” to their heroes.

            A call to the USO Saturday morning told us that the plane was expected at 10:45 a.m. We had earlier been told it was to arrive at 11:50 a.m. It was about 8 a.m. when we learned of the arrival time change and the rest of his family was still in Durant. As we all ran out the door to face the grueling Highway 121 traffic to D-FW, we decided to meet on Highway 75 to drive to together. By then it was 9 a.m. and frankly, I was worried we wouldn’t get there in time.

            Then the cell phone rang and Casey said that they still were in Atlanta. We breathed a sigh of relief and driving became a lot easier. When we arrived at the airport we were told they were expected about 11:40 a.m., but it was after 12 o’clock before the plane touched down. By then the room was filled.

            Posters made by youngsters and adults in the Dallas-Fort Worth area lined the large room and balloons printed with “Our Heroes,” “Welcome Home,” and lots of other wonderful messages decorated the room. Baskets of cookies were provided by the USO and everyone was anxious for the announcement that the plane had arrived.

            When we first arrived we spoke with four Dallas ladies dressed in red, white and blue and holding American flags. These ladies didn’t know anyone on the flight, but are members of the William Bennett Fan Club. Bennett, former Education director, has a radio program that the women listen to regularly. They get together once a month and go somewhere and one decided that greeting the returning military was the place to go this month.

            Next we sat next to the Mike Copelands of Colbert, whose son, Chris, was coming home on leave too. Chris Copeland, a medic, is stationed with Casey at Camp Bucca near Umm Qasar in Southern Iraq in what is supposed to be a “Green Zone.” Both are with the Oklahoma National Guard as part of the 180th Infantry Brigade, 45th Division.

            Chris’ parents represented his family since Chris’ wife, Larissa was busy receiving her degree at Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant.

            Casey, an MP (Military Police) is helping guard Camp Bucca where hundreds of Iraqi prisoners are detained in a compound. He went to Iraq earlier this year and had been housed in a huge tent until last week when he and others moved into barracks with four to a room when others rotated home as their deployment ended. Life got a lot better with that move.

            The surprise on the returning men’s and women’s faces as they turned the corner into the USO welcome center was something to see. Family members were given preference in the welcoming line so that they could greet their returning soldiers as they entered the room.

            Standing next to us were a set of parents, a very pregnant wife and a son who looked to be about two years old. When “daddy” rounded the corner and the family screamed, the baby began reaching for his daddy, who also had tears in his eyes. The baby grabbed him around the neck and wouldn’t let got.

            Standing on the other side was a young woman from San Antonio, who started driving at 3 p.m. to get to Dallas rather than wait for her husband to catch another flight to go to San Antonio. She said they were married the Saturday before he left on Thursday and that was nine months ago. Needless to say she was excited.

            With camera poised, I waited to see our familiar face round the corner and when he did I hardly recognized the young man who was more like an older boy when he left. His mother saw him first, and grabbed him around the neck for what seemed like minutes before she turned loose for the rest of us to welcome him home.

            A tunnel was formed by the crowd as soldiers and families walked through the room to the sound of military marching music to head back to their homes. All along the way hands were held out to touch the soldiers and kind words were issued and flags were waving. It was an awesome sight that I wish everyone would have an opportunity to witness and participate in. There were very few dry eyes.

            Before the plane arrived there were four black four-legged welcomers on hand that drew the attention of the crowd and posed for photographers, including this one.

            The guys were Labrador Retrievers wearing jackets noting that they were guidedogs in training. Each also had on a red, white and blue bandana. Holding their leashes were men and women wearing t-shirts designating them members of America’s VetDogs, Veteran’s K-9 Corps.

            One who drew special attention was a three months old pup who had been in training for only two weeks, but acted far beyond his age and training period.. His trainer said that she would have him about a year before he is placed with a veteran needing his service.

            I ask another young trainer with one of the beautiful dogs if it was hard to give them up at the end of their training. He said “Liberty” was the fifth dog that he has trained and “yes, it was really hard to see them go.” Knowing where they are going and what they will be doing makes the pain go away though.

            No doubt the animals are taken to the USO’s Welcome Home Center to help get them accustomed to crowds and noise. There was plenty of both in Dallas Saturday, but the dogs were part of the crowd and wagged their tails to offer their own welcomes.
The VetDogs project is a new program from the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind. I found lots of information about the project and how to become a part of it or how to receive a guide dog on the Internet by simply calling up VetDogs. You also can find the information at www.guidedog.org/Vetdogs.

Yes, Saturday was an exciting day for many soldiers’ families. There is only one day that will be more exciting and that’s when the heroes return home to stay.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at d.hunt_903@yahoo.com.


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