The first bus dropped off road-weary soldiers, dressed in fatigues and heavy boots, about 3:30 a.m. Thursday at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. About 50 more buses followed in the next few hours, bringing about 2,200 troops on their way home for two-week Christmas leave from basic training at Columbia’s Fort Jackson.
During the layover at CLT, volunteers from the USO Charlotte Center and other groups greeted the soldiers cheerily, offering directions to their gates or to the second-floor balcony where they could find free breakfast or a place to nap in a cushy recliner, check email at a desktop computer, watch TV on a big-screen or charge cell phone batteries.
“Merry Christmas. Thank you for serving our country,” called Donna Grande as a stream of soldiers arrived at the lower-level baggage claim area. She and two other Charlotte volunteers with the Building Owners and Managers Association, held signs: “BOMA Appreciates Our Troops.”
They come every year for the annual Operation Victory Block Leave, also dubbed Operation Exodus by airport staff. For about eight hours Thursday, soldiers – mostly in their late teens or early 20s – filled the atrium and the concourses, turning the airport into a military outpost.
Most, like Private William Venson, 18, hadn’t slept at all the night before. But “knowing that we’re about to go home to our families keeps us awake,” said Venson, who was heading to Detroit.
He stood amid the swirl of activity, a bit overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and hospitality. “I can feel the Christmas spirit just from being here,” he said.
Adding to the celebratory feel, the “Bob & Sheri” radio show aired a few feet away. Panthers’ mascot Sir Purr, several Panthers cheerleaders, and Panthers lineman Jeff Byers posed for pictures and chatted with the troops. Republican City Councilman Andy Dulin handed out candy canes. Other volunteers offered gifts – coupons for free tacos from Salsarita’s and gift bags from the Schleich toy company – to anyone wearing camouflage.
A couple of USO volunteers stood at the top of the stairs, handing out 60-minute AT&T phone cards and offering greetings. Kimberly Howell of Charlotte said she arranged her schedule just so she could help welcome the troops at this event for the first time.
“They’re protecting us,” she said. “We couldn’t live in this country and feel safe if we didn’t have them. What we give back as volunteers is so little compared to what they give to us.”
Just beyond their welcoming point, there was plenty of free food – coffee and pumpkin bread from Starbucks, sausage biscuits from Bojangles, homemade cookies and muffins, and packaged sweets of all kinds, from M&Ms to Oreos.
“Help yourself to whatever you want, and make sure you take a little something for the plane,” said one volunteer behind a long table of goodies.
Specialist Richard Williams, one of the older soldiers at age 29, piled a plate with a sausage biscuit, cookies and a banana. “It’s been nine weeks since I ate junk food,” he said.
Williams hoped to get some sleep on his flight to Kansas City, Missouri, where he planned to surprise his parents.
“They don’t know I’m coming home,” he said. “When I signed up, I didn’t know we were going to get a break.” So he allowed his mother and father to believe he couldn’t make it home for Christmas while secretly arranging for his sister to pick him up at the airport.
He joked that his mom might be angry about the deception. “I hope she doesn’t beat me up,” he said. “I know she’s gonna start crying. Then, I’m gonna get some hugs. It will all be worth it.”
Williams wasn’t the only soldier excited about a Christmas surprise. Like him, Private Katarina Rodriguez, 20, of Casa Grande, Ariz., arrived at the Charlotte airport after 24 hours without sleep and appreciated the free food and assistance from USO volunteers. “I thought we’d have to find our own way around,” she said. “But they tell you, ‘Come here. Go there. Have all this. Just wait here.’ ”
She and her friend, Private Mariah Roberts, 19, from Pinetop, Ariz., booked seats on the same plane to Phoenix. But Roberts’ parents were expecting her, and Rodriguez’s were not. She had told her family – including seven brothers and six sisters – that she wouldn’t be home for the holiday. But when she talked to her mother by video chat recently, she changed her mind.
“I’m like, I’m going home,” she said. “I miss my mom.”
So Rodriguez found a flight and arranged for a sister to meet her at the airport. They planned to go directly to see their mother, April Callahan, at work. There the sister would deliver a bouquet of flowers with a tag: “To: April, From: Santa.” On the back, “Orders from the North Pole” give her mom military-style directions.
“On your feet. Double time to the door. Right face. Forward march. Left face. Forward march. Halt. Execute a left face.”
“Then,” said Rodriguez, smiling, “she’ll see me.”