By SB Williams

Unknown to most Atlantans, they slip in with the dawn to Hartsfield- Jackson International Airport each and every morning of the year.

“They” are some 300 to 400 young American men and women, who, in their muted camouflage suits, move like a brown current through the Atlanta airport, dazed by the bright lights and exhausted from overnight flights from Iraq or Afghanistan.

Because of stops, for some it has been a 24-hour flight. Many have urgent flight connections to make – they are not home yet. The huge airport must be navigated by bone-tired troops.

That night, hundreds more will be boarding planes having converged here to deport for the war zone. Some have long waits at the airport before departure.

As they leave the gates and enter the main area of the airport, arriving troops find a welcome station manned by dedicated volunteers of the USO (United Service Organizations), which was created by President Franklin Roosevelt during World War II by combining the YMCA, YWCA, National Catholic Community Services, Jewish Welfare Board, Traveler’s Aid and the Salvation Army into a single cohesive force.

For each soldier, the USO has a “care package” that includes a blanket, phone card, CDs, snacks and reading material. For children meeting a parent, there is a stuffed “Hero Bear.”

Military personnel with an airport wait are directed to the USO Center on the third floor of the airport atrium. Here they find a warm welcome, food, all-important telephones, television and a place to relax. The center soon gets very crowded. More space and comfortable, large stuffed chairs, TVs and computers are sorely needed.

At times family members travel with the soldier.  They need special equipment like diaper-changing tables and privacy.

The center itself is a huge operation that is multi-tasked from morning with the first arrivals and continuing throughout the day until night when the last camouflage uniform has disappeared.  It is possible for 1,000 service persons a day to have sought refuge in its small but cheerful rooms.

The USO has seen a decline in donations, especially since the beginning of the unpopular war in Iraq. Still, the USO soldiers on with more than 40,000 volunteers around the country.

In Georgia, Mary Louise Austin, who has helped train volunteers and established USO centers around the world, leads the USO. She’s been with the organization for 40 years. Her office is cramped and her computer old and cantankerous, but she is indefatigable and obviously passionate in her concern for the young men and women patiently lining up to get through the center’s door.

Her eyes light up as she tells of the many dramatic episodes that occur unexpectedly and daily at the airport center:  A soldier just in from Iraq asking for a phone to call his wife as he was frantically trying to get home for the birth of their baby.  His mother answered the phone, and Austin heard him exclaim, “What! She did?” and then he turned to her to say, “I have a son!”

Another time, a soldier stepping off the plane from Iraq wanted a bunch of flowers before meeting his girlfriend at the USO station in the main lobby.  USO volunteers got the flowers and watched as the soldier dropped to his knees and proposed to his girlfriend. She said yes.

Atlanta has many dedicated volunteers, including Bette Rose Bowers, who is famously known as the “Hug Lady.”  A volunteer through the West Point Society, she has been greeting the troops for four years.   “It is the least we can do for the men and women who serve our country, ” she said.

If you would like to make a donation – of money, food or items for the center – or volunteer with the USO, call (404) 761-8061.

Collin KelleyEditor

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.