President Barack Obama’s arrival in Rochester yesterday was unexpected, and so was the arrival of several local soldiers returning from Afghanistan.
People found out that the President was coming to Rochester when they tried to use Interstate 490 East and realized that the entire highway was closed in that direction and that every overpass was guarded by a State Trooper.
People found out about the local soldiers would be returning from Afghanistan because they got an email yesterday afternoon.
The Veterans Outreach Center’s Operation Welcome Home program arranges an organized greeting, with cheering people carrying hand-made welcome home signs and waving American flags for the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines returning home to Rochester from Iraq and Afghanistan.
About 100 people greeted Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 David W. Rogers, Jr. and Sergeant. Joseph P. Morice when they finally arrived at the Rochester International Airport last night, after their flight had been delayed for more than an hour.
Rogers is a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter pilot; Morice is an Aviation Operations Specialist, based at the New York Army National Guard’s Army Aviation Support Facility at Rochester International Airport.
Rogers’ wife, Lori, was there waiting with their three children, including their infant daughter who Rogers had never seen. She was born after Rogers deployed to Afghanistan. Rogers was scheduled to arrive at 7:34 PM, but his flight from Chicago was delayed, and Lori paced up and down holding the baby and talking to the other members of Rogers’ family.
One of the home-made signs read “”I’ve waited my whole life to meet you Dad!”
Morice’s family and friends were there to greet him too, and the two groups mixed while they waited.
The people in the welcoming committee started gathering about 6:45 PM, and two Vietnam Veterans who are members of the Patriot Guard, Tom Reichardt and Walt Gurney, were the first people to arrive.
It was a diverse crowd. There were about a dozen gray-haired Vietnam Veterans and an equal number of young Iraq and Afghan war vets who served with either Rogers or Morice at the Army Aviation Support Facility. Most of them were members of the New York Army National Guard, but at least one was in the Army Reserve.
There were older people who looked like they were probably retired. There were people in their 20’s, and there were children crawling over the benches and playing on the floor.
Because Rogers had never met his daughter, the news media was even there too.
While they waited, four of the Vietnam Veterans talked about how different it was when they had come home. Back in the 1960’s and 70’s, there were no cell phones and there was no Internet so it was almost impossible for the vets to let their families know when they would be arriving home.
As today’s Shoe comic strip points out, in those days you had to use a phone booth if you wanted to call home, and as Skyler notes in today’s strip, phone booths were awkward to carry around.
When the troops returned from Vietnam, they usually arrived at an Air Force Base or Navy Base on the West Coast. Next they had to take a shuttle bust to the nearest civilian airport, and then most of them had to travel the rest of the way home on standby.
Uncle Sam paid for the flight, but you didn’t have a reservation, so you either had to hang around the airport waiting for the next available seat or make a reservation and wait a day or two for your reserved seat on a flight.
When you flew standby, you had to wait by the departure gate until all the passengers had boarded and then you had to listen for your name to be called if there were any empty seats. You had about 60 seconds notice that you were going to be on that plane, so there was no way to call your family and let them know. As a result, nobody was there to greet many Vietnam Veterans when they arrived at the airport nearest their home.
That is one of the reasons why a dozen members of the Patriot Guard, many of them bikers with leather vests and headbands, show up time and time again to greet the troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and say, “Welcome Home.”
Those guys understand exactly why the Vietnam Veterans of America’s Founding Principle is “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another,” and they want to make sure things are better for this generation of combat veterans.
But for the staff of the Veterans Outreach Center’s Operation Welcome Home program, it’s a constant struggle to get accurate flight information about when local soldiers will be returning home.
They post information on their website about setting up a greeting for a loved one.
“If you have a family member who is returning from military service, whether overseas or stateside, or you are an official from a military unit and would like to request an organized greeting and presentation of the Operation Welcome Home Service Commendation, you can make a request here and a volunteer will contact you.”
They also send out emails, and post messages on Twitter and Facebook.
But the trick is getting the information in a timely manner. Yesterday, the email that Morice was arriving on the same flight as Rogers didn’t get sent until 3:12 PM, only 4 hours and 22 minutes before he came home.
Many families don’t contact the Operation Welcome Home program, so there is nobody there to greet the serviceman or woman when they arrive. It isn’t unusual for people to show up for an Operation Welcome Home greeting for one soldier and then have two soldiers walk off the plane.
It happened yesterday when two soldiers walked off the United Airlines 5:12 PM flight. The Operation Welcome Home Team was there to greet Austin McQuistion, but there was another soldier on the same plane.
If you know of a soldier returning home from Iraq or Afghanistan, there are several ways you can let Operation Welcome Home know about it.
- Log onto the Operation Welcome Home website and fill in the online form.
- Contact Kristen Hoag, Volunteer Coordinator for Operation welcome Home (585-295-7816).
- For members of the National Guard, you can also contact Jeanna Clark, the military Family Assistance Coordinator with the New York State National Guard family Programs (585-783-5310) firstname.lastname@example.org