Those American flags and welcome signs won’t be needed at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport anymore.
Every day, for the past eight years, at least one chartered plane carrying U.S. soldiers heading home for two weeks of rest and recuperation from active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan has touched down at both Dallas/Fort Worth and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airports.
And for every flight at DFW, volunteers in the “Welcome Home a Hero” program have gathered to enthusiastically greet the returning soldiers.
“The welcome is a festive event with recorded patriotic music and anywhere from 30 to 300 cheering people holding flags and homemade signs and banners,” said Donna Cranston, coordinator of the Dallas/Fort Worth program. The greeting has become so well-known that some soldiers request to arrive in the U.S. via Dallas instead of Atlanta, Cranston said, even though that means they may have to wait longer for a connecting flight home.
But the drawdown of troops in Iraq and the shift to shorter deployments means there are no longer two full planes of R&R-bound soldiers returning home each day. So the U.S. army has decided to consolidate the flights into Atlanta.
March 14 will be the final Dallas arrival.
The conclusion of the flight is bittersweet news for some troops and for many volunteers who have welcomed home more than 460,000 inbound soldiers who have touched down in Dallas since 2004.
“The soldiers get a hero’s welcome when they come through Dallas, and it’s an uplifting and emotional experience,” said Army Lt. Col. Trisha McAfee, commander of the army’s Personnel Assistance Point at the Dallas airport. “They didn’t get that in other wars. But the consolidation is a good thing because it means many soldiers are spending less time in the war zone and getting home sooner.”
In Dallas/Fort Worth, many volunteers who welcome home troops at the airport also joined the USO so that they could be part of the send-off activities for active-duty military as well. “One volunteer has made more than 45,000 neck pillows to give to soldiers on their way back,” said McAfee.
“It’s always a happier occasion when they come in,” said Linda Tinnerman, 71, who with 78-year-old Constance Carman became known as one of the “Huggin’ and Kissin’ Grandmas” — dispensing free hugs to every returning soldier. “We are also there just to talk and visit with the soldiers.”
While the final R&R flight will arrive at Dallas/Fort Worth on March 14, the last departing flight is scheduled for March 30. After that, the U.S. Army’s daily chartered R&R flights will arrive and depart solely from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where there’s a much smaller “Welcome Home a Hero” and send-off program.
“It’s a matter of logistics,” said Mark Brown, Personnel Assistance Point commander at the Atlanta airport. “At DFW, the soldiers come out into the non-secure side. In Atlanta, they stay on the secure side to connect to their flight. So we have airport employees come out to help with the welcome.”
(A slightly different version of my story appeared on msnbc.com Travel)