By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published May 21, 2009
The flow of soldiers traveling through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport may seem smaller these days, but there is no less enthusiasm from the volunteers in red aprons who cheer and greet them with hugs, “hero” teddy bears, a heartfelt handshake.
Standing near the escalators at the airport’s arrival area are USO volunteers. They wait to spy someone wearing camouflage.
“Anything in a uniform we get,” said one volunteer, smiling after she chased a soldier to deliver a hug.
The nation marks the Memorial Day holiday on May 25 to remember the ultimate sacrifice made by women and men in the armed forces.
The USO volunteers are helping those who serve now. Staffing the arrival booth and the USO center are volunteers, including folks from Catholic parishes around the archdiocese.
“(A friend) said it would be a special experience and it is,” said Jim Russ, who is in charge of the group from St. Jude the Apostle Church in Atlanta. “I just appreciate what they are doing,” said Russ about those in the military. Russ served in the Navy in the late 1950s.
During a recent stint, the women and men volunteers from local parishes greeted several soldiers, some returning to the battlefield. Military men and women starting their leave paused just long enough to say hello, get directions to the baggage claim, then rushed to be with family. A civilian passenger handed over a five dollar donation.
Sheila Ovington, who worships at All Saints Church in Dunwoody, was on her first morning as a volunteer. She said spending the time at the airport was her small way to show gratitude to soldiers.
Lt. Col. Gary Studniewski is a Catholic priest and brigade chaplain in the Army’s 555th Engineer Brigade. His home base is Washington state, but he was returning to Iraq for several more months. He is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., but serves in the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA. It ministers to more than 2 million Catholics in the military, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and U.S. State Department.
As he passed through Atlanta, he said he was grateful to the Atlanta Archdiocese for recently releasing two of its priests to service as military chaplains—Fathers Kevin Peek and Fred Wendel.
“It’s like coming home,” he said about the USO. “The doors are always open. You always feel love and supported.”
“The USO is your home to the American service members,” said Father Studniewski.
Running the USO Georgia center is Mary Lou Austin, who has worked on behalf of veterans and their families for 40 years. She worships at St. Jude Church, Atlanta.
“They are just there to support the troops whether they support the combat or not. They are almost providing works of mercy,” said Austin about the volunteers.
Austin was a schoolteacher in Washington when she replied to an advertisement for a position at the USO. Soon, she was working full time at the nonprofit organization. Austin has traveled around the world in her position.
Through the years, Austin said she’s seen changes as the USO adapted to the military culture. Now there is more of an emphasis on the social welfare of soldiers and their families, not just hosting entertainers and dancers for troops stationed overseas.
Many soldiers are older and with families so the services have to reflect their needs, she said. Calling cards are the most popular handout from USO volunteers.
“Everyone wants a phone card. They want to stay connected,” Austin said.
Indeed, last year, soldiers at the USO center received some 90,000 cards.
The USO center at the airport is unique. Austin said it is one of two places where soldiers on a short leave from Iraq or Afghanistan arrive to catch planes to other destinations. And in 2008, some 220,305 service members passed through Atlanta. The other transit center is Dallas.
USO Georgia includes the airport center, plus facilities in Savannah, Columbus and Robins Air Force Base.
Volunteers have many tasks at the airport: Greet soldiers, act as cheerleaders as they lead the departing soldiers through the airport as travelers applaud, and feed and serve up to 500 soldiers daily. They handed out around 110,000 care packages and 30,000 “hero bears.”
People are very generous with time, Austin said. Now a greater need is financial assistance or donated phone cards, she said.
There is a long list of Catholic organizations that support the USO, including Kindred Spirits at Christ the King Cathedral, Pius Moms and St. Oliver Plunkett Church’s Men’s Group.
On the board of directors are Msgr. R. Donald Kiernan and Tom Wessels, a retired major general of the Army Reserve and a parishioner at Holy Spirit Church.
This week Wessels is to receive the USO Patriot Award for his service at the Armed Forces Luncheon. Wessels for six years has led the Georgia Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve Committee, an agency of the Department of Defense,
“I voted for someone else. I was surprised,” said Wessels. He has served on the board of directors since 1990.
Austin said if people see or know a soldier, they should say thank you and try to do small things, maybe offer to babysit. She said the most important thing is to “let them know they are appreciated. We are called on to do very little.”
To help the USO with a donation this Memorial Day: USO Council of GA, P.O. Box 20963, Atlanta, GA 30320