By Brittany Jennings, Regional Communications and Marketing Director in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Hours before families arrived for a welcome home ceremony at Ft. Bragg on March 9, the American Red Cross was preparing for them.
At 2:45 a.m., coffee brewed in the Red Cross office on the installation. Volunteers put on their blue vests and got to work loading their cars with canteen supplies – orange tang, coffee, granola bars, cookies, coloring books, tissues, informational materials and more. By 4 a.m., the team of eight volunteers was ready to serve and entertain the families who eagerly awaited their soldiers.
The empty warehouse-like building quickly turned into a maze of hundreds of people. Throughout the crowd, blue vests could be spotted. Some handed out Goldfish crackers and crayons, while others simply sat and listened to the anxious moms and dads who hadn’t seen their sons or daughters in almost a year.
Heather Sizemore and her three children were the first to arrive.
Despite it being 5 a.m., 7-year-old Sarah sprinted into the empty building, and 3-year-old Asher scaled the wooden benches. Heather held her sleeping 15-month-old as she tried to corral the others. She’d already been up since 4 a.m., ridding Asher’s bedroom of monsters.
Following her children in, Heather found a seat in the first row of benches, directly in front of where the 82nd Airborne Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 82nd Airborne Division would march into the building from the runway. The soldiers were the last group of paratroopers to return home from deployment in Iraq.
With a big grin, little Sarah told me she was waiting on her daddy to come home.
“He’s been gone nine months,” Heather said. “You have to prepare yourself mentally and be patient with your children.”
A few rows over from Heather’s family sat Kym LaRiviere and her 3-year-old, Evelyn. “I’m going to run to my daddy and tell him I love him,” Evelyn said.
Evelyn already had the day with her dad mapped out – eat snacks, play puzzles and eat more snacks. She grazed on a chocolate-covered granola bar as she spoke to me. And in her left hand, she carried a “Frozen” Disney balloon. That’s how she planned to get her daddy’s attention. “Balloons are good for daddies,” she explained.
The plane finally touched down as the sun rose over the tarmac. Families moved outside to see 118 paratroopers marching in. Of those soldiers returning home was Maj. Gen. Richard D. Clarke, commanding general of the 82nd Airborne.
Before going home to his own family, Clarke shook hands with each Red Cross volunteer at the canteen.
“Thank you for always being here,” he said. “The Red Cross is always here when we get home.”
1. Heather Sizemore (right) with her children, Sarah (left), Asher and Gabriel.
2. Kym LaRiviere (left) plays with her daughter, Evelyn.