Known affectionately as Fort Hood’s “Hug Lady,” the late Elizabeth Corrine Laird was honored Monday in the place she spent hours of her time, giving the only thing she could to Soldiers deploying and redeploying – a warm hug and a loving smile.
“For 12 plus years, she would come to this terminal day or night, morning or afternoon, to see the Soldiers coming or going from their deployment – whether it was two or 200,” Susan Dewees-Taylor, Laird’s daughter, told the audience. “That always amazed me.”
Inside the Sgt. George Larkin Terminal at Gray Army Airfield, the room thousands of Soldiers have deployed from, was named in honor of Laird for her unwavering support of the troops she loved.
In 12 years, it is estimated Laird gave 500,000 hugs to the troops, missing the first hug in more than a decade after being hospitalized in November 2015.
“To put that into perspective, the active component of your Army is not yet even at 470,000,” Lt. Gen. Pat White, III Corps and Fort Hood commander, said, describing it was like, “she hugged the entire Army over the 12 years she was doing this.”
Laird succumbed to a nearly decade-long battle with cancer on Christmas Eve 2015, but not before leaving her lasting impression on the hearts of the Central Texas community and spreading worldwide with all the Soldiers she hugged.
Chaplain (Col.) Brian Chepey, the new garrison chaplain, who received several hugs from Laird throughout the years, said he was honored to give the invocation before the ceremony.
“Remembering and celebrating the life of one who has given a Soldier – even this Soldier – a hug, both deploying and redeploying, from this very place,” Chepey said.
Laird’s son, Rick Dewees, told the media following the ceremony that he wondered if the troops cared about the hugs as much as his mom. Before his mom’s passing, he discovered the impact his mom made when she was hospitalized. Dewees said Soldiers lined up outside his mom’s hospital room to give her one final hug.
“What they showed when she was in the hospital, she couldn’t go to them, so they came to her,” Dewees said. “It was quite phenomenal.”
Soon after her passing, the Fort Hood community wanted to find a way to honor Laird. It was ultimately decided to name the room inside Larkin Terminal in her memory – the same room where she hugged so many Fort Hood Soldiers and handed them a card with Psalm 91, the verse known as the prayer of protection.
Dewees-Taylor shared a personal account of a Soldier who was at the hospital when her mom was heading into surgery. He pulled the Psalm 91 card out of his wallet and showed it to Dewees-Taylor, telling her how much that hug and card meant to him.
Some of the very Soldiers she hugged came to honor Laird, one of whom travelled 1,200 miles for Monday’s ceremony. Although he only received one hug from Laird, Sgt. Christopher Peckham, 3rd Infantry Division, came all the way from Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Georgia, for the ceremony.
“The Hug Lady meant to me and a lot of Soldiers, a sense of comfort and coming home – that love and affection a lot of Soldiers, especially single Soldiers, didn’t have when they left and came home,” Peckham said.
Although the room dedication was already in the works, Peckham didn’t realize it when he began a petition through Change.org on May 25 to rename the Larkin Terminal in memory of Laird. Within a matter of days, the petition reached thousands of people, with more than 88,000 people signing the online petition.
“It ended up being a lot bigger than I thought it would be,” Peckham said.
Before unveiling the plaque honoring her mom, Dewees-Taylor, the guest speaker of the ceremony, said her mom “loved people and she especially loved the men and women who have served their country. She said, ‘I couldn’t do any less, than be here for them.’”
She said it was a special day for her because the Fort Hood community showed how much they cared about her mother’s hugs.
“This is an honor to see how much everybody loves Mother,” she said. “A hug goes a long way. And then when somebody cares for you, it really goes a long way.”
After Laird was diagnosed with cancer, she was there for her troops. After she was unable to continue driving herself, she found a way to be there for her troops. Her children said they always wondered why their mom made such a huge sacrifice.
“Although we believe it was quite a sacrifice, I believe if she was here she would say it was the men and women who have served that has made the sacrifice,” Dewees-Taylor said. “She said it’s not her, it’s the Soldiers and every person that serves in the armed forces – they are the ones who are important.”