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FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 21, 2014  02:12:42 PM

Years of hugs at Fort Hood as Soldiers depart and return

Email   Print   Share By Rachel Parks, Sentinel Staff
January 13, 2011 | Living
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Lieutenant Col. Dan O’Rourke, 8th Eng. Bn. commander, hugs Laird at a recent departure for Soldiers with the 59th Mobility Augmentation Company. Laird is on hand for every flight departing and returning to Robert Gray Army Airfield. Rachel Parks, Sentinel Staff
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Specialist Ursula Salinas, 59th MAC, leans in to hug Laird before leaving Fort Hood for Afghanistan. Laird was also a female service member, she joined the Air Force at 18. Rachel Parks, Sentinel Staff
Elizabeth Laird is usually one of the last people a Soldier sees at Robert Gray Army Airfield as he or she prepares to depart on a deployment. But Laird is also one of the first people they see then they return to Fort Hood.

Laird is the Fort Hood “Hug Lady.” She has been a fixture at the airport, seeing Soldiers off and welcoming them home, for almost eight years.

It doesn’t matter what time a flight departs, or what time it lands. Laird is there with a yellow ribbon in her long gray hair. When members of the 8th Engineer Battalion left in November and December, Laird saw each group off with the same good cheer whether it was 3 p.m. or 1 a.m.

Laird admitted she isn’t quite sure how or when the hugging started.

“All I can figure is that one day a Soldier hugged me and there was another Soldier standing there … well he hugged me and it just kind of steamrolled,” she said.

Laird is a bit of a celebrity to the Soldiers. They share stories of previous deployments when she saw them off and share the tidbits of information they know about her with each other.

Laird is humble about her role as the Hug Lady. “I volunteered,” she stated when asked how she got started on her one-woman mission to bring a small amount of comfort to Soldiers leaving and returning.

This isn’t the first time Laird has volunteered for something. She was also a service member. At 18, Laird joined the Air Force. She said joining the military was a decision that came naturally.

“I grew up in World War Two and I wanted to do something for my country,” she said. Laird was 9 years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked. She tells stories about how she and her classmates brought quarters to school to purchase war bonds.

“It was a different time back then,” she added wistfully. “Your movie stars went to war and they were out on the front lines. It was a very different atmosphere.”

The respect and admiration Laird has for the Soldiers waiting to depart or those rushing back through the doors of the terminal after a year away from their loved ones is apparent.

“When I see these Soldiers and all the military … they have a different look in their eyes,” she said. “They have something they believe in. It takes a backbone to serve and they’re the backbone,” she added.

Laird hands out business cards, with the III Corps caltrop and an American flag in the left corner. Her official title is III Corps Hug Lady but she is an equal opportunity hugger.

Service members don’t even need to be from Fort Hood to get an affectionate grasp. A recent group of Seabees who stopped at Fort Hood to refuel their plane also were treated to hugs.

“My hugs are my way of thanking them for what they’re doing,” Laird said.

When Laird first started volunteering, her hugs came to the attention of the former senior enlisted advisor of III Corps, Command Sgt. Maj. William (Joe) Gainey.

“Before Command Sergeant Major Joe Gainey left with III Corps the first time he gave me orders to hug every Soldier leaving and every Soldier coming back and I obey orders,” Laird said with a laugh.

She treats the Soldiers like her family because that’s what they are to her. Several years ago, she and her late husband Ray Laird were invited to a Thanksgiving meal at one of the Fort Hood dining facilities.

“I looked around at all the Soldiers sitting there and I told Ray, you know, this is my family,” Laird said softly. “They are so wonderful and I just feel like a part of them belongs to me and I hope I belong to them.”

As Soldiers lined up to file out to the waiting planes, Laird waited just inside the terminal doors, giving out hugs or handshakes as Soldiers shifted weapons and backpacks to embrace her slight frame.

“I thought I was going to be really sad when they left, but I cry when they come home,” Laird said. “Because I’m so happy… and I want every one of them to come home.”
 
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