COLUMBIA - The balloon that proclaimed "Welcome Home" at the Columbia Balloon Invitational on Saturday night is a story of seven pairs of hands. Seven pairs of hands helped lay it out onto the rough grass next to Corporate Lake. Seven pairs of hands helped funnel cold and then hot air into its big, hollow belly. And after the weather turned for the worse, seven pairs of hands flattened it out, rolled it up and stuffed it into a huge blue bag.
These seven pairs of hands are used to pushing, pulling, holding and supporting; they belong to the members of the Vet Center, which provides counseling and outreach services to war veterans. Events like the Columbia Balloon Invitational are their primary source of advertising.
"It's a way get the word out," said Bob Waechter, team leader of the Kansas City Vet Center. "It's a way to welcome our war vets back home."
At Vet Centers around the country, war veterans are offered counseling and support from therapists and social workers that have also been through wars, Waechter said.
McKinley Hubbard has worked at the center for nearly 30 years. He said he was 19 when he came home from the Vietnam War. At the time, he said he thought he was fine.
"I didn't want to talk to nobody," he said.
But he said people now are more accepting of the benefits of counseling. Young veterans "don't want labels, they don't want to be sick, they want to get on with their lives," he said.
Even though the "Welcome Home" balloon didn't get off the ground Saturday, the seven members of the team said they know their message is out and is hopefully reaching those who need their services.
And as Waechter watched his devoted team laugh while hoisting the huge balloon, he said, "I have the best job in the whole world."