ATLANTA — As often as she can, Pat Solomon spends a few hours with the throng at the top of the escalator where all arriving passengers emerge at the Atlanta airport.
Most of the crowd is excitedly waiting for loved ones to arrive, but Solomon is looking for strangers. In eyeglasses decorated with American flags she's ready to applaud and hug some of the thousands of soldiers, Marines and other service members who pass through the world's busiest airport each week.
"I grab 'em and say, 'Welcome to America!'" Solomon said. "I just feel such a connection with them. I want to tell them how I feel and how the USO feels. It's amazing, what they do for the world."
Solomon and her fellow volunteers at the USO can expect to get busier. Last month, President Barack Obama announced that after nearly a decade, the war in Iraq would be over by year's end and that all U.S. troops "will definitely be home for the holidays" — meaning nearly 40,000 are returning home to their families over the next several weeks.
Each day, as many as a couple dozen volunteers anchor a crowd that also includes family members and airport employees holding signs and flags. On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, there were about 100 total.
Army Reserve Sgt. 1st Class Charles Crouchman nearly teared up as he arrived to their cheers and applause. It was a warm welcome after seven months in Afghanistan. After clearing customs, he headed for the USO, where he was grateful to be able to call his wife and daughter in Schenectady, N.Y., for free.
"You always know with the USO, you've got a phone to use, Internet to use, a place to sit down and relax or watch a movie," Crouchman said. "That's a blessing."
The clapping volunteers and other amenities started in 2003 when the USO began its "Operation R&R" program, which serves U.S. military personnel going to and from Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait. The program's other location, at an airport in Dallas, is scheduled to end early next year.
Troops passing through the USO on Tuesday were greeted with turkey and chili dogs. In addition to meals and phone calls, the USO provides free Wi-Fi, a children's play area, a sleeping and computer room, a television room with theater-style seating, job listings, toiletries and care packages for troops headed back into the field.
Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport sees more than 250,000 service members each year returning or heading to deployments across the globe, headed to or from basic training or just passing through. USO Council of Georgia President and Chief Executive Officer Mary Lou Austin said people are eager to volunteer during the holidays. The USO Council of Georgia moved to its location at the airport in 1976 and has over 900 volunteers on its rolls.
"It's another way for people to show their appreciation for those that have been serving," she said. "People fight to come on holidays. So many people pay attention to the spirit of giving. It's a nice gesture as a gift, of saying thank-you."
Army Reserve 1st Lt. Michael Lord, whose two-year tour in Kuwait just ended, hung out at the USO while passing through Hartsfield en route to Fort Bliss, Texas, where he planned to meet his sister's new baby and his wife, who was flying in from Chicago. He hasn't spent Thanksgiving with his family in four years.
Col. Joseph Weihs, also a soldier in the Army Reserve who was in Kuwait for a year with Lord, won't be home Thursday but expects to spend this Christmas with his wife and adult children in Baltimore.
Weihs said a woman gave him a big hug when on his way to the airport USO. He said it will be nice to be home after missing Christmas last year because he was deployed in mid-December. He smiled at the thought of the troops returning from Iraq in the coming days.
"That's a good thing," Weihs said, nodding.
Back at the escalator, Solomon watched excitedly for uniforms.
"There's nothing like it, and I never feel better than when I'm out here," Solomon said. "Being able just to give something back to these men and women. ... They're coming home. I'm terribly excited."