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Hero’s welcome

Charlestown volunteers salute American troops as they return home

Created date

October 14th, 2014
volunteers at airport terminal

Bill Fitzpatrick still remembers the hero’s welcome he received when he returned home from the South Pacific during World War II. Now he pays that warm welcome forward as he greets American troops returning home from overseas each month at Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI).

“To see the smiles on the faces of these men and women as they enter the airport is just wonderful,” says Bill, who served as a Navy Seabee during WWII. 

Bill is one of about a dozen Charlestown residents, many who are veterans themselves, who greet hundreds of soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines at Pier E of BWI’s International terminal as they return home from the Middle East. 

Charlestown provides free transportation to and from the airport. 

The events are organized by Operation Welcome Home (Maryland), a grassroots organization founded by Navy Reserve Captain Kathleen “Kathy” Thorp in 2007. Operation Welcome Home (Maryland) averages four events each week, and volunteers have greeted more than 1,200 flights and more than 500,000 service members since its inception.

Attitude of gratitude

Charlestown resident Suzanne Levitt first organized volunteers from the Catonsville, Md., Erickson Living community in September 2007 after she heard about the organization from her son-in-law. 

“The first time, I went just with my family,” says Suzanne. “I was so moved by the whole thing. There are veterans and people living here who have family members serving in the Middle East, and I thought that it would be very meaningful for Charlestown to be involved.” 

Lucy Colletti is now the liaison for Charlestown volunteers who attend Operation Welcome Home (Maryland) events once a month. Lucy’s late husband Ross was a Korean War vet. 

“I go online to their [Operation Welcome Home (Maryland)] website and find the dates that the planes are coming in,” says Lucy who moved to Charlestown in 2012. “I select some of those dates and coordinate with the shuttle buses here at Charlestown to take everyone to the airport.”

While they wait for the flights to arrive, Charlestown volunteers have the opportunity to interact with the families. 

“It’s just wonderful to be able to meet them and share this important moment with them,” says Lucy. “One time there was a young woman who was waiting for her boyfriend. We were talking to her, and she was telling us about him. We asked her what he looked like, and she described him to us and said his name was George. As soon as she saw him coming off the plane we all shouted, ‘George!’ It was one of those moments you never forget.”

Unwavering support

As the troops enter the terminal, smiling Charlestown residents waving American flags greet them with handmade signs, cheers, and handshakes. 

“You can see the emotion in the troops’ eyes and the appreciation on their faces,” says Lucy.  “To be able to show them that they have our unconditional support back home, you feel like you are making a difference in their lives.”

Lucy recalls one instance that made an everlasting impression on her.

“There was this soldier who came off the plane, and as soon as he came into where we were waiting, he knelt down and kissed the ground. I started to cry it was so emotional,” she says. 

Suzanne says she has received letters from soldiers after they have arrived home saying how much they appreciated the support. 

“It’s a connection that you just can’t describe; it’s such an emotional, appreciative feeling,” says Suzanne.

“Sometimes we see couples—both husband and wife coming back. Sometimes we see whole families who were overseas together. We’ve even seen some of them bring dogs back with them!” says Bill. 

Lucy says she feels it is an honor and privilege to be part of something that affects people in a positive way. 

“What better way to say thank you and show them we appreciate what they do than to be there to welcome them home,” she says. “It really makes you feel good. Once you go, you are forever changed by the whole experience.”

For more information on how to volunteer with Operation Welcome Home (Maryland) or call 410-630-1555 for recorded information about upcoming events.