MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Millions of people pass through the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport every year, but not many know that inside, the airport has a center dedicated to U.S. troops passing through.
The Armed Forces Services Center is open 24 hours a day, every day of the year, but the volunteers who staff it also have another mission as “Troop Greeters.”
The AFSC troop greeters started in the fall of 2006, and to date, have welcomed home more than 59,000 combat troops. Thursday evening, the AFSC reached a milestone when they welcomed home their 200th military flight.
“It’s Minnesota Nice at its best, that’s why we call it that. We are Minnesota’s best kept secret,” said Debra Cain, director of the Armed Forces Services Center.
The Armed Forces Services Center was founded Nov. 22, 1970 as a non-profit organization by Maggie Purdum after her son was killed in Vietnam. It has never closed in its 40 years of service.
“I’ve been here for the 100th flight, the 150th flight, all the ones in between and even some prior to that,” said Jeanne Ullmer, a volunteer from Crystal who joined the group when her son deployed. “When you have a child in the military, they are all your kids, you want to do something nice for them and make them feel welcome.”
On Thursday afternoon, 250 U.S. Army soldiers were greeted with exuberant shouts of “Welcome Home” and “Thank You!” The greeters shook every person’s hand as they stepped off the plane.
The men and women had been overseas for a year serving with security missions in Southern Iraq. They flew home from the Middle East to Germany to Minneapolis, where they touched U.S. soil for the first time, before heading on to Colorado Springs, Colo., where the unit is based.
Even though the soldiers were in Minneapolis two short hours, the greeters say it’s their duty to offer a taste of all things American and connect soldiers to their country once again. Most of them grabbed coffee and snacks, and then ran to plug in their cell phones and laptops.
For some, the layover did feel like home.
“I am from Fridley, Minn.,” said soldier Dillon Olson, 23. “When we flew in, looking down, it was like, ‘I know that spot right there, I know it.’ One of the best feelings ever. When we landed, I was like, ‘Oh my God, snow! It’s so nice to see.'”
Fellow Minnesotan Bobby Meeks agreed it was a nice change from what he calls the “dusty, hot, 152-degree heat.”
“I am from Walker, Minn., way up north,” Meeks said. “I love Minnesota, but the biggest thing I miss is everyday stuff: ice fishing, hunting, being outside and outdoors.”
“This is usually their first step down on U.S. soil,” Janis Eastman of Elko, Minn., was present when greeters met their first military flight back in 2006. “They were kind of overcome, a female I remember broke down crying and said I wasn’t expecting this.”
All around, soldiers were surrounded by kindness in action.
“They are the reason we come out here. We are just proud to have met them, even though it’s brief during this stop, the best of the best,” said Mary Jacobson, a volunteer and retired nurse.
As troops head home, the greeters already set their sights set on their next assignment.
“We’ll try for the 300th,” said Dean Greethurst, who has shook hands for the groups first and now 200th military flights.
And there’s even more to celebrate. Every one of the men and women who deployed in that unit made it back home safely.