By Carla Caldwell

Photo by Carla Caldwell- USO volunteer Robert Faulkender of Sandy Springs, far right, joins the Burnham family in welcoming Maj. David Burnham, center back row, home from Afghanistan. His wife, Sandra, holds a sign.

Greeting soldiers at the Atlanta airport as a USO volunteer restores Sandy Springs resident Robert Faulkender’s faith in America’s future.

“Sometimes I’ll get so aggravated at the status of things and then I’ll meet these fine soldiers,” said Faulkender, a Vietnam veteran and USO volunteer for 15 years. “I can’t help but walk away saying, ‘My God, there is hope.’”

Each day, more than 500 soldiers pass through Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport going to and from service in Iraq or Afghanistan.

And every day – without fail – United Services Organizations volunteers are there to greet them. Like Faulkender many volunteers and several members of the USO’s Georgia board of directors live in Sandy Springs, Buckhead, and neighboring communities.

On Jan. 11, the USO’s Georgia operation, which opened at the airport in 1996, anticipates greeting their 1 millionth soldier. Scheduled festivities include a ceremony and a special buffet for troops. But the Atlanta USO is busiest in December.

Every year, some 10,000 soldiers pass through Atlanta’s airport over three December days. Due to the training cycle at bases in the South, many troops begin training in September at Fort Benning at Columbus, Fort Gordon near Augusta and Fort Jackson near Columbia, S.C., and wrap up in December. Troops are then granted 30 days leave before moving to their next assignment.

Many get home by way of the Atlanta airport to visit their families before leaving for overseas.

No matter the day of the year, USO volunteers in red aprons gather at the USO podium, inside the airport where soldiers and the general public exit planes, or wait in the USO-sponsored lounge upstairs in the airport.

At the podium, they stand next to military families who arrive with posters, flowers and balloons, to greet soldiers. The vast number of reunions witnessed by frequent USO volunteers fails to dull the emotional wallop each one brings, the volunteers say.

Recently, Bob Babcock was among the volunteers at the podium. Babcock, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant who served in Vietnam in 1966-67, has volunteered with the USO five years and considered the work among his favorite activities.

“Working here is the [highlight] of my month,” Babcock said. “I have seen soldiers see their newborns for the first time. I once saw an enlisted soldier watch his young son walk for the first time. I’ve been able to take part in memories that will last the soldiers and their families a lifetime.”

In the lounge, volunteers serve food furnished through donations; they hand out donated phone cards and guide waiting soldiers to TVs, lounge chairs and reading material. A small children’s area is available to soldiers’ families.

And there’s no shortage of heart-felt handshakes and words of gratitude.

There’s also no shortage of people who want to welcome troops at Hartsfield-Jackson, the U.S.’s largest commercial airport. About 1,300 active USO volunteers work in Georgia and another 1,300 volunteers are on a waiting list. The USO is a charity, not a government program. It relies on donations of time, money and in-kind services.

But helping out requires more than simply showing up. Volunteers go through training and security checks. There are rules about what volunteers should wear. No flip flops, T-shirts, or caps are allowed. Volunteers are not permitted to ask troops personal questions or discuss politics.

How to help
For more information about the USO, and for a list of needed supplies and how to donate, go to: www.usogeorgia.org.

The USO does not take individual volunteers, preferring groups of four or more.

Volunteers come from companies, churches, temples, civic and veterans’ organizations. Long-time volunteer groups from Sandy Springs include those from St. Jude’s Catholic Church, Temple Sinai and Kiwanis International. The Atlanta Vietnam Veterans Business Association also regularly provides volunteers, many who live in the north Atlanta metro area.

Mary Louise Austin, the president and chief professional officer of USO Council of Georgia, has worked with the organization for 40 years and led the Atlanta operation for 30 years. She considers the USO her life’s mission.

“It started as possibly a career, but grew into so much more for me,” said Austin, a native of Pennsylvania, who worked abroad and with several operations stateside before settling in Georgia.

“The USO strives to provide a touch of home,” said Austin, tearing up. “We want soldiers to know that someone is aware of their sacrifice and that someone is here to serve and appreciate them. We represent hometown America.”