After processing hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops over more than seven years, the Army is shutting down its R&R way station at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport in two months because of the drawdown of troops in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
The decision also signals the end of the Welcome Home A Hero program, a volunteer-led group that has organized a flag-waving, back-slapping, goodies-laden greeting for every flight of troops since June 16, 2004, a total that now exceeds 2,700 days in a row, no matter the hour, holiday or weather.
"It has been something special," said Donna Cranston, who has been the on-site coordinator for Welcome Home A Hero for most of that time. "When we started, I don't think anyone ever imagined that we were going to be able to do what we have done."
The last organized flight of troops on rest and recuperation into DFW Airport is scheduled for March 14. Until then, one flight will arrive and one flight will depart daily.
By April 1, the dozen Army personnel working at DFW will be reassigned, and the Army's lone Personnel Assistance Point for troops going to and from the war zones will be at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.
Hartsfield-Jackson has always received 60 percent of the soldiers, so activity is being consolidated there, said Army spokesman Hank Minitrez.
"It's closer for planes coming from Afghanistan," Minitrez said.
"There are more flights that leave out of Atlanta, and it also means that troops heading to the East Coast wouldn't have to backtrack across the country. Logistically, it was the better choice."
The closure of the Army office will have no effect on the USO facilities at DFW, which will continue to offer support and services to troops flying around the country.
Closing the personnel office brings a twinge of melancholy, Minitrez said.
"It is really bittersweet," he said. "The drawdown of forces overseas is a good thing. But the bitter part of it is that we will miss the absolutely mind-blowing and overwhelming support that soldiers have received at DFW Airport. They are treated like rock stars there."
In late 2003, the military began sending servicemen and women home on midtour leave for the first time since the Vietnam War.
The military established an official R&R station at DFW in 2004, and the community receiving line was led by officials from the airport, the North Texas Commission and the Colleyville Chamber of Commerce.
Probably no other airport or area responded with as much enthusiasm and perseverance as North Texas, save for a group of volunteers in Bangor, Maine, who have met every flight of soldiers since May 2003.
Over time, North Texas corporations, nonprofit organizations, veterans outfits, churches and school groups all contributed people to welcome home troops.
Cranston, whose son was deployed at the time, took over much of the coordination to make sure someone would always be at the airport.
It's gone on so long that her son is now out of the Army and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin.
Personally, she said, she isn't sad "at all" about the closing of the office.
"The mission we were tasked with, we did, and we did a good job," she said.
"It was a collaborative effort. For me, this frees up a lot of my time to continue my work to help our wounded troops who live here locally.
"I would hope that we turn some of this enthusiasm and support to helping some of our soldiers here in North Texas. There's still plenty to do to support troops here and those still deployed."
More information on the Welcome Home A Hero program can be found at www.welcomehomeahero.com.
Chris Vaughn, 817-390-7547