CHICAGO (TheBlaze/AP) — A group of Marines on their way home from Afghanistan got more than a few pleasant surprises upon after their plane touched down upon U.S. soil.
After spending the better part of five days getting on and off planes as they traveled from one side of the globe to another, the 13 Marines found themselves treated like heroes at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
Monday night’s welcome home started with a phone call.
Stephanie Hare, a native of Illinois who now works in England, called the USO at O’Hare and explained that her fiance, Capt. Pravin Rajan, who had served seven months in Afghanistan, was with a dozen other Marines on a plane bound for Chicago from Baltimore.
“I just thought if they could get them some Chicago pizza, champagne or something, that would mean a lot,” she said.
On the other end of the line was John Colas, a 74-year-old former Marine USO volunteer. He told Hare he’d try to do something in the hour or so before the flight landed. But he cautioned that while volunteers make an effort to welcome military personnel whenever they come through the airport, he wasn’t sure he could pull anything off in such a short time.
Colas got on the phone with the police and fire departments, the airlines and anyone else he could think of.
“There must have been 15 Chicago firemen and an equal number of Chicago police and they formed a corridor for the Marines when they got off the airplane,” he said.
Rajan said the Marines didn’t know what to make of it, starting with the slightly unnerving experience of looking out a plane window to see a fire truck.
“For a second, we were like, ‘Are we in trouble?'” he said.
Their plane taxied beneath an arch of water from fire department hoses in what is called a water salute. After they realized the reception was for them, the Marines soaked in the scene.
Then they walked into the terminal and were met by a small crowd of cheering USO volunteers, firefighters, police officers and airport workers as they were hustled off to another gate so they’d make their flight to San Diego.
“They were just so thankful — very, very appreciative,” said Linda Kozma, an American Airlines employee who helps military personnel flying in and out of O’Hare.
Hare didn’t know about any of it until she woke up Tuesday and heard Rajan relating the whole story in a voice mail.
“I just thought it was really beautiful,” she said.
But the appreciation didn’t end in the airport terminal.
When boarding their jet for San Diego, the Marines learned that American Airlines — which has a policy to upgrade servicemen and women in uniform whenever possible — had six empty seats in first class all ready for the group.
But what about the other seven Marines?
No problem. Seven first-class passengers jumped out of their seats so all the Marines could sit together.
“It was incredibly touching,” Rajan said in a telephone interview from Camp Pendleton in California. “Afghanistan is a very complex and ambiguous war … and a difficult thing to keep track of so it is amazing when we are 10 years [into] a war and there is still that kind of community, that level of support, the level of willingness to go out of one’s way.”