One of the things I hate most about liberals who say they support the military is that I rarely see them take action to prove it. “I support the troops” is just a liberal lip-jerk reaction designed to make someone feel better about themselves while they donate and vote for all kinds of causes and politicians who do anything but what’s best for the military men and women who have and continue to sacrifice themselves for the American way of life.
So on this Veterans Day, while traveling across the country visiting my own flesh and blood soldier deployed for training, I decided to stop into an all volunteer run respite for the troops — the Freedom Center at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Michigan — and give my own thanks to folks who support the troops every day of the year.
“I lot of people see the backpacks that I’m flying with and tell me Happy Veterans Day,” said John, a six year veteran currently serving with the U.S. Army’s Chemical Company stationed at Schofield barracks in Hawaii. “I lot of my family and friends on Facebook, they say it. But as far as walking through the airport — of course you come to the Freedom Center and everybody recognizes your service.”
The Freedom Center opened its doors on Veterans Day exactly two years ago and serves close to 5,000 people each month. They provide active, reserve and retired service members, including their families travel assistance, snacks and beverages, TV, internet, games, books, and most importantly, a sheltered place to rest.
The military lounge is housed behind a nondescript doorway and inconspicuous sign at gate A43 inside the Delta McNamara Terminal. As you enter, patriotic drawings and ‘thanks you’s’ from local elementary school kids line the long hallway. Besides a food area with fridge and microwave, the dimly lit room has three plush couches, a table and chairs, and a set of bunk beds — which surprisingly, I have always seen occupied by multiple uniformed clad bodies sleeping away in the midst of everything.
“We feed them, water them, tuck them in, wake ‘em up and send them on their way,” said Michelle, a Freedom Center volunteer with two years under her belt. “We provide a comfortable, quiet place to come between flights or if their flights are cancelled, just to get out of the fray. For members with kids, we have toys, stuffed animals, something to comfort them.”
Michelle is part of a stable of 60 volunteers that come to the center once or twice a week. Most are from the Detroit area and pretty much have set days. “But some of them are flight attendants and crew members. They have a layover and they just come in and work.” Michelle said. What makes the center unique is that it’s located inside the terminal, unlike many of the USOs which are outside of security. About a year and a half ago, the airport started making announcements on the loud speaker about the Freedom Center, “which was great,” said Michelle, “because we had to have two volunteers hunting down people in uniform to bring them in here.”
A former flight attendant and mom to an U.S. Air Force veteran daughter, Michelle believes the Freedom Center was 10 years overdue. “I would see military people sleeping on the dirty floor because flights were cancelled and I thought it was shameful that we treat our men and women this way,” she explained. “One of our pilots was Air Force retired, he got this going with Delta and now we have a place for them,” she said. The center also works with hotels near the airport that provide rooms for servicemembers if they run out of room.
John, who is part of a long line of military in his family and joined the U.S. Army after 9/11, was lucky enough to be put up in an Embassy Suites by the Freedom Center after a cancelled flight last year. “Many of us come back from wars and feel underappreciated; a lot of civilians don’t really realize the sacrifice that a lot of my fellow brothers in arms and sisters have committed.”
John said it’s important for civilians to recognize veterans because it gives them a sense of satisfaction and makes them feel appreciated. “Showing gratitude and giving us our day — it’s not much, but it counts,” he said.
Since joining the military, John said he found a new sense of pride being an American, but doesn’t necessarily think everyone understands that freedom comes with a cost. “A lot of people take advantage of it every day. You look at the news sometimes, a lot of people really neglect their freedoms and don’t really realize how well they have it,” he explained thoughtfully.
Michelle on the other hand, has a bit more of a self proclaimed “attitude” about servicemembers and their sacrifices. “I was in high school during the Vietnam War, and I think I feel a bit robbed. The men who went to war, that’s the gene pool from which I would have chosen a mate.” Our national archives list over 58,000 U.S. casualties during Vietnam. As of this post, there have been 6778 U.S. casualties since the War on Terror was officially declared.
Michelle said her inspiration to volunteer was the desire to feel connected. She recalled the first time that serving the troops crossed her mind. “When I was at my daughters Air Force graduation in San Antonio, it was so hot, and there was this USO. I stepped in and there was this tiny little old lady who gave me cookies and milk, and I thought, I’m in love, that’s what I want to do.”
Since its inception, the the grateful response to the Freedom Center has been overwhelming to its volunteers. “Sometimes they are more grateful than we are for their service. They say, ‘I can’t believe you are doing this for us.’ It’s surprising, but I was from the Vietnam era and now we’ve turned it around 180 degrees,” Michelle said.
While telling her story, Michelle doesn’t miss a beat greeting a steady stream of veterans and family members entering the center and signing in the log book — including Christine, a young wife whose husband deployed to Afghanistan in June and is not scheduled to return until March of next year. A local girl from the suburbs in Detroit, Christine mentions that she has been wanting to volunteer at the Freedom Center herself, also looking to make that military connection. It’s the couple’s first deployment.
“It’s weird, I just wish he was here. We talked on Skype today and Facebook chat, I do get to talk to him a bit, but I know he’s out in the middle of nowhere,” said the newlywed, who was traveling on Veterans Day with her mother-in law for work. On October 11, she had sent out a Halloween and Veterans Day themed care package that still hadn’t made it to him yet.
“It makes me proud of him that he does what he does. I’m a new wife and I don’t live on a base yet, so I don’t really have a network that gets it. My brother is in the Reserves and both my grandpas were in, so my family gets it, but not my friends. They don’t understand. People don’t realize,” she said.
Michelle summed it up for both of them.
“We really should take a day and just stop. It’s not Memorial Day where everybody is at their first picnic of the summer. This is a day to really stop and think about what people sacrificed for our freedom,” she said. “I don’t think freedom is free and I look at all these people in this room and I am grateful they took the time out of their lives to protect our country. I’m just proud of them.”
There are 24 million U.S. veterans alive today. According to Pew Research, one out of every ten of them was seriously injured at some point while serving in the military. On November 8, The Freedom Center opened its second location in Troy, Mich.
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