Danedri Thompson
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ATLANTA — When they first set foot on American soil after months in Afghanistan, Iraq or Kuwait, their families aren’t there to greet them. But U.S. Army Major Mark W. Brown makes sure someone is.
In Atlanta, the role falls to employees from a variety of different vendors who work at Atlanta-Hartsfield Airport. Brown arranges for a different employee group to greet a plane full of soldiers each day. They’re headed to locations throughout the United States, but their first stop on American soil is in Atlanta.
“There’s about 350 – a plane load, every day,” Brown said.
The soldiers are cleared, one by one, through customs and are directed out into the airport. There, in a passageway below the E terminal and near trains connecting to all other terminals, Brown arranges a welcoming party every morning sometime between 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.
“It just depends on what time the flight leaves Kuwait,” Brown said.
In the evening, Brown hosts a farewell party. Soldiers returning to the Middle East depart from the same place each evening, and Brown organizes a daily send-off.
Airport employees – on Oct. 4, they’re office employees of contract security company at the Altanta airport – cheer as arriving soldiers step into the terminal.
“They love hugs,” one employee says as she draws  airline passengers into the welcoming event and passes out clackers and pom poms to passersby.
Brown loves the impromptu parties he arranges each day. The group of greeters is typically small, because they take place beyond airport security. That limits attendance, because only certain airport employees and airline passengers departing from Atlanta are allowed beyond security checkpoints.
Sherrill Bailey, a flight attendant with World Airlines from Warner-Robbins, Ga., at the airport on a day off, gets pulled into the celebration.
“I just stopped to support the troops,” she said. “It makes me feel really good.”
Brown said the airport celebrants are some of the first Americans soldiers see as they complete the first part of their journeys home.
“When you’ve been deployed and you’re coming home to see your family and friends for the first time, it’s really heart-warming,” Brown said.
Many soldiers stand in line to get a hug while others continue to the airport beyond anxious to board planes that will take them to their families.
Private First Class Bryan Kelly is headed home to Dallas for two weeks leave. He’s been deployed for six months.
“This makes you feel like people really appreciate what we do,” Kelly said after accepting a hug.