Soldiers welcomed with gratitude at Atlanta airport

Lt. Col. Randi Williams' latest stint in service to her country went like this.

Four months in Iraq. Twenty-six hours flying home. One huge moment of shock.

Williams, a nurse who lives in Lawrenceville, enlisted 16 years ago in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. Since January, she's been in Iraq serving as a flight nurse, offering care and comfort to wounded personnel while hurtling through the sky.

"As a nurse, you always see action," she said. When she landed at the Atlanta airport Sunday night, some serious action awaited. Her husband, Kevin Williams, and daughter Erin Whitney organized a festive entourage of friends and family to greet her with flags, flowers and banners.

"I love you all," a stunned and nearly speechless Williams said to the group of 20 or so. "I missed you."

Her homecoming was among the many displays of patriotic spirit at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on the day before Memorial Day.

On the floor above the main level, USO volunteers Carolyn Roland, Shelby Torbert and Maxine Halleck were proud to support men and women in uniform Sunday, one brownie or PB&J at a time. The three friends, all AT&T retirees, along with a group from Congregation Shearith Israel, were among the folks who staffed the airport's USO office on one of its busier days.

"It means a lot," said Roland, whose grandson Matthew, 18, is about to begin his U.S. Army career — right after graduating from Paulding County High School. She noted that they'd had their pick of Sundays this month, and chose the day before Memorial Day.

"They all say, 'Thank you,' and we say, 'Oh, thank you,' " said Halleck, whose famous chocolate brownies disappeared shortly after she set them out.

USO director Mary Lou Austin says her office, which includes a library, wireless access, a full kitchen and comfortable chairs where military personnel can just relax, typically serves between 300 and 800 visitors a day. This weekend has seen even larger crowds, with many people on military leave, she said.

Monday's spread will be a hot, chef-catered meal instead of the usual sandwiches and chips.

"Every holiday, we make it special," Austin said.

The USO, which is funded by private donations and grants from organizations including the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta, takes special care of young military family members.

"Every child waiting for their mother or father downstairs gets a stuffed animal," Austin said.

Atlanta's response to the USO's needs has been so great that volunteer shifts are generally always filled. People interested in helping could consider donating items such as bottled water or phone cards, she said. (For information, see usogeorgia.org.)

Outside the USO office, Pvt. Christina Jones and Pfc. Markus Edwards contemplated their unique Memorial Day plans. They were heading out Sunday night, and sometime Monday, they'll arrive in Kuwait. It's the first time either of the soldiers, stationed at Fort Gordon in Augusta, has traveled outside the United States.

"I'm used to being home with my family, barbecuing or something," said Jones, 23. "This is going to be weird, being in a foreign country."

Her father, a career Army man, inspired her to enlist. She's been in for nine months and already plans a 20-year hitch.

"I've learned that I'm capable of doing a lot more than I would have expected," she said. "Fears I had, I can conquer. I can accomplish anything if I put my mind to something."

She and Edwards, who has been in the service for about a year, say Memorial Day has taken on special meaning since they signed up.

"Memorial Day is taking time out to reflect," said Edwards, 22.

Jones had a slightly different take, as a service member cognizant of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country: "Now you know you're lucky to be here."

Williams, the Air Force Reserve nurse, said she's happy to be home, and she's thinking of the service members who aren't.

"It's a real honor to serve overseas in Iraq," she said. "There are a lot of individuals still serving there, and we miss them."

Williams, her family says, is usually the one organizing themed party plans.

"We went on a cruise once, and she gave us little gift bags and pencils with our names on them," said Olivia Cooney, who is engaged to Williams' stepson Daniel Williams.

Whitney, Williams' daughter, said it was hard not getting to spend time with her mom on Mother's Day.

"We're going to make up for it," said Whitney, who made a mix CD with songs like "500 Miles" and "Lonely No More" to welcome her mother home. "It's really cool that she's coming home right next to Memorial Day. We just want her to feel appreciated for everything she does."