Ga. vets grateful to be home for Christmas

Noel (left) and Mary Ann Rivest, Jonathan Brewer’s sister and mother, hold signs and wear T-shirts welcoming the airman home for the holidays. DAN KLEPAL / DKLEPAL@AJC.COM

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Noel (left) and Mary Ann Rivest, Jonathan Brewer’s sister and mother, hold signs and wear T-shirts welcoming the airman home for the holidays. DAN KLEPAL / DKLEPAL@AJC.COM

The Rivest family came to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport this week with T-shirts, poster-board signs and huge smiles as they waited for family member and newly enlisted airman Johnathan Brewer to appear at the top of the escalator, where hundreds of people waited to greet family coming home for the holidays.

And so the Rivest family waited … and waited … and waited.

Then the phone rang, and they scurried down to the north baggage claim area.

“Somebody got lost,” dad Aaron Rivest said with a broad smile after delivering a bear hug to Jonathan, who did an unintentional end-run around the masses of people who took the more traveled route through the terminal after de-boarding.

This Christmas Day is a special one for the Rivest family — it’s Jonathan’s first since joining the military, and Aaron is home from Afghanistan, where he works as a civilian Department of Defense contractor advising the Afghan police and army.

Aaron said the past nine Christmas holidays have been different for him since he’s been working in a war zone.

“I just spend time with the family — no hunting, no friends, just the kids,” said Aaron, who is home for the first time in six months.

Jonathan, who flew in from Texas where he was stationed at Shepherd Air base, agreed.

“It makes you appreciate being home and the time you do have” with family, he said.

The Atlanta airport, which since 1998 has been the busiest in the world, serves about 250,000 passengers every day with an average of 2,500 flights. On Sunday, the airport is expected to surpass 100 million passengers this year — the first time any airport has served that many people in one calendar year, according to airport officials.

The number of daily passengers jumps over the holidays, with Sunday to be the busiest with nearly 80,000 passengers passing through security check points.

Doug Middleton is there to help.

A member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Middleton is one of dozens of volunteers who stands behind a United Service Organizations (USO) sign and offers directions or any other help to military personnel trying to navigate the busy airport.

The job has become more complicated since most soldiers now do not travel in uniform, but there are tricks to the trade. The biggest giveaway is often oversized and overstuffed camouflage duffel bags or backpacks.

“Sometimes you can tell they’re military by the haircuts or the hats,” said Middleton, of Roswell, who said he earned his Purple Heart serving in Vietnam when a landmine blew up in front of him.

Middleton said most soldiers just need a place to put down their heavy bags and take a rest. They are often directed to the USO facility on the second-floor atrium.

One year, Middleton said, a soldier lost his identification, and the Purple Heart volunteers help him find a hotel for the night then got him over to Dobbins Air base the next day for a new ID.

Middleton said he gets as much out of the effort as the soldiers he’s there to help.

“I think most of the Vietnam-era guys would tell you that this kind of thing is important because no one did it for us,” Middleton said. “And most of us decided that we would not let that happen anymore. So it probably means more to us than it does to them.”

The airport’s USO facility is a welcoming place — stocked with food and drinks, leather chairs large enough to catch a comfortable nap, televisions, and a children’s play area with books, games and toys.

Army Staff Sgt. Brian Martin and his three daughters hung out in the USO facility this week, while the girls waited for their flight to Germany. Martin was playing chauffeur, and drove back to Orlando after the girls were safely aboard the plane.

Martin, who retires Dec. 31 after 20 years of service, did two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan during his career. He said returning home for the holidays is always stressful.

“You’ve already missed so much time with the family that it’s always about re-connecting,” Martin said. “But you also have to depressurize. As a soldier, you’re used to being around a lot of people who are self-sufficient. It’s a big change to come home and have a lot of people who need things from you.”

The USO facility was a savior for James and Sheila Cain. James Cain retired from the Army in 1986 and spent 20 years working as a senior communications technician for the state.

The Cains, of Athens, caught a shuttle and arrived at the airport Tuesday at 8 a.m. for their 11 o’clock flight to Shreveport, La., where they are spending the holiday with their children, grandchildren and great-grand children. But when they arrived at the airport, they found that the flight left at 11 p.m., not 11 a.m.

“We’ve been here about 15 hours for a 2-hour flight,” James Cain said with a chuckle. “If it had been a morning flight, it’d have been perfect.”