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Troops released for the holidays but stuck at Atlanta airport

9:54 AM, Dec 21, 2012   |    comments
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ATLANTA -- Every day home on leave from war is a gift.

And the service members sleeping Thursday night in chairs and on carpets at Atlanta's Hartsfield Jackson Airport could only hope they'll be home in time for Christmas.

MORE: More than ten thousand passengers expected at JIA today

It was one of the busiest travel days of the season for the troops, and their trips home were interrupted indefinitely by bad weather -- not in Atlanta where they were changing planes, but at multiple other airports where they were trying to go.

"So you can imagine the impact that the weather has" on everyone, said the USO's Mary Lou Austin.

These are troops who take it to the Taliban in Afghanistan, but they were stopped cold in their tracks on their way back home by the snow storms shutting down airports throughout the Midwest.

"They've been released on leave, they're going home for the holidays, so this is really, really, really very important to them," Austin said.

Austin was armed with extra food, and volunteers and staffers around the clock, to take care of the troops for what may be days of unexpected camping in the USO's facilities at the airport.

"We have the best lounge chairs in the airport," she said with a smile, speaking of the amenities in the USO lounge on the second floor overlooking the airport's atrium.

One of those lounge chairs is home, for now, for U.S. Army Captain Julie Cordes, who can't get to Chicago.

"I have a husband and two children hanging out, waiting on me," she said, smiling as she thought of them.

She made it all the way to Atlanta from Afghanistan in record time -- "We got very lucky, got all the way to Atlanta before we had any delays."

She started to laugh, gently,

"I'm getting random email from my daughter -- 'Mom, are you coming home?' Question marks, question marks."

At least 4,000 troops transferred through Hartsfield Jackson this day alone.

And no one knows yet how many of them are trying to get on standby lists for other flights which are all, already, booked through Christmas Eve.

Capt. Cordes is thinking of her family, but she's also thinking of all the troops in Afghanistan who did not get Christmas leave this year.

"It's a lot of really long days" for soldiers during their tours of duty, "I can tell you everyone I work with, they're very engaged in the future of Afghanistan, it's a 24-hour proposition there. People don't sleep a lot [over there], they really don't."

Until they get to Hartsfield Jackson.

As she spoke, another soldier was sleeping soundly in another one of the "best lounge chairs in the airport," stuck here by the weather, maybe sleeping to music, thinking of the promise he might have made to his family this year -- "I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams...."

Ask Mary Lou Austin of the USO if she needs anything, right now, besides donations of money, for the USO and the troops, and she will tell you, yes -- some fresh fruit: apples, bananas.  And orange juice.

WXIA

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