Marines returning home from Afghanistan get hero's welcome at Chicago airport
CHICAGO — It didn't matter that the 13 Marines on their way home from Afghanistan had been fighting in a war that no longer dominates the news or that they were stopping only for a short time in Chicago before flying to San Diego.
When USO volunteer John Colas heard with just an hour's notice that the Marines' plane was bearing down on Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, he and others scrambled to make sure they got a hero's welcome.
“We want these kids coming home to realize that they haven't been forgotten,” said Colas, a 74-year-old retired Marine.
The reception started with a water salute in which their plane taxied underneath an arch of water from fire truck hoses.
The Marines, who had spent the better part of five days getting on and off planes to get home from the other side of the world, were then met by a small crowd of cheering USO volunteers, firefighters, police officers and airport workers as they walked into the terminal.
A short time later, boarding another jet for San Diego, the Marines learned that American Airlines, which has a policy to upgrade servicemen and women in uniform whenever possible, had six empty seats in first class for the group.
That gesture was followed by seven first-class passengers who jumped out of their seats for the other Marines so they could sit together.
“It was incredibly touching,” Capt. Pravin Rajan said on returning to Camp Pendleton in California. “Afghanistan is a very complex and ambiguous war ... and a difficult thing to keep track of, so it is amazing when we are 10 years (into) a war and there is still that kind of community, that level of support, the level of willingness to go out of one's way.”
The welcome home had started with a phone call. Stephanie Hare, a native of Illinois who now works in England, called the USO at O'Hare and explained to Colas that her fiance, Rajan, who had served for seven months in Afghanistan, was with a dozen other Marines on a plane bound for Chicago from Baltimore.
Colas got on the phone with the police and fire departments and the airlines.
“There must have been 15 Chicago firemen and an equal number of Chicago police, and they formed a corridor for the Marines when they got off the airplane,” he said.