Young soldiers in camouflaged fatigues inundated Lambert-St. Louis International Airport early Thursday as far as the eye could see, with one thing in mind: Getting home.
It was the annual exodus from Missouri’s Fort Leonard Wood, where they are being trained for the Army. Some 4,000 soldiers began arriving at Lambert by bus well before dawn to wait for flights home for the holiday. They’re due back at the post in early January.
The sendoff for the troops creates a party atmosphere at Lambert. It has become as much a part of Christmas as Santa and caroling. Buses from the post started arriving at the airport after 1 a.m. The USO of Missouri and scores of volunteers met the bleary-eyed soldiers with cheers, food and freebies.
Fourteen days of freedom, away from basic training or military exercises, away from drill sergeants snapping orders. The soldiers, some of whom haven’t been home since late summer, were making plans for fun.
As soon as his plane lands in Wyoming, Mitchell Kinsinger will head to the local high school to surprise his girlfriend. Jacob McMillian will grab his dog and go duck hunting at a Louisiana swamp. Logan Billingsley already is envisioning his first stop, for what he calls the best food ever, at a Whataburger in Bossier City, La.
And Andrew Dougherty’s most-pressing concern upon arrival in Houston?
“I would say something cheesy like hug my mom, but really … sleep,” Dougherty said.
While he waited for his flight, Dougherty paid $8 to have his Army issued boots cleaned at a shoeshine station at Lambert. He said he wanted to look his best.
Dougherty was hoping for one simple Christmas gift, earbuds. On the post, he said, those in basic training are not allowed to listen to music while in uniform.
“There are a few things in basic you miss, and music is definitely one of them,” he said.
Something Kinsinger won’t miss while he’s on leave is his morning wake up call at the post. Two guards in the bay flip the lights on at 4 a.m. every day. The soldiers have a half hour to get “formed up.” Then, at 4:30 a.m., they go outside and stand for a half hour. Physical training follows that. Each day brings a different focus on training.
“Today would be ‘Muscle Failure Day,'” Kinsinger said. “Push ups and sit ups until you can’t do any more.”
Kinsinger and McMillian graduated basic training in early November and are now in advanced training. Both say they are more physically fit and mature than when they left home. They are different people now than the young men their families saw in August.
“This changes you mentally and physically,” Kinsinger said. “I talk to my dad on the phone usually every day and he can see it.”
He said he realizes he has a different outlook than some of his hometown friends, who complain about having to go to work or being home at a certain time. He said he’s beyond that.
McMillian, 21, said he isn’t the same troublemaker some in town would remember. On his Christmas break, he’ll still be tooling around West Monroe, La., in a 1990 Suburban, but his beard is gone and he’s more respectful, he said. His speech is loaded with “yes, ma’am” and “yes, sir,” and he is all about the Army and duty.
“I’m representing something greater than myself now,” he said.
The young soldiers smiled — some actually blushed — when the crowds at Lambert cheered their arrival. After weeks of being ordered to do this or that, the soldiers were being doted on by patriotic volunteers.
“Everyone was clapping. It feels good, but it’s almost like I don’t deserve that yet,” Dougherty said. “I don’t feel myself a soldier. We haven’t graduated basic yet.”
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