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VIDEO: Military members home for the holidays greeted at airport by volunteers

Melanie Vanegas, 11, waits to welcome veterans at the Operation Handshake event in Gerald R. Ford International Airport, on Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2019, in Grand Rapids, Mich. (MLive.com/TNS)
December 03, 2019

Active duty military members and veterans were welcomed home Wednesday and thanked for their service when they arrived at Gerald R. Ford International Airport.

Community members, decorated veterans and families lined up at the two arrival gates with American flags and signs thanking the troops for their service. They were greeted with a handshake and a miniature flag as they arrived in Grand Rapids.

The annual initiative is called “Operation Handshake” and volunteers included the Patriot Guard Riders, Blue Star Mothers, therapy dog teams, and members of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

Jeffrey Valkier, of Hudsonville, retired from the United States Navy in 2001 and flew home Wednesday to be with his family for Thanksgiving. With tears in his eyes, he said he didn’t get this kind of welcome when he first came home.

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“But it’s alright, because we learn as we go,” he said.

Valkier said he’s proud to have served and that it’s a good experience for anyone.

“Service to your country is one of the greatest things you guys can do,” he said. “Whether it’s two years or a whole career, because you get to see the world, which I never would’ve.”

Volunteers were posted at both concourse exits beginning at 9 a.m. and will be there until 7 p.m.

While he wasn’t traveling today, a volunteer encouraged Veteran Julius “Corky” Horvath to still walk through the line and be thanked for his service. He was wearing a hat that said U.S. Air Force Veteran.

“When my youngest brother came home from Vietnam, people spit on him, they jeered him and called him names,” Horvath said. “What a thing to do to someone who gave his life. Unbelievable, relative to what is happening today.”

Horvath, originally from South Bend, joined the Army Reserves when he was a junior in high school, and a few days before graduation decided to enlist in the United States Air Force, where he served from 1955 to 1959.

“When I came back in those days, there was no welcoming committee,” Horvath said. “Today, this is really marvelous and really a great expression of the patriotic system that has come up in America, from what it used to be.”

Lynn Mason was the volunteer who pushed Horvath to walk down the line. She came on her own, not with an organization.

“My dad would have wanted to do the same thing,” Mason said, of her late veteran father, who she said was around the same age as Horvath.

“This is my first time coming to this event and what a nice way to start a Thanksgiving.”

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© 2019 MLive.com