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CHARLOTTE, N.C.-By mid-December, passengers at Charlotte's busy international airport form long lines and slouch over small piles of luggage, resigned to the holiday crush. Beyond the crowded security checkpoints, Terry Tellison and Jesús Rodriguez squeeze through the teeming food court and climb up a set of winding, red stairs. A sign at the top tells the young men with heavy backpacks and worn combat boots that they're in the right place. It reads: "USO: Until everyone comes home."
With more than 150,000 U.S. military personnel in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are 33 similar centers worldwide to serve. The centers help with issues like connecting flights and lost luggage and provide a comfortable place to relax during layovers.
Since opening in September, the center has served more than 13,000 people, according to Jack Ahart, a retired Navy captain who runs the center full-time. Ahart expects thousands more will pass through over the Christmas holidays as soldiers like Tellison and Rodriguez travel home.
From his cluttered desk in a tiny space near the back of the lounge, Ahart fields a steady stream of phone calls and talks about how the center began: The small lounge used to be a British Airways VIP lounge. When the airline left Charlotte, the airport donated the space for a nonprofit USO lounge.
"We wanted to keep that VIP atmosphere because we believe all our troops are VIPs," Ahart told WORLD. Soldiers relax under soft lights in spacious leather recliners, sipping complimentary coffee or soft drinks and watching FOX News on a flat-screen television. Others sit behind a bank of three computers, surfing the internet and logging into military websites to check on email and orders from superiors.
Sprint donates phone cards for soldiers to call home. Local companies donate hot dogs, chips, crackers, desserts, and drinks. Over Thanksgiving weekend, volunteers served turkey and homemade side dishes to 680 people. An Episcopal church in a neighboring town is donating enough food for a full meal over Christmas.
Ahart is one of two full-time employees at the center that depend on some 160 volunteers working three-hour shifts to help keep the lounge open from 6:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m. seven days a week. Near the front of the center, three volunteers sit around a short table in a children's corner wrapping small stuffed animals in Christmas paper. The American Legion donated the toys for military kids who visit the lounge over the holidays.
Carroll Huneycutt is a US Airways pilot at the airport who volunteers before his shift begins, and says his 24 years in the Air Force inspire his service in the lounge. Arnie Sparr recently retired to the Charlotte area and volunteers in the center once a week. "They [the troops] deserve anything we can do for them," says Sparr as he wraps a small bear. "I'm not sacrificing anything by coming down here."
But Ahart says the lounge sees plenty of sacrifice: When soldiers wounded in combat travel through the airport, a volunteer meets their flights to escort them to the lounge during layovers. And Ahart fights tears when he talks about a young widow who recently visited the center with her baby en route to a funeral for her husband, who had been killed in Iraq.
The center also sees the sacrifice of troops like Tellison and Rodriguez. The two soldiers sit near a Christmas tree decorated with white lights and American flags just hours after arriving in the United States on short leaves from their stations in Iraq. Both have been away from home for more than six months.
"I can't wait to see my kids in a couple of hours," says Rodriguez, a PFC in the Army's 3rd Brigade, BSTS, Airborne Division. Rodriguez, 23, is headed to Fort Bragg in Jacksonville, N.C., to spend Christmas with his wife and two small children. He is one of just a few in his unit granted leave: "I was lucky."
Tellison, 21, isn't feeling very lucky. The PFC in Alpha Company's 1/B1 Airborne Division is on emergency leave to visit his terminally ill mother in Alabama. Doctors project she has two weeks to live, and Tellison is on his way to say goodbye over Christmas.
The young soldier is already familiar with deep loss. As a crew chief on Black Hawk helicopters, one of Tellison's duties in Iraq is to help retrieve fallen soldiers from the field: "It's one of the things I hate most about my job." He clenches his jaw while recalling his first mission: "He [the fallen soldier] was messed up so bad there was blood gushing out of the zippers of the bag."
Tellison's face grows rigid when he talks about coping with horrifying missions. "It's best to wait until after the flight to grieve," he says. "But it's hard to separate your emotions like that. . . . You never realize the value of your life until you transport someone else's."
Rodriguez and Tellison break the tension of grim memories by stepping outside the lounge to smoke. Stepping outside to smoke is one of the things they'll have to get used to at home. "You can smoke anywhere over there except for the Starbucks in Kuwait," says Tellison.
Rodriguez, who helps build security walls around U.S. bases in Iraq, says he'll also have to get used to letting his guard down with strangers while he's at home: "It's hard to go from trusting no one, to all of a sudden everyone's your friend."
By the time the soldiers adjust to life at home, it will be time to return to Iraq. Tellison has a 2-year-old daughter and says that "hard ain't the word" to describe the thought of leaving Alabama later this month. But he says thoughts of his family will keep him motivated when he returns: "If you go over there with the idea of keeping everybody in America safe, you'll never succeed. . . . But if everybody says, 'Today I'm going to keep my family safe,' then you can get somewhere."
And both men say that returning to their units will be like returning to family. "You don't really have a bond with them before you go," Rodriguez says of his fellow soldiers. "But once you're there, you'd do anything for them."
For now, the two soldiers say they'll enjoy their families here while they can. "I really don't want any gifts for Christmas," says Tellison. "I just want to be home."