Crowd at SM Airport Welcomes First Returning Military Members of 2014

2014-01-05T00:55:00Z Veterans, civilians greet Vandenberg-based airmenBen Miller/ Santa Maria Times

When Rich Theis was in the Air Force in the 1970s, he saw soldiers and service members come home to disgust.  “When a lot of the guys came home from Vietnam, they were met at the airport by booing, hissing, spitting people,” he said.

On Saturday, he personally showed up to provide a more positive response. Theis was one of about 60 people who stood in the Santa Maria Public Airport terminal, waving flags and shouting “Welcome home!” as four airmen arrived from a six-month deployment to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“I didn’t want them coming home to an empty terminal and nobody saying ‘Thanks for your service,’” Theis said.

The four Air Force members were Senior Airmen Max Morell and Jordan Scott and Staff Sgts. Todd Zahler and Owen Coulombe, all assigned to the 30th Civil Engineer Squadron at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

It was the first time the organizing group, Welcome Home Military Heroes, greeted returning service members in 2014, according to co-founder Cheryl Tolan. Since the Tolan family attended the first 10-person welcoming in 2010, the organization has held events for more than 500 men and women.

The group was set to hold a second event late Saturday night for two more returning service members, and will host a third Friday.

The crowd of supporters, ranging from young children to World War II veterans, cheered and waved a sea of flags as the four men walked into the airport Saturday afternoon. A line of participants steadily shook their hands and gave thanks for their service in between the airmen signing Welcome Home Military Heroes flags, posing for pictures and greeting friends.

The airmen didn’t expect the crowd of people waiting for them, and all wore smiles when they first saw the mass of participants waving flags and signs. Coulombe said he never received a welcome like that one after he returned from a previous deployment to Iraq.

Morell, who has been deployed three other times, said this greeting was more personal than any he’s experienced.  “It’s definitely a morale booster,” Morell said. “I’m very happy to see them. I’m glad we can affect the community like that.”

Several of the people in the crowd were wearing the leather jackets and patches of the Patriot Guard, and more were veterans. But Theis said anybody can and should show their support for returning service members.  “Anybody can show up,” he said. “You know, you don’t have to be on a bike. You can be in a car, you can be on a freakin’ tricycle. You don’t have to be military. You just show up and say thanks.”

January 5, 2014 •  Ben Miller/