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"Operation Handshake" offers special holiday welcome for veterans and active military

Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio

A group of volunteers has been welcoming veterans and active military servicemen and women home for the holidays at the Grand Rapids airport.

Volunteers with “Operation Handshake” come almost daily around the holidays. They line up with signs and flags. Those they can identify as soldiers get a warm welcome, a Christmas card and a salute.

“I thought they were waiting for somebody,” Steve Badger said of the crowd, “and they asked me if I’m a vet and I said 'yeah I did my eight years in Vietnam' and stuff and they said, 'well this is for you.' It was really touching. Made my wife cry and me too a little bit. It’s very nice.”

Badger flew in from Oregon to visit his mother, who lives north of Grand Rapids.

The volunteers don’t always know who’s a service member or veteran. They simply ask as people get off the plane.

Russel Gilbert came to the airport from Cadillac to drop his daughter off. He joined the line when he figured out what they were doing.

“I’ve never seen that happen and I’m glad it does,” Gilbert said. “That’s a welcome that we never got when we got home. During Vietnam we was treated like scum of the earth and I just like to see our boys treated right.”

Joe Langevin is with the Patriot Guard Riders. The group honors vets at military funerals and, around Thanksgiving and Christmas, they also get together for this special operation.

“Back in 1976 you took your uniform off before you got off the plane. You didn’t want to be seen in a uniform,” Langevin reflected. “Those were bad days,” he said.

“A lot of the guys here who did serve have sworn that that’s never going to happen again on our watch,” he said.

Langevin traveled from Battle Creek to take part.

Kathy Barnes came from north of Mt. Pleasant for the days. She’s with the Blue Star Mothers of America. Both her sons are no longer active in the military. But she remembers how the group welcomed her son home. Now she feels like she’s giving back.

“There’s always going to be a troop who needs a mom. So I’m in this for life,” Barnes said.

“Everybody calls and wants to know if we’ll do it again and we say ‘yeah, we’d be out here no matter what,'” said Tony Van Gessel. He’s the senior ride captain of the Patriot Guard Riders chapter.

He says there have been more volunteers this year than any other year.

“It’s not about us. It’s about the soldiers,” he said.

Lindsey Smith helps lead the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Radio’s Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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