by Bobby Anderson
Steven Lee came through Will Rogers World Airport in 2013 looking for a USO to volunteer with and found the YMCA Military Welcome Center instead.
He volunteered then and there and six months later the job of director was his.
Today he and some 70 volunteers – many of them ex-servicemen and women – provide a space to hang out, a bit of food for the journey, and more often than not, an ear willing to listen for military members and their families traveling the globe.
The first military welcome center at Will Rogers was started by the Blue Star Mothers in 2007 with 15 volunteers.
A single table held juice and sandwiches.
“They were quickly overwhelmed so the YMCA stepped in,” Lee said.
Today, the Welcome Center offers a restful and relaxing atmosphere for traveling military members from all branches, active or retired. The center provides refreshment, internet access, long-distance phone service, stamps and stationery, games and hi-definition satellite TV on a big screen.
The MWC is a collaboration between four entities: the City of Oklahoma City, Will Rogers World Airport, the Armed Services YMCA, and the Earlywine Park YMCA.
The center operates primarily with the help of volunteers and community donations. The caring volunteers strive to provide a home-like atmosphere for the travelers, and vendors such as Pepsi Bottling Group and BOINGO, provide drinks and internet access.
And the center gets a workout.
Some 31,000 people went through last year from those heading out to basic training to entire troop movements that got delayed.
Lee said the center spends about $3,500 a month in pizza alone to feed hungry military travelers.
FIRST TIME THROUGH
Buses arrive every day at 6:30 a.m., 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. for those heading to basic training at Ft. Sill.
It’s the volunteers’ job to get those soldiers lined out and ready to go.
“They have no idea what they’re getting into and they’re all nervous,” said Lee, a former MP who retired from the Army in 1997. “When I brief them I always start out saying ‘Who’s nervous about going to basic training?’ I’ll get one or two hands go up.”
“Then I ask ‘Who’s lying to me?’ The rest of the hands go up. I’ve got 20 years in the Army so I try to ease their fears and the way to get through basic training.”
A PROPER WELCOME
Lee’s volunteers range from ex-service members to those who just want to give back and show their respect for those who serve.
“I have one lady that when she was a single mother in Houston the YMCA never refused her son to play in sports even though she might not have been able to afford it,” Lee said. “She wants to give back.”
“There’s a big variety and a lot of reasons.”
Bob Cohoon spent 22 years in the Army, retiring as a First Sergeant.
After driving a bus at the Oklahoma City VA Hospital, Cohoon decided to volunteer at the welcome center. “It’s altogether different,” Cohoon said of how servicemen and women are welcomed home today. “When I got out we still had the draft so it was a different military. Today these kids are volunteering for different reasons.”
“When I came back from Vietnam we were called baby killers. (Ironically) my job over there for nine months was running a POW hospital and all we did was take care of the enemy.”
Gene Allen was originally drafted for the Korean War. He spent two years in the Army at Ft. Bliss, Texas before eventually settling in for 28 years in the Air National Guard.
“I’ve always enjoyed the military and I remember being a draftee and I remember what that was like,” Allen said. “It’s satisfying to give them a little encouragement.”
Allen tries to ease nerves as best he can. He remembers what it was like being away from home for the first time and going into the unknown.
The way he sees it, volunteering at the welcome center is a way to help the next generation of soldiers.
Cohoon says he gets something out of it, too.
“It keeps me young really,” he laughed.
Lee said the goal in the future is to open the center 24 hours a day.
Some days the center sees one or two visitors. Other days several families pass through waiting for their loved ones to arrive.
And some days entire units are stuck in the airport awaiting transport.
“It’s feast or famine,” Lee says. “But our sole mission is to give them a nice place to wait for onward transportation.”