Free Hugs

I moved to San Diego in 2003. We were a country at war, and for the first time I was living in a city known for its military presence. These were the people I grocery shopped with, wrote stories about, and made out with in bars. (Ok so all of that happened in college up near Great Lakes, IL, too, but still.) Seeing so many uniforms was a daily reminder of the faces that matched the names and numbers of troops moving into one country, and then in another.

I covered homecomings for a local tv station. It’s so very easy to become desensitized when you work in news, but I think you’d have to be a statue to not get chills when a massive ship pulls up with sailors lining the deck. Or to not have tears stream down your cheek when you see they let the new dads off first. The dads who missed their child’s birth because they were somewhere protecting your freedom and carefree way of life.

And then one day we did a story about a marine hugging program at a local base. Marines + hugging? I didn’t know how that could possibly end poorly. My friend Erin and I signed up because we love our country and are all about supporting the troops.

Something you should know: Hugging is my favorite. I think you can tell a lot from a hug. How comfortable someone is. How much they like you. How much they’ve missed you. How much they need a hug.

It’s a scientific fact: people need human touch. And sometimes you really just need a hug. Something I just read called it a “handshake from the heart.” How adorable is that??

There are certain times when people just need a good squeeze, and – in those times – maybe you find out you needed to give them a hug as much as they needed to get one.

So we get the email. There’s a homecoming! This is it. We are Professional Marine Huggers reporting for duty. (I’m pretty sure that’s what we said at the gate.)

A little bit about the program. It’s kind of a piggyback to programs where you can invite a single Marine or Sailor over for Thanksgiving dinner. I think we kinda looked into that one, and were happy to find the hugging option as an alternative. Spoiler alert: I’ve never made Thanksgiving dinner. But I’m going to hedge my bets that I give better hugs.

(Seriously. I give really good, tight hugs. If this was an episode of Reading Rainbow, this is the part where I would say, “But you don’t have to take my word for it!” and have a video montage of people talking about my hugs. But it’s not, and I don’t.)

So what happens during a homecoming is families get to be there when the plane or ship comes in. They make signs, dress up, scream and jump up and down. It’s pretty magical. But not everyone coming home has a family who can make it. That’s where the huggers come in. You watch as the plane lands and then when you see people who are not being mounted, you step forward and offer your services. Your HUGGING services.

As the plane taxied to the hangar, the nerves set in. What the heck were we about to do? Run up and hug strangers like a couple of fools? How would this not be awkward? Then the plane stopped and people started to deboard. And they looked like babies.

I wasn’t prepared for how young these men and women would be. And they were coming BACK. They had been there for around a year I want to say. Their leader (I don’t want to misspeak about his rank.) had been severely wounded in an attack, sent back here to recover, but insisted on flying back to bring his (is platoon the right word?) home. I know this because his wife came up to us and asked for a hug. And then we hugged him. And then we were pretty much just hugging everyone because sh*t got real that day.

It’s so easy to – if you’re not directly involved in a military family – live daily life as if thousands of men and women aren’t putting theirs at risk. But they are. And, God willing, they’ll wake up and do it tomorrow too. And the day after that. And so on. And so on. A day on the calendar…a thank you…seems nowhere near gratitude enough for what they do for us. And they don’t do it for a huge paycheck, or glory, or recognition.

As the holidays approach, there are so many ways to get involved and help out. The USO is a good place to start. I’ll poke around and find some other opportunities and do another post about that. If anyone else knows of anything, feel free to let me know.

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One Response to Free Hugs

  1. Lyndsay says:

    Girl, you make me cry. Awesome story.

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