By Sarah Peachey, Fort Polk Guardian staff writerOctober 31, 2011
ALEXANDRIA, La., Oct. 31, 2011 -- When Soldiers redeploy from a combat zone, they can spend days going from flight to flight, slowly working their way home to waiting families. They are left in airports, trying to sleep, hoping to save up some energy to greet their loved ones.
The wait can be frustrating, but a smile from caring volunteers that greet the service members when they land at Alexandria International Airport to in-process and board buses home, goes a long way.
The Apple Pie Brigade, started by Sara Simmonds, a 93-year-old patriot, helps to bring those smiles to waiting Soldiers. Her "brigade" is at the airport for every departure and arrival, no matter what time of day.
"The Soldiers are our heroes and we are privileged to be here to meet them," Simmonds said.
The Apple Pie Brigade began in 2004 when the 116th Brigade Combat Team of the Idaho National Guard was waiting to fly out of Alexandria's airport. They were expected to wait three days before flying to Kuwait, but were stuck in Alexandria for six weeks, Simmonds said.
"They didn't have any food, transportation or laundry services. We brought them into our homes and churches to take care of them," Simmonds said.
Glenda Stock, the owner/operator of a McDonald's in Alexandria, donated individual apple pies to give to the waiting Soldiers.
Simmonds decided on apple pies because they are "American" and "remind the Soldiers of home," she said.
"Some of these Soldiers have been here four times and had four apple pies. They tell us, 'We've been waiting for these since we left.' It's wonderful being the first people they see when they come home and the last ones they see when they leave," Simmonds said. "We always make sure to tell them, 'We'll be here when you get back.'"
Whether it is 2 a.m., the middle of the day or 11 p.m., the Apple Pie Brigade is waiting to welcome the Soldiers with smiles, cheers, hugs and handshakes.
"We have 255 Soldiers getting off the plane today, so it takes a team to do it. It's just a small contribution we can give to them," Simmonds said.
Simmonds lost her husband during World War II, so she knows what it means to go through military service, she said.
The Apple Pie Brigade has delivered more than 24,695 pies and the number will continue to rise. Funding comes from church and individual monetary donations.
"I've been doing this for about five years now and have seen some Soldiers off two or three times," said Bud Breithaupt, an Apple Pie Brigade member. "We wouldn't want to be anywhere else -- they are our heroes."
"We just tell them we never leave," joked Jim Leggett, another member of the team.
"The great thing about this group is that we aren't associated with any one organization," he said. "We all attend different churches and are parts of different groups."
Carolyn Pate, part of the Apple Pie Brigade, said the one thing members of the "brigade" have in common is passion for those passing through.
"That's our one common denominator," Pate said. "The Soldiers are always super nice and appreciative."
As the plane lands on the tarmac at Alexandria International Airport, the Apple Pie Brigade moves outside and forms a welcome line at the doors.
Members of the Combat Veteran's Association join up with the Apple Pie Brigade, some of whom are Soldiers that returned on earlier flights.
The Soldiers step off the plane, shaking hands with Antonia and Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk commanding general Brig. Gen. Clarence K.K. Chinn.
Once they cross the tarmac to enter the facility, the Soldiers pass through the Combat Veterans and Apple Pie Brigade.
Some of the Soldiers' faces light at the gathering of volunteers; they shake hands and receive pats on the back, preparing for their final leg of the trip home.
"It's nice knowing people show up to support us and welcome us home. It's great stepping off the plane to people cheering and clapping. Now I'm just looking forward to going home and playing with my kids," said Staff Sgt. Daniel Shelly. His two children are 3 and 1.
"It feels great to be welcomed back after days of being in airports and on airplanes. Once you're welcomed back, you know you're back," said Sgt. Jessie Smith.
Jeff Stuhlman, known as "Steady" by the Combat Veteran's Association, is a retired Marine and understands the importance of Soldiers coming home to a welcoming committee.
"We know that the only welcome home most Vietnam vets received was getting spit on. We want to make sure that doesn't happen to these Soldiers," Stuhlman said.
The Combat Veteran's Association gathers up members in coordination with post headquarters to not only ride to Alexandria to welcome the Soldiers, but to escort them back to the post.
"We've received a lot of feedback from the Soldiers lately. Some of these guys are actual Soldiers who just got back," Stuhlman said.
"It's amazing to see their faces when we welcome them back. They aren't expecting us to be here and they don't expect to receive the thank you they deserve."
As long as service members are arriving and departing from AEX in service of their country, the Apple Pie Brigade will be there too, offering as many "welcome homes" as their voices can provide.
Because according to Simmonds and her team, the least they can do is let the Soldiers know their hard work is appreciated.