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13 Marines get impromptu Chicago airport welcome

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 6 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

This Monday, Nov. 4, 2013 photo provided by American Airlines shows a group of Marines walking through a terminal at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport  during part of their journey back home after a tour of duty in Afghanistan. The Marines were treated like heroes at the airport after a retired Marine and some others were not going to let them make the final leg of their journey to San Diego without thanking them for their service.  (Vic Ysais, Associated Press) This Monday, Nov. 4, 2013 photo provided by American Airlines shows a group of Marines walking through a terminal at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport during part of their journey back home after a tour of duty in Afghanistan. The Marines were treated like heroes at the airport after a retired Marine and some others were not going to let them make the final leg of their journey to San Diego without thanking them for their service. (Vic Ysais, Associated Press)

CHICAGO — A group of Marines on their way home from Afghanistan got something they didn't expect after spending the better part of five days getting on and off planes as they tried to get from one side of the globe to another: cheers from a small crowd of police, a fire truck water salute and first-class plane tickets.

The 13 Marines found themselves treated like heroes Monday night at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport after a retired Marine and others scrambled to make sure they were thanked in style before departing on the final leg of their journey to San Diego.

After their plane taxied beneath an arch of water from fire department hoses in what is called a water salute, the Marines walked into the terminal and were met by a small crowd of cheering USO volunteers, firefighters, police officers and airport workers.

A short time later, boarding another jet for San Diego, the Marines learned that American Airlines — which has a policy to upgrade servicemen and women in uniform whenever possible — had six empty seats in first class for the group. That gesture was followed by seven first-class passengers who jumped out of their seats for the other Marines so they could sit together.

This Monday, Nov. 4, 2013 photo provided by the USO of Illinois shows Lindsy Wadas, director of the USO Center at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport with U.S. Marine Maj. Matthew Winkelbauer, left, after he and 12 other Marines arrived in Chicago before the final leg of their trip home to San Diego after a tour in Afghanistan. The Marines got something special during their stop at O'Hare. They were treated like heroes by of a small crowd of cheering USO volunteers, firefighters, police officers and others who work at the airport. (Courtesy of the USO of Illinois, Associated Press) This Monday, Nov. 4, 2013 photo provided by the USO of Illinois shows Lindsy Wadas, director of the USO Center at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport with U.S. Marine Maj. Matthew Winkelbauer, left, after he and 12 other Marines arrived in Chicago before the final leg of their trip home to San Diego after a tour in Afghanistan. The Marines got something special during their stop at O'Hare. They were treated like heroes by of a small crowd of cheering USO volunteers, firefighters, police officers and others who work at the airport. (Courtesy of the USO of Illinois, Associated Press)

"It was incredibly touching," Capt. Pravin Rajan said in a telephone interview from Camp Pendleton in California. "Afghanistan is a very complex and ambiguous war ... and a difficult thing to keep track of so it is amazing when we are 10 years (into) a war and there is still that kind of community, that level of support, the level of willingness to go out of one's way."

The welcome home started with a phone call. Stephanie Hare, a native of Illinois who now works in England, called the USO at O'Hare and explained that her fiance, Rajan, who had served seven months in Afghanistan, was with a dozen other Marines on a plane bound for Chicago from Baltimore.

"I just thought if they could get them some Chicago pizza, champagne or something, that would mean a lot," she said.

On the other end of the line was John Colas, a 74-year-old former Marine USO volunteer. He told Hare he'd try to do something in the hour or so before the flight landed. But he cautioned that while volunteers make an effort to welcome military personnel whenever they come through the airport, he wasn't sure he could pull anything off in such a short time.

This Monday, Nov. 4, 2013 photo provided by Pravin Rajan shows Marine Capt. Pravin Rajan after his arrival at San Diego International Airport in San Diego following in a tour of duty Afghanistan. Rajan was part of a group of 13 Marines that got a heroes welcome at Chicago's International Airport four days into a journey back home by of a small crowd of cheering USO volunteers, firefighters, police officers and others who work at the airport. Rajan says the reception he and his comrades received on their way to San Diego was This Monday, Nov. 4, 2013 photo provided by Pravin Rajan shows Marine Capt. Pravin Rajan after his arrival at San Diego International Airport in San Diego following in a tour of duty Afghanistan. Rajan was part of a group of 13 Marines that got a heroes welcome at Chicago's International Airport four days into a journey back home by of a small crowd of cheering USO volunteers, firefighters, police officers and others who work at the airport. Rajan says the reception he and his comrades received on their way to San Diego was "incredibly touching." (Sandhya Rajan, Associated Press)

Colas got on the phone with the police and fire departments, the airlines and anyone else he could think of.

"There must have been 15 Chicago firemen and an equal number of Chicago police and they formed a corridor for the Marines when they got off the airplane," he said.

Rajan said the Marines didn't know what to make of it, starting with the slightly unnerving experience of looking out a plane window to see a fire truck.

"For a second, we were like, 'Are we in trouble?'" he said.

After they realized the reception was for them, the Marines soaked in the scene, even as they said police officers hustled them off to another gate so they'd make their flight to San Diego.

"They were just so thankful — very, very appreciative," said Linda Kozma, an American Airlines employee who helps military personnel flying in and out of O'Hare.

Hare didn't know about any of it until she woke up Tuesday and heard Rajan relating the whole story in a voice mail.

"I just thought it was really beautiful," she said.

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