Returning Marines Get the Homecoming Surprise of Their Lives

Lindsy Wadas welcomes Major Matthew Winkelbauer at O'Hare International Airport. Photo: Lindsy Wadas. Nine Marines got a special surprise welcome at Chicago's O’Hare International Airport on Monday during the last leg of their 5-day journey that began in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, and was slated to end at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in San Diego County, California. The big homecoming included a water salute from the Chicago Fire Department, which took place as the Marines’ plane taxied under an arch of water on the tarmac, as well as a greeting by a cheering welcoming committee at the gate that included members of the Chicago Fire and Police departments, volunteers from the USO at O’Hare International Airport, and American Airlines passengers and personnel.  And there was still more to come.

“It’s a really super nice gesture,” Major Matthew Winkelbauer, one of the nine marines, tells Yahoo Shine. “It’s nice to know that some people are still following troop redeployments and the war going on in Afghanistan. For people to take time out of their day to stop by and give us a thank you, it really does mean a lot to us.” This was Wilkelbauers fourth deployment in his 18-year military career and, he says, the first time he’s been the recipient of such a grand welcome-home gesture.

The USO at O’Hare International Airport was told of the Marines’ arrival just two hours before they landed. According to Lindsy Wadas, USO of O’Hare Centers' director, her office received a call from Stephanie Hare, the fiancée of Captain Pravin Rajan, a member of Winkelbauer’s Marine unit. “We usually have 24 hours to prepare,” Wadas tells Yahoo Shine, who notes that the USO Center at O’Hare gets up to eight calls a month from individuals who want to do something special for returning military personnel.

At first, though, the troops confused the homecoming with something very different. It was so dark outside when they landed that Winkelbauer said all the Marines could see of the water salute from inside the plane were red, flashing lights. “When we saw the sirens we thought there had been a airport shooting,” says Winkelbauer. A flight attendant then announced that the Marines would be getting off the plane first, he recalls, “We all thought, oh no, they must really need our help.” It wasn’t until the Marines reached the end of the jet way and were greeted by a firefighter saying, “Welcome Back,” that they knew exactly what was going on.

After a warm welcome at the gate, the men were then given a police escort to the gate for their departure flight — and were surprised yet again, this time with an upgrade to first class for their flight to San Diego. In addition to the six seats American Airlines gave them, "Three passengers gave up their seats in first class so we could all sit together,” says Winkelbauer.

Over 1,000 members of the military come through the two USO centers at O’Hare International Airport each week and are given free food, a comfortable place to rest between flights, and assistance with travel plans, if needed, says Wadas, who runs the operations with the help of two part-time employees and a whopping 300 volunteers. “Each center is meant to be a home away from home,” she says. “We try to make it as comfortable as possible so people can relax.” As for first-class upgrades, well, that's not guaranteed.