Fort Sill soldiers stop at Will Rogers during trip home for holidays

BY DARLA SLIPKE dslipke@opubco.com Modified: December 19, 2010 at 12:57 am •  Published: December 19, 2010

Pfc. Collin Chenoweth was thrilled Saturday morning when he discovered the surprise waiting for him from his mom and girlfriend.

Chenoweth, 22, was among an estimated 1,000 soldiers from Fort Sill who stopped at Will Rogers World Airport on their way home for the holidays.

Chenoweth's mom and girlfriend plotted for two weeks, then drove about four hours from Neosho, Mo., to meet him at the airport. Chenoweth, who hadn't expected to see his girlfriend, wrapped them in a giant hug the first opportunity he got.

Earlier that morning, dozens of volunteers from Blue Star Mothers and other military support groups gathered at the YMCA Military Welcome Center at Will Rogers World Airport to prepare for the soldiers' arrival.

Volunteers lined the edge of a loading dock outside the welcome center and craned their necks to watch for the soldiers' buses. They erupted in cheers when the first four buses rolled in. Some volunteers starting singing “Jingle Bells” and others rushed to help with the soldiers' bags.

Brooke Erhart, Chenoweth's girlfriend, peered out a window from inside the welcome center.

Shelly McKinzie, Chenoweth's mom, paced the loading dock area. It took her a few minutes to spot her son among all the other shaved heads. A volunteer called Chenoweth's name to help McKinzie find him in the crowd.

Once McKinzie and Erhart were reunited with Chenoweth, they rubbed his head, gave him kisses and didn't let go.

They had been counting down the days and hours until they would see him again. Chenoweth had been at basic training for about six weeks.

“We've been like a little kid waiting for Christmas morning,” McKinzie said. “This is the best Christmas present right here.”

Every year soldiers from Fort Sill travel through Will Rogers on their way home for the holidays, and every year military organizations and other volunteers greet them. On Saturday, dozens of volunteers who were dressed in Santa hats and other holiday attire welcomed the bleary-eyed soldiers with Christmas carols, fresh grinders, pizza, hot coffee, entertainment and more.

Carol Farmer, coordinator of Saturday's welcome event and president of the Oklahoma Chapter 6 of the Blue Star Mothers, said everyone who helped had some connection to the military. Her son is serving in Afghanistan. This is his second tour overseas.

The soldiers who traveled through Will Rogers on Saturday were in basic training or advanced individual training at Fort Sill. Many will eventually be deployed overseas, a military spokeswoman said.