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Aviano volunteers make deployment transit experience memorable

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- Army Spc. Thomas Rinker, stationed out of Fort Lee, Va., asks Teresa Lyons, a volunteer here, if she could exchange dollars to euro as a souvenir.  Rinker and his company were awaiting transportation to a forward-deployed location.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Nichole Adamowicz)

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- Army Spc. Thomas Rinker, stationed out of Fort Lee, Va., asks Teresa Lyons, a volunteer here, if she could exchange dollars to euro as a souvenir. Rinker and his company were awaiting transportation to a forward-deployed location. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Nichole Adamowicz)

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- Army soldiers from Fort Lee, Va., play a computer game while on a layover here awaiting transportation to a forward-deployed location. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Nichole Adamowicz)

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- Army soldiers from Fort Lee, Va., play a computer game while on a layover here awaiting transportation to a forward-deployed location. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Nichole Adamowicz)

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy (AFPN) -- Luke-warm coffee and a plate of stale cookies while waiting to move forward are deployment facts of life, right up there with tent living and a quarter-mile hike to the bathroom.

Thanks to a program named Operation Yellow Ribbon, individuals passing through here are treated to something a little out of the ordinary.

More than 10,000 airmen, soldiers, sailors and Marines have experienced a home-away-from-home atmosphere when transiting through here recently, thanks to the efforts of family support center workers here and hundreds of volunteers.

Operation Yellow Ribbon began as a way to make the time troops spent on the ground while passing through Aviano a bit more pleasant, said Teresa Beasley, center director. Several thousand pieces of fried chicken, sandwiches, baked goods and phone calls home later, it has exceeded her wildest dreams.

"When troops first started transiting through here, we wanted to find a way to make the time they spent waiting around to depart a little bit more bearable," said Beasley. "Once the ball got rolling, the entire wing and several outside organizations came together, and things just kept getting bigger and better."

Some of the programs in place for the transiting troops include taking a digital photo of them and e-mailing it home to friends and family; providing free stationary and stamps, free books and magazines and board games; and one of the most popular ways to pass the time, a makeshift basketball court. In three weeks, the reception went through more than 700 stamps and mailed 1,200 letters.

Travellers are offered an unlimited supply of food and drinks ranging from Popeye's Chicken to baked goods produced by base organizations.

"The support we've gotten from various organizations around the base has been tremendous," said Beasley. "(Army and Air Force Exchange Services) has donated a ton of food, and we've also gotten a lot of help from (the Defense Commissary Agency)."

The center received monetary donations from organizations including the officers' and enlisted spouses' clubs and the base thrift store, $1,000 from the Veterans of Foreign Wars and $5,000 from the Air Force Chaplain's Fund, which was enough to keep the program going several weeks, Beasley said.

The most amazing thing is the effort that volunteers from around the base put in to run the operation, said Vickie Jo Ryder, 31st Fighter Wing volunteer coordinator. "We have planes come in at all hours. Whether it's three in the afternoon, or three in the morning, there is always someone here to meet them," Ryder said.

"Some of the people passing through here are really young and away from their families for the first time," she said. "Most of us have been there, and so everyone does their best to make them feel at home. I've seen people hand over their personal cell phones so someone can call their wife back in the states; it's really touching."

Aviano welcomed up to four planes in a single day, each containing a couple of hundred people. All branches of the military are represented.

"This is a real class act," said Army 1st Lt. Amy Wilson, who had arrived from Ft. Bliss, Texas, after 14 hours on a plane. "The food, the books, the pictures -- it's incredible."

The photo e-mailed home is appreciated by the families, said a retired sergeant recently in a letter sent to the center.

"Thanks so much for helping my daughter-in-law during her layover in Aviano," reads the letter. "It seems that people in today's world don't have much compassion for their fellow man, so when someone goes out of their way to assist someone else it is unique. I served 24 years in the Army, and from one vet to another -- thanks so much. Your kindness that day will not go unrewarded."

It is not only the transiting troops who are reaping the benefits of this program; the volunteers are feeling the effects too.

"Working with all the other services is great because they see that we're all one team, and that the Air Force cares," said Master Sgt. David Poulin of the 31st Fighter Wing. "Word (about this program) has gotten back to units in the United States, and when people come through here, they know they'll be taken care off. It's a great feeling." (Courtesy of U.S. Air Forces in Europe News Service)

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