As a single soldier, deploying is tough. If you’re stationed far away from your family, like I was, they probably won’t be able to see you off or welcome you home, because they’ll need to save vacation days and money for when you’re on leave. The first time I deployed to Iraq from Fort Hood, Texas, in December 2005, I’d gone home to Pennsylvania on leave a few months earlier. There were other single soldiers in my brigade, and we stuck together at the gym where the married soldiers, or those who had families that lived closer, gathered to see us off. Then we got on buses to the airfield. Volunteers from the USO handed out snacks and then we got in line to get weighed with our duffel bags.
And then as we left that line to go wait to board the plane—the military’s all about “hurry up and wait”—we had to pass by a petite woman, wearing a yellow ribbon in her hair, who was hugging everyone in line.
Elizabeth Laird, the Fort Hood Hug Lady, has made sure no one left for a combat zone or came home without getting a hug since 2003. An Air Force veteran herself, she started with handshakes, but the first time someone bent down for a hug, she went with it.
I was the lucky recipient of at least six or seven hugs—since I deployed to Iraq twice, I got a hug for each time I left and returned. But thanks to my role as my brigade’s public affairs specialist, I photographed soldiers leaving on earlier flights. I got extra hugs every time I went to the airfield. Elizabeth might be a tiny woman, but her hugs are big and sincere.
A few weeks ago, my Facebook feed was flooded with the news that the “Hug Lady” was in the hospital. Elizabeth, it turns out, had been battling breast cancer the entire time she’d been coming to the airfield at all hours to make sure soldiers didn’t feel alone as they headed off to war.
There wasn’t a single person who didn’t ask how they could help. Elizabeth’s son, Rick, started a GoFundMe account, hoping to raise $10,000 to help pay his mom’s medical bills. It raised more than $93,000 in just two weeks. They now have enough to pay for Elizabeth’s rehabilitation and long-term care.
A wonderful thing happened while Elizabeth was in the hospital—soldiers started showing up to hug her. The line was reportedly out the door.
I work at Guideposts in New York now, so I couldn’t hug her in person, but I followed the news on Facebook. In fact, I saw the first article the day after Paris was attacked.
It can be easy, in the wake of tragedy, to forget how many good people there are out there. But they’re around, making people smile, hug by hug.
Editors’ Note: We are sad to report that Elizabeth Laird, the Fort Hood Hug Lady, passed away on December 24, 2015, according to news reports.
Our condolences go out to her family and to the many whose lives she touched.