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Aid and comfort

"Aid and comfort" Continued...

Issue: "Daniel of the Year 2004," Dec. 11, 2004

On the opposite coast, crowds of volunteers turn out regularly both to rally troops headed into harm's way and to welcome them home. Crowds of military veterans and just-plain-folks arrange to meet and greet every scheduled planeload of service members that touches down in Bangor, Maine.

"Someone is here for every flight no matter what time of day," greeter Al Dall, 74, told Edward Lee Pitts, a Chattanooga Free Press reporter embedded with Tennessee's 278th Regimental Combat Team. The 278th ran head-on into Bangor's patriotic hospitality as it shipped out to Iraq late last month. As the soldiers deplaned for their last stateside stop, about 40 locals met them on the concourse, cheering and clapping, holding aloft banners that called the troops heroes, Mr. Pitts reported.

"Y'all sure are friendly up here," said Staff Sgt. John Brown, 45, of Huntsville, Tenn., as he shook a greeter's hand. "This has about teared me up."

The volunteers passed out dozens of cell phones and invited soldiers to make a free last call home. Nearby, in a room stocked with free cookies and drinks, a banner on the wall proclaimed that 721 flights bearing 130,747 troops and two dogs had enjoyed Maine's hospitality on their way to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Maine also is among eight states that are teaming government with private donors to support the families of National Guard and reserve troops deployed to war zones. Maine, California, Delaware, Michigan, South Carolina, Rhode Island, and Wyoming have all passed legislation to launch versions of the "Military Family Relief Fund (MFRF)," a model originated in Illinois. Funding in Illinois was to come from private donors and optional check-in-the-box donations generated by state income tax returns.

"Then Iraq happened and the money was needed now," said Eric Schuller, senior policy advisor for Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, whose office administers the family aid program (www.operationhomefront.org). More than half of the state's National Guard personnel and 40 percent of its military reserves are now serving on active duty. Many have suffered pay cuts as high as one-third.

Illinois lawmakers approved $5 million to fund one-time grants of between $500 and $3,000 to the families of deployed National Guardsmen and reservists. Since then, the fund has grown by $203,000 (from tax check-off donations) and another $150,000 in private donations. So far, Illinois has given out $2.4 million in grants from the fund to families like the Hortons of Aurora, Ill.

Joshua Horton, 28, an Aurora police officer and Marine Corps veteran, signed up for the reserves after 9/11. In June 2004 his unit was activated. Sgt. Horton could've applied to stay home: His wife Taunacy, already mother to two children, was pregnant with quintuplets.

But the Hortons decided Joshua should honor his commitment. In September, he shipped out to Iraq. On Oct. 7, while he was conducting a house-to-house search, a grenade exploded near Sgt. Horton, shattering an arm and a leg. On Oct. 11, while he lay in a hospital bed in Germany, Mrs. Horton, 27 weeks pregnant, gave birth to three girls and two boys.

Sgt. Horton is now home, recuperating from his injuries. One of the Horton quints, Addyson, a baby girl, passed away on Oct. 30. Throughout their ordeal, the community and the MFRF have rallied behind them. Last week, Mrs. Horton told WORLD that the grant of $500 they received "was the first help that was offered to us."

After reading about the Hortons in the newspaper, Eric Schuller called Mrs. Horton on behalf of Lt. Gov. Quinn. One of Mr. Schuller's first questions to this military family was one that, during wartime, should be universal: "How can we help you and what do you need?"

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