The Associated Press
MIDLAND, Texas (AP) - It started with one. Vicki Gomez was watching the news in Austin two years ago when she saw the local television station reporting on a story of a Dallas-based group that welcomed home soldiers at the airport.
The group would meet each day from morning until night and greet every military member who came off a plane.
When she returned home to Odessa, she brought the idea of starting a local organization to her focus group committee she was a part of.
"What would ya'll think if I would try to get a welcome home group started to welcome our soldiers?" she asked.
A woman in the group agreed withGomez and volunteered to join her at the airport whenever a soldier was coming through.
Gomez knew with just that one person joining her, she'd have some support to back her idea.
Soon after, she learned of a Midland man returning home. She called her friend, told her it might just be the two of them, and picked up a dozen cheap flags and balloons from the dollar store and headed to Midland International.
Her friend couldn't make it, but still Gomez waited. The soldier was set to arrive around 2 or 3 in the afternoon. She ran into some friends from Odessa and the Lion's Club and recruited them to wait with her.
But by 8 p.m., she said, she was still there. Bad weather had struck the area and the soldier's plane had been rerouted to San Angelo instead. But a reporter was there with her, and with the resulting publicity, interest sparked.
"I was inundated with calls of people who wanted to be a part of the group," she said.
That first day was in June of 2007. Now, the Permian Basin Welcome Home Committee has more than 300 volunteers.
"Someone is going to be there. It's just a blessing," she said. "The parents and soldiers are so glad to see other people there besides their immediate family. It's just been beautiful."
The group now has several flags and clappers they share with others to welcome home soldiers. One volunteer, Fred Phillips, donated a 15-foot by 25-foot flag that hangs on the once bare granite wall inside the airport.
The largest support was for Sgt. John Faulkenberry of Midland who was wounded in Afghanistan; about 200 volunteers showed up to help welcome him home.
The volunteers range from military moms to veterans to those who have no ties to the military. One mom tries to bring her two children to each welcoming event she attends; a World War II vet who is confined to a wheelchairfinds some way to get to the airport because because he just loves to welcome home soldiers.
"Patriotism comes in all colors, shapes and forms. We have just been blessed with the mixture. We have a very, very diverse group," Gomez said.
Another volunteer, who suffers from back problems, always stands up out of his wheelchair when a soldier arrives.
"Mr. Wheeler, you don't have to stand up," Gomez always tells him.
"Yes, I do," he responds.
More often than not, it's the people at the airport deplaning or waiting for their own loved ones who get involved on the spot in welcoming home a soldier.
Gomez says she always asks those around her if they can join in and says the response is always beautiful. Even those waiting outside their gate on the second floor will cheer and clap and join in with support.
"I think it's just a way we can truly, truly show our appreciation," she said recently. "It's the least we can do."
Now, it starts with one more.