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Airport welcome center offers military members a comfortable spot to land

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- They sat on a plush leather couch with video-game controllers in their hands. Dressed in their Army Combat Uniforms, two privates were intently focused on the flat-screen action before them as they enjoyed the amenities offered by the YMCA Military Welcome Center.

The 5,000-square-foot center is situated at cargo door "O," an outside walk from carousel one at Will Rogers World Airport's baggage claim department. Recently relocated, it's capable of accommodating up to 110 traveling military personnel and their families. At its previous spot, a 750-square-foot room just west of carousel six, the center held roughly 12 people.

"It's a nice set-up," said Private Alex Haviland, who stayed overnight on a cot provided by the center. He was en route to his Florida hometown from Advanced Individual Training at Fort Sill, Okla.

Private Alex Antillon, who also stayed overnight, agreed. He too was on his way home to Chicago after AIT at Fort Sill.

"It's nice to have a place like this to go to," he said. "It has free food and lounging."

As the privates indulged in video games, two groups of Military Entrance Processing Station program inductees, who waited for a bus that would transport them to Basic Combat Training at Fort Sill, chatted with one another at large, white round tables. Private Sebastian McCall of Connecticut spoke with one group of four men regarding expectations. Like Privates Haviland and Antillon, Private McCall was en route home after finishing AIT and stayed overnight.

"This place beats the terminal," said Victor Negrete of California, an inductee who sat at the other table. "It would be a long two hours if we had to stay up there in the baggage claim area."

The privates and inductees were only a handful of military personnel who stop at the center on a daily basis.

Clyde Tullos, center director, said since its June 2007 debut, approximately 90,000 visitors have stopped by. Of them, roughly 1,300 visitors have come through since the center relocated March 20.

"We're adjacent to the bus pick-up area, which makes it convenient and the folks in the airport are really helpful about directing Soldiers down here," Mr. Tullos said. "If someone is stuck overnight or has several hours to kill, we're 200 meters from the concourse. They can walk over here and spend a few hours having refreshments and comfort."

Traditionally open from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. weekdays, the YMCA of Greater Oklahoma City-sponsored center offers two flat-screen televisions with satellite service, a wi-fi connection, six computers, two restrooms, three sofa sets, free beverages, snacks and pizza, and games. Additionally, six cots and blankets are available for sleepovers, plus ironing boards, irons and distilled water.

Run by nearly 40 volunteers representing each of the five military branches, Mr. Tullos said the center offers a little something for everyone.

"There are grandmothers who offer the hugs and will cover them with blankets," Mr. Tullos said, "I'll listen to them and every now and then, we have a real need for someone who speaks military to talk to these young people or to someone else they're trying to communicate with."

The idea for the center was first envisioned by the Blue Star Mothers of America Oklahoma City Chapter 6 organization. About 20 organization members manned a provisional welcome center six to eight hours a day during the workweek and offered comfort to traveling military members.

The Blue Star Mothers worked with Ft. Sill leadership to be able to provide for the MEPS program. In doing so, the Blue Star Mothers formed a relationship with the airport.

In little time, the Blue Star Mothers were provided a room with bare walls to set up shop. They soon offered incoming travelers peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pizza and water, and kept them company until their next flight or ground transportation arrived. But, because most of the mothers worked full-time jobs, they saw themselves as "conduits to a more permanent solution," said Cindy Hood, former Chapter 6 president.

Today, the center primarily functions on donations and support from the YMCA and the Armed Services YMCA. Mr. Tullos said approximately $2,000 a month is spent on drinks and up to $1,000 is spent on pizza on a given night.

"These guys are bottomless pits," Mr. Tullos said, laughing.

For more information or volunteering opportunities, call 405-680-9781.