Thousands of Army recruits head home for holidays

Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport was flooded with recruits.

— -- Thousands of Army recruits flooded Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Tuesday on their way home for the holidays. They are among the 40,000 Army soldiers nationwide given a break from basic or other forms of training to spend the holidays at home with their families.

The lucky Army recruits are allowed to leave basic training for a holiday break, other soldiers who complete basic training earlier in the year are allowed to go home only after their training is done.

On an average day, the United Service Organization (USO) greets between 150 and 250 military personnel at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport; sometimes the numbers will peak to 500 during busy times.

But the numbers swell exponentially during the holiday season what the USO calls Operation Holiday Block Leave.

USO Georgia estimates 4,500 military personnel transited through the airport on Tuesday. Nearly 4,000 of them were Army recruits from Fort Benning, Georgia, who arrived at the airport between 2:30 a.m. and 4:30 a.m. ET.

Accompanied by their drill instructors, they marched in formation as they moved through the airport to their flights.

An additional 2,000 soldiers now in training at Fort Gordon, Georgia, will pass through the airport on Thursday beginning at 2 a.m. ET.

Helping the troops as they arrive at the airport are USO volunteers passing out sandwiches and drinks.

Mary Lou Austin, the director of USO Georgia, has served as a USO volunteer for 48 years around the world.

She said lots of advance planning and coordination goes into making the troops' return home go as smoothly as possible. That includes planning for the return of thousands of troops in early January because "what comes out, comes back," she said.

From Jan. 2 through Jan. 4, the USO will help guide the thousands of returning recruits to the buses that will take them back to their bases.

The buses "have to be gone by a certain time” said Austin, and that means scores of volunteers will be on hand checking manifests to make sure the troops get on the right buses.

More than 650 volunteers will be involved in the effort, on hand at the airport or involved in the advance preparation of lunch sacks handed out to each returning recruit.

Austin said the volunteers will be ready for the crush of troops returning to Atlanta in early January.

"We’re pretty efficient at doing this," said Austin. She noted that during the power outage that shut down the airport, volunteers were on hand to help the more than 200 military personnel who were stuck at the airport.

"We’re not panicking when something like a power outage happens," she said. "Our only concern is that everyone is safe."