By Colleen Flaherty
Fort Hood Herald
It's 3 p.m. and the pigeons have begun to line up on the power lines above "Have Pencil, Will Travel" in Copperas Cove.
Enrolled tax agent Elizabeth Laird scoops a bowl of bird feed from the large bag near the door when she is interrupted by a client's call. She detaches her smartphone from her thick black belt, ending the dramatic, Spanish-inspired orchestral ringtone.
"Anything over 7.5 percent of his adjusted gross," Laird advises a client, as the ranks of her pigeons grow, waiting for their daily feeding - along with the many plants and other birds in cages that fill the office.
With a business to manage and a bevy of adopted flora and fauna to care for - in addition to 12 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, it's hard to imagine that Laird has time for much else. But the 79-year-old has attended nearly every single deployment and homecoming of Fort Hood soldiers since June 2003.
Known to the Fort Hood community as the "Hug Lady," Laird said it's God and patriotism that give her the energy to see off airplane after airplane full of soldiers at Robert Gray Army Airfield and welcome them home again with hugs.
"The look in their eyes - not just soldiers, but in all of our military - they're beautiful," said Laird. "I've said it so many times that it may sound kind of trite, but it isn't. They're beautiful. They are America."
The Hug Lady also "briefs" deploying soldiers by reading a version of the popular "Letter from a Farm Kid" story about military life, ending with a spiritual message. "Now I want to tell the important thing,'" she said, reciting the end of her brief. "And I tell them about Psalm 91, the soldier's psalm. And I say that God loves you and will protect you with one stipulation: you just have to ask him."
Along with her hugs, Laird gives deploying soldiers a prayer card with a copy of Psalm 91, which reads, "You shall not fear the terror of the night nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that roams in darkness, nor the plague that ravages at noon. Though a thousand fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, near you it shall not come."
Even a recent fall during a deployment didn't stop Laird from delivering her brief. She simply did it from a stretcher as paramedics watched from the sidelines of the soldiers' holding area at the terminal.
How Laird became the Hug Lady
Laird has short and long versions of the story of how she became the Hug Lady.
The short version starts in 2003, when she began volunteering with the local Salvation Army, helping serve soldiers meals at deployment ceremonies.
One day, as Laird was shaking soldiers hands' before they boarded buses to the airfield, one soldier asked for a hug. "And then another soldier had to have one, and it just kind of steam-rolled," she said.
Laird already had developed a reputation for hugs by the time, several months later, former III Corps and Fort Hood Command Sgt. Maj. William Joe Gainey gave her "orders" to hug every single deploying and returning soldier.
"And I follow orders," said Laird, smiling.
Eventually, Fort Hood cleared Laird to greet soldiers at the airfield, instead of at their departure and arrival ceremonies. Operations staffers send her regular manifests of all incoming and outgoing flights and she's well-known to airport personnel.
"The soldiers at the (airfield) gate, I get right out and hug them," she said.
The longer version of Laird's story begins in her hometown of Birmingham, Ala., in 1941, when she learned of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the tumult and patriotism of the next four years.
Today's soldiers remind her of that time, she said. "They're the America I grew up with."
In 1949, as soon as she was old enough, Laird enlisted in the Women in the Air Force and served until 1951, when she got married and had a son.
The marriage, to a "Yankee" from Massachusetts, was short-lived, however, and Laird's quest to support her family sent her on a journey across the country in civil service, including in Washington, D.C., during the 1968 riots and working on missile programs at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. Eventually, she moved to Fort Hood with her third husband, Ray Laird. The Hug Lady worked on computers before they existed on post in the 1970s, having to work out of Central Texas College.
Eventually, Laird said she burned out and began working with her husband at "Have Pencil, Will Travel." She did so until he passed away several years ago, and now manages the business herself.
Laird misses Ray, she said, the way he lovingly crept up behind her while she was cooking, but she stays busy with work, family, 16 cats and her hugs.
Laird is clearly beloved by soldiers. Her office is littered with thank-you gifts and momentos from them, including an enviable collection of coins from a litany of units. Some are special-issue coins from brigade and division commanders and command sergeants major.
Pfc. Ian Hooper, who recently returned form a deployment to Iraq with 6th Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, said the Hug Lady was a comfort before he deployed in January 2011.
"She did hug me before I left, along with my entire unit," he said. "To me, it awed me at her dedication, and respect for the troops, as well as her love for our country. She truly cares for everyone."
Of the hundreds of thousands of hugs Laird has administered since 2003, she said there have only been a few awkward moments, such as when one soldier said he wasn't sure if his wife would like him hugging another woman.
Laird said, "I told him, 'I'm a great-grandmother, so that makes it OK.' And it does. If I was young and sexy, this wouldn't work."
Sexy or not, Laird has become somewhat of a local celebrity. She's been featured on bulletin boards on bases in Iraq and in briefings used by commanders to prepare their soldiers for the redeployment process. And with her trademark turtleneck dresses, wide belts, black Ugg boots and yellow, Army pin-adorned ribbon in her long white hair, she's constantly recognized around town.
"They get hugs, too," Laird said of soldiers she sees at the post office and other places. "They don't have to be in uniform."
Although the Iraq War is over, Laird said she's still following Gainey's order, with soldiers continuing to deploy to Afghanistan and elsewhere. But Laird's ultimate orders come from a higher power.
Asked how long she'll keep greeting soldiers at the airfield, she said, "As long as God wants me to."
God is also Laird's answer to some of the questions that arise from being the Hug Lady, such as why so many of the soldiers she's hugged during the last eight years haven't come home.
"I cried today reading the newspaper," she said, referring to the death announcements Friday of three Fort Hood soldiers - Sgt. Noah M. Korte, Spc. Kurt W. Kern and Pfc. Justin M. Whitmire, 720th Military Police Battalion, 89th Military Police Brigade - in Afghanistan.
"Two of them just left earlier (in December)," she said, her eyes filling with tears. "And I hugged them."
But, she said, "We just have to trust in the Lord. He knows what's best."
Contact Colleen Flaherty at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7559. Follow her on Twitter at KDHFortHood.