Only a select few enlisted soldiers have had an Army resume as impressive as retired Command Sgt. Maj. William “Joe” Gainey.
His 33 years as a soldier included assignments as the III Corps command sergeant major and the first senior enlisted adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
However, of all Gainey’s accomplishments, it’s hard to imagine one that had more impact than his decision to allow Fort Hood Hug Lady Elizabeth Laird to start hugging soldiers as they boarded planes to war zones.
That decision came on a fateful day in 2003, when Laird, who didn’t know Gainey previously, came by his office at Fort Hood with a proposition.
“I was expecting a complaint,” Gainey said
Instead, Laird, who had been offering handshakes and well-wishes to deploying soldiers as a volunteer with the Salvation Army, offered Gainey something the grizzled veteran didn’t expect: a hug.
She told Gainey that days earlier, one soldier who was deploying asked for a hug instead of a handshake.
“That soldier, whoever he or she is, put the seed in the ground,” Gainey said at Laird’s funeral Sunday.
Gainey is quick to pass credit for her impact on Fort Hood to Laird herself and that unknown soldier who asked for the first hug at the airport.
Still, Gainey could have, for any number of reasons, politely declined Laird’s offer of hugging every soldier who deployed from Fort Hood.
He could have said it would be a distraction to soldiers focused on the mission ahead. He could have said it was a security concern.
He could have said Laird’s actions would bring in copy cats, and Fort Hood would have every grandma and their brother trying to give hugs to soldiers as they crossed the tarmac.
But Gainey didn’t do any of those things. Instead, he and Laird signed a “memorandum of understanding” allowing Laird to give the hugs.
And hug, she did. It’s estimated Laird hugged more than 500,000 soldiers as they departed and returned to deployments around the world from 2003 to 2015 before her death on Christmas Eve.
For his part, Gainey said he never expected to see Laird again when she left his office. But when he deployed, she was there with open arms.
“I knew I had a winner,” he said.
Most importantly, Laird gave hugs to the soldiers who didn’t make it back. That hug was their last genuine touch of humanity before entering a war zone and not making it out alive.
That’s something Gainey said he will never forget. He said soldiers who received hugs from Laird should always remember that, too.
“You do not let her legacy die.”