Thousands of soldiers have boarded planes from the Fort Hood airport since the beginning of the war in Iraq in 2003. They’ve headed off to war-torn nations for months, sometimes years at a time. For some soldiers there have been several deployments since then. For Elizabeth Laird, there have been hundreds.
The Copperas Cove resident, now 83, has stood faithfully at the airport to wish each soldier off with a warm embrace for the last 12 years, and has waited faithfully at the tarmac for each return, with another hug for the travel-weary troops.
In that time frame, Laird has given an estimated half a million hugs to Fort Hood troops, earning her the title of “Fort Hood Hug Lady” and the adoration of an army of grateful soldiers.
Her impact on the community became evident last week, after Laird was admitted to Metroplex Hospital in Killeen. The petite patriot, standing at less than 5 feet tall, has been battling breast cancer for 10 years. Her recently worsening condition provided the recipients of Laird’s hugs an opportunity to return the love she’s shown them over the years.
A GoFundMe page set up on Nov. 9 by Laird’s son, Rick Dewees, has raised as of Tuesday morning more than $81,000, and garnered hundreds of comments. The funds will help cover the cost of Laird’s medical bills and the potential funds she’ll need for long-term care once released from the hospital.
Dewees said his mother’s hospital room looks like a “flower shop,” with a steady stream of visitors, including 1st Cavalry Division commander Maj. Gen. Michael Bills, trickling in and out, each with their own story of how Laird comforted and encouraged them with the simple act of a hug.
“The people that have come in to see her will recount their story of how they met her and how she touched them. It’s nice to read (the comments on the GoFundMe site), but when you hear someone tell exactly what they were going through, it’s amazing,” Dewees said.
Before Laird was the Hug Lady, she served troops as a Salvation Army volunteer, sending off soldiers during the early deployments to Iraq.
According to a Herald report from 2009, Laird said she originally shook the soldiers’ hands.
“I don’t know when I started hugging, but one soldier hugged me and there was another soldier there, so I had to hug him and it kind of just snowballed,” she said in the article.
Laird can be found at every deployment and redeployment since then, her long grey hair topped with a yellow ribbon, her arms extended.
“If there’s a flight going out or coming in at 2 o’clock in the morning, she’s there. It doesn’t matter what time. She gets the schedule and she’s able to go out there and meet them,” Dewees said of his mother.
Though her condition has improved in the past week, Dewees said her current stint in the hospital will likely cause Laird to miss a few flights at Fort Hood, though he’s hopeful she’ll regain strength and return to the job she loves.
“She’s missing a couple of flights, which is hard for her, but as it is she has to miss these so she might be able to do more in the future,” he said.
The story of the Hug Lady is garnering national attention for Laird, including a recent article about her in the Washington Post. But Dewees said his mother never got into the hug business for the attention.
“She was doing it because she loves the troops and she just wanted to do something for them to show them,” Dewees said.
A release date from the hospital is still pending for Laird. Visitors are welcome at her hospital room at Metroplex, though hospital staff do ask that guests call ahead.