Elizabeth Laird, known by thousands as Fort Hood’s Hug Lady, lived a life of giving back, whether it was at the Salvation Army, her church in Temple or the Fort Hood airport.
That was the prevailing message at Laird’s funeral in Killeen on Sunday, attended by 500 to 600 people, many of them the soldiers and veterans who had received hugs from Laird as they boarded planes to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I had two deployments out of Hood, and she was there for both of them,” said former Army Sgt. Kevin Zimmerman, 32. He deployed to Iraq in 2004 and 2006 with the 1st Cavalry Division. On Sunday, the combat veteran drove from his home in Austin to attend the funeral at the Christian House of Prayer, 3300 E. Stan Schlueter Loop, where dozens of Patriot Riders stood outside holding American flags.
“It was a really good service,” Zimmerman said. “They did her justice, for sure.”
Attending almost every deployment and homecoming at Fort Hood since 2003, Laird, 83, gave an estimated 500,000 hugs to deploying and returning soldiers. She died on Christmas Eve at Metroplex Hospital in Killeen after a long fight with breast cancer.
While many knew her as the Hug Lady or Ms. Elizabeth, “I knew her as Mom,” said Laird’s son, Rick Dewees. “The past couple of years, I found a deeper understanding of just who she was.”
The appreciation for Laird’s commitment to deploying soldiers was seen in November, when her health deteriorated, and she was hospitalized. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of soldiers and veterans visited her in the hospital and nearly $100,000 was raised to help pay for medical bills.
Dewees said his mother was a lifelong patriot, and “was destined to be the Hug Lady.”
At least two current Fort Hood generals attended the funeral, as well as retired Gen. Robert Shoemaker and retired Lt. Gen. Pete Taylor.
Kelly Parsons, a friend of Laird’s, said the Hug Lady’s determination to hug troops never wavered despite her age and worsening health.
Last February, Laird became unable to drive and was dependent on others to get her to the airport.
“If no one was available, she’d take a taxi,” Parsons said. Laird would get to the airport 45 minutes to an hour early, even in pain or the dead of night for a homecoming.
“She would wait as long as it took, sometimes hours as they waited to board,” Parsons said.
Cecilia Abbott, the wife of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, attended the funeral and, along with State Sen. Brian Birdwell, presented a Texas flag that flew over the Capitol in Austin to Laird’s family.
Birdwell read a letter from Gov. Abbott, saying Laird touched thousands of lives across the state and nation and will be sorely missed.
The Rev. Richard Harbour, the pastor at the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Temple, where Laird was a member, gave the eulogy.
He said Laird was a devoted Christian who sought to give back and had a keen understanding of God’s word.
“Elizabeth was a woman loved by God,” he said.
Harbour told those in attendance to look forward “to the day we can give a hug to the Hug Lady.”
A public visitation for Laird was held at Crawford-Bowers Funeral Home in Copperas Cove on Saturday. There, about 600 active-duty soldiers, veterans, family and friends stopped by to pay their respects to Laird, a longtime Cove resident. At a later date, Laird will be laid to rest in a private ceremony at the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery. She was an Air Force veteran and a former military spouse.
Former III Corps and Fort Hood Command Sgt. Maj. William "Joe" Gainey, who spoke at the funeral, had an order for all soldiers who knew Laird: “You do not let her legacy die.”
Gainey said a memorandum of understanding he and Laird both signed in 2003 at the start of her mission of hugging departing Fort Hood soldiers has no expiration date.
The retired sergeant major said Laird is in a certain part of heaven — Fiddler’s Green — still dishing out hugs.
“Ms. Elizabeth is there now, hugging my scouts,” Gainey said.