Airport sets up comfort center for traveling troops

July 13, 2010


July 13--Yuma International Airport doesn't have a USO, but it's come up with the next best thing by setting up its Military Comfort Center for the Marines, soldiers and sailors passing through.

On Monday, it had been discovered by Lance Cpl. Zachary Payne, a heavy equipment operator with MWSS-371, who was heading to his home state of Washington for a vacation.

While waiting for his flight, he relaxed at the Military Comfort Center, where he was offered cookies and Kool-Aid by volunteers Janice Senderling and Jackie Ferguson.

The center is furnished with comfortable leather coaches and recliners, computers where the military personnel can check their e-mail, a couple of large television sets and a Wii to burn off a little energy.

But perhaps the best part is that the center is staffed throughout the day by volunteers who keep the Marine or soldier company, answer their questions and, most of all, let them know the community cares about them, whether they're arriving in Yuma or shipping out to the war zone.

Volunteer Greg Gardner is a former Marine and he remembers what it felt like to sit in a "cold and lonely" airport.

"I appreciated the USOs," he said. "That was the first thing I would look up at an airport."

Now he gets to return the favor.

"It's nice to know that someone cares ... you're not alone," he said.

Airport Manager Craig Williams, a former Air Force fighter pilot, quite agrees, describing the USOs he encountered in his travels across the country and overseas as "a little cocoon of peacefulness."

With the board's encouragement, Williams wanted to provide the same for today's traveling military.

"It's not uncommon to see troops lying on the floor of the terminal sleeping while waiting for their flights," he said.

Just the other day when he came in, "there must have a dozen of them there sleeping. They had created their little bivouac on the floor."

But the airport didn't have room to set up a center for the troops and USO has never returned his phone calls, Williams said.

About three years ago, a small area was set aside downstairs with a couch and TV set for people in uniform.

"That was the best we could do," Williams said.

Meanwhile, the upstairs lounge had become a special events center but it didn't get much use. And the Yuma County Airport Authority had purchased furniture for the Yuma Pilot Center it intended to develop on the west side of the airport for use by general aviation pilots and their passengers.

Those plans changed when Million Air, the new fueler at the airport, leased the property for its operation and agreed to develop the Pilot Center itself. That left the airport with some nice furniture.

"It's worked out perfectly," Williams said. "We went back to the original concept of a quality lounge. We did some remodeling to make it look less like a bar and furnished it."

The remainder of the furniture was placed in the upstairs waiting area for the comfort of the flying public.

Then the call went out for volunteers to staff the Military Comfort Center.

"The response from the community has been awesome," Williams said, with about 40 people from teenagers to retirees at the orientation.

"The volunteers seem to like it," he said. "It's an opportunity for the community to provide support for the troops. And it doesn't hurt to have cookies and Kool-Aid."

There's a rule, though: no sneaking in by airport staff for a cookie.

Opened last week, word is getting out to the traveling military about the comfort center.

But volunteers aren't just waiting for the troops to find the center. They go through the terminal looking for Marines and soldiers who look like they could use a little TLC and a comfortable place to wait for their flight -- or their ride to base.

The center is open seven days a week from 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. or until the last departing flight of the day.