MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- Not every troop who comes home from a long deployment has loved ones waiting to greet them when they step off the bus. Even for troops who have family, their loved ones cannot always make the trip to see them. That is when the Official Huggers come in.
Three Official Hugger volunteers showed up to support 1st Tank Battalion’s return Oct. 19 from a deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The official huggers are a troop-supporting group which started in 2003 in Miramar, Calif., for units returning from deployment to an atmosphere of families, but have no families of their own waiting for them, said Monica McBroom, an Official Hugger volunteer.
McBroom, who has been a member of the volunteer group for two years, geared up in her Official Hugger shirt, along with two other volunteers, to show her support of the returning unit. When the Marines and sailors unloaded the buses, the official huggers set out with open arms to find troops wondering around with no one to welcome them home. Even if a Marine or sailor claimed to be looking for someone, the official huggers didn’t reserve their expressions of gratitude.
"We’re not just here for homecomings," McBroom said. "We show up for departures, too. We want to make sure we send our troops off with a hug, or make them feel welcome when they get home."
Beverly Hibbert, wife of Staff Sgt. James Hibbert assigned to Headquaters Battalion, Company A, was another Official Hugger volunteer. Hibbert said she volunteered because she wanted to get actively involved in the welfare of the troops. "I haven’t had to go through it myself," Hibbert explained about the experience of having a deployed spouse. "This is just my way of giving back to those who do have deployed family."
As the volunteers made their way through the crowd of Marines, sailors and families, they approached troops, briefly told them who they were, and hugged them for as long as they would allow.
Not all the troops took the volunteers’ offer, but those who did were enthusiastic about the warm welcome home.
At a homecoming earlier this year, Larry Stratton, the head of Marine Corps Community Services Family Teambuilding, spoke about a certain Official Hugger volunteer who had a tremendous impact on a deploying Marine.
"There is one lady who has been the pillar of the Official Huggers program," he said. "She’s been out there through the cold and in the middle of the night. She moved me to tears once when she hugged a Marine leaving for Iraq and told him, ‘This is for your momma.’ I cried, she cried, the Marine cried and he said, ‘Thank you, mom.’ Then he left. That special lady is Jany Wasdin."
Jany Wasdin, along with the help of Barbara Greenbush, the former Marine Corps Family Team Bulding coordinator, created the Official Huggers program during Operation Iraqi Freedom I.