BALTIMORE -- For hundreds of active duty military, the first time they land on U.S. soil in months will be at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and you’re invited to come give them the welcome home they deserve.

“They just want to get home and have all of us here to greet them and just say ‘Thank you.’ I think that really hits them hard to know a nation is behind them, we don’t want to repeat the stories of Vietnam,” said Operation Welcome Home Founder Kathy Thorp.

Kathy, who retired in October after 37 years of service as a Navy Nurse Corps Officer, was inspired to start the group about 10 years ago with her late husband, Captain Owen Thorp III, of the U.S. Navy.

On active duty at the time, Kathy saw service members arriving back in the United States after a long deployment. For many, especially those taking a connecting flight, there was no one there to greet them. Kathy and her husband changed that.

Operation Welcome Home Maryland is an organization that makes sure volunteers are there to greet our troops at BWI 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

For volunteers, it’s personal.

“We get busy with our everyday lives and we just forget about them. That’s something we can’t do. We can’t forget about them,” said Christopher Livesay.

Kathy said, over the years, she’s seen the impact of this simple gesture.

“A lot of these people are getting connecting flights…for them to come out and see everyone here," Kathy said. "They’re so thrilled that it brings them to tears. It shows so many people appreciate their sacrifice.”

One of those waiting is Stephanie Martos. She and her husband both serve in the Air Force. They’ve been separated for the past 7 months. She knows what it’s like to be on both sides of the gate. “It’s a very humbling feeling seeing everyone cheering for you and all of the support. It’s really a rewarding feeling, especially being gone and having people welcome you home. It’s great,” Martos said.

In addition to the handshakes and cheers, Operation Welcome Home also hands out snack bags and hand written thank you notes. For the troops landing overnight, when the restaurants are closed, it may be the only food they can get.

MAKING AN IMPACT

When journalists team with the community to solve a problem and make a difference, we call it “Impact.”

Our team reached out to American Military University, who noticed the good work of Operation Welcome Home. With 80 percent of their students being affiliated with the military, the University wanted to give back.

Chelsea Zbikowski, the Alumni Affairs Liason at AMU presented Kathy with a $1,500 donation.

“You know these hardships… it comes from the heart… this is awesome! We really appreciate it,” said Kathy.

“I think it means a lot to them because it shows how much back home we care. It’s everything to us here at home. We just want to express that to them,” says Zbikowski.

TEGNA, the parent company of WUSA9, also made a $2,500 donation.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Kathy said the number one way you can help show your appreciation for our military this holiday season is to volunteer.

“One of the things we have a little bit of a struggle with is these aren’t commercial flights, so they may shift a bit,” said Kathy.

That means the group especially needs volunteers willing to come in late at night, or early in the morning.

They’ve made it easy. You don’t have to sign up in advance, people of all ages are welcome, and there are several opportunities a week to volunteer. To learn more about volunteering, click here.

If you’d like to make a donation to Operation Welcome Home Maryland’s snack program, click here.