The "hug lady" of Fort Hood, whose embrace boosted the spirits of thousands of American soldiers over nearly a decade as they shipped out for Iraq and Afghanistan, is finding her kindness repaid in spades now that she is battling cancer.
Elizabeth Laird, now 83, is beloved by all the men and women who were deployed out of the Texas military base because rain or shine, she never failed to send each one off with a hug as they left Killeen/Fort Hood Regional Airport.
“This is my way of thanking them for what they do for our country," Laird told FoxNews.com Thursday from her hospital bed in Copperas Cove, Texas, where she is being treated for breast cancer that has spread to her bones. “I wasn’t hugging in 2003. I used to just shake their hands. But one day, a soldier hugged me, and that’s the way it started.”
“It’s coming from people she’s hugged. It’s them hugging back.”
- US Army Capt. Rob Allen
Now, the soldiers who felt Laird's kindness are rallying to her side, with a GoFundMe page that has raised nearly $70,000 toward Laird's medical bills.
“I met her twice, as many soldiers from Fort Hood do,” former U.S. Army Capt. Rob Allen told Fox News. “She was there when we left, and she was there when we came back.”
Allen, who was assigned to 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment from 2006 to 2009, and deployed to Iraq for 15 months in November 2007, recalled the first day he hugged Elizabeth.
“We all said goodbye to our families and got on buses,” he said. “Hundreds of us were in line, and one by one, she gave everyone a hug ‘goodbye’—maybe even a kiss on the cheek.”
It was the middle of the night in January of 2009 when Allen returned to find Laird on her self-imposed duty.
“It was 2 or 3 in the morning, and there she was –hugging everyone as they got off the plane,” Allen said. “It was the middle of the night and without fail, this lady was there. A special lady.”
On the fundraising site, dozens of soldiers have donated varying amounts of money and shared their memories of meeting Laird.
"You were there when I left in 2008 for Iraq and then again when I returned in 2009," wrote Michael Singleton. "I was nervous because I had never been outside of the country and just lost my Grandmother that one hug made a huge difference that year, because it reminded me how my grandmother was."
Most of the soldiers she inspired had no idea Laird had been bravely fighting breast cancer since 2005, but this month, doctors told her the condition has worsened to the point she can no longer live alone.
Laird's son, Vietnam veteran and former U.S. Marine Richard Dewees, set up the crowdfunding page Monday evening to help pay her medical expenses and ease the financial toll of life in an assisted-living facility. The initial goal of $10,000 was quickly surpassed, with much of the money flowing in from veterans touched by their encounters with Laird as they left the U.S., never knowing if they would come home.
“Hugging the soldiers is something she says the Lord gave her to do,” Dewees said. “You don’t really pay much attention to it until you finally step back and see what her hugs have meant to other people.
“I don’t know if she has regrets of me not being met by someone when I returned home from the Vietnam War, but she’s doing what needed to be done back then,” he said. “She’s changed people’s lives.”
Laird is feeling better and was recently released from intensive care. She's now able to see visitors, and a steady stream of soldiers and veterans have made it it her bedside. Between those visits and the growing financial help, Laird is being repaid for her countless acts of kindness for the men and women who risk their lives for Americans.
“It’s coming from people she’s hugged,” Allen said. “It’s them hugging back.”