For so many of America’s servicemen and women, the No. 1 holiday wish is a simple one: to go home.
But for many of them, like 22-year-old Senior Airman Ellis Hunter, the high cost of flying is putting that dream out of reach.
“He said, ‘Mom, I don’t know if I’m coming home.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘because I can’t afford it,’” said his mother, Deborah Hunter-Clark.
But that all changed for Hunter thanks to a small organization called Let’s Bring ’Em Home, a nonprofit organization created in 2001 to provide soldiers with airfare that they couldn’t afford when granted holiday leave.
Let’s Bring ’Em Home did exactly that on Thanksgiving. It sent Hunter home -- from San Antonio, Texas, where he is stationed, to his family in Columbia, South Carolina. The organization picked up the entire tab on his $400 airfare, something they do for every solider they send home.
"When he came home, I picked him up. We were excited; we were laughing,” Hunter-Clark said. “I just wanted to cry. I didn't know whether to cry, to laugh, or to just jump.
“And I told him, 'Son, pick me up,' ya know? He picked me up and turned me around. It was just exciting,” she said.
LBEH is a small organization that operates solely off donations, but it has grown quickly over the past 10 years. Last year, it received more than $135,000 in tax-deductible donations and was able to bring 147 soldiers home to see their loved ones.
"We've been very successful. We have sent home almost everyone that's applied every year that has qualified,” said LBEH vice president Kathryn Jensen. “We obviously could send home more with more donations and more support, but we just do the best with what we have and try to make everyone have as good a Christmas as possible.”
Let’s Bring ’Em Home was started a decade ago when the founder, Ernie Stewart, reached out to friends and family to raise some money to bring a few soldiers home. Now, the Cape Coral, Fla., organization is run by four people.
“All of us involved were all military or prior military, and we know how it feels,” said Jensen. “We are just trying to make somebody’s Christmas a little brighter.”
Without organizations like LBEH, soldiers would have to cover the cost of traveling themselves, because the military will not always pay for it.
“It would have been close to $5,000 for getting a ticket this time of year round trip from Japan,” said Oscar Cruz, whose son, Brendan, was stationed with the Air Force in Japan last year. “There is just no way he could do that on his servicemen salary.”
But thanks to LBEH, he was able to go home to Philadelphia for Christmas.
"I wish that more people knew about the program,” said serviceman Hunter’s sister, Tanesha. “Not only did I see my brother come home, but I have seen other families, and their excitement to see their families come home. I’ve seen people who haven't been home in years.
“For my brother to come home and me see him, that was exciting to me. I did want to cry, but I didn't. I was just happy."
“This was the best Thanksgiving I’ve had in a long time,” said mother Hunter-Clark.
To make a donation or to learn more about this organization, please visit lbeh.org.