It's a merry mass exodus for Fort Leonard Wood troops

ST. LOUIS — The great holiday tradition known as the "Fort Leonard Wood exodus" filled Lambert-St. Louis International Airport on Friday morning, with thousands of soldiers arriving long before sunrise to head home on a two-week leave.

They came from the Army post, where they undergo basic training, on a 130-mile trip to Lambert in a convey of buses. Starting at about 1:30 a.m. today, they were greeted by a party atmosphere at the airport — USO volunteers, freebies of all kinds, a DJ playing rap music.

"This is like a holiday of its own," said Scottie Spinner, 21, who marveled at the reception he got. Spinner said he can't wait to see the Christmas lights back home in Charleston, W.V., but was trying to enjoy his time at Lambert. "It was nice for them to be out here at this hour."

Many of the soldiers had hours to wait before their flights home. About 4,000 service members were at Lambert to take part in the "Holiday Block Leave." They were traveling as far away as Hawaii and Puerto Rico. They have to be back at training on Jan. 2.

Inside the terminal just after 3 a.m. today, a few found spots to sleep in a quiet corner or by slumping in the few comfy chairs in the airport Starbucks. But most milled about and traded stories, snapped photos with Santa or jockeyed for space near a wall outlet so they could recharge their cellphones. Some paid $7 for someone to sharpen up the look of their suede military boots.

"It's chaotic," said Travis Shore, 18, of Savannah, Ga., who was propped up against a wall after a night without sleep. "I'm just glad I got rid of my heavy, heavy bags already. I checked them early."

Many of the baby-faced soldiers in camouflaged fatigues were gushing about their big plans for Christmas. Some just wanted more sleep and to be away from a drill sergeant for awhile.

But Pvt. Jeff Ippolito, 20, of Waterford, N.Y., said he can't wait for the lasagna dinner his mother cooks every Christmas Day for his extended family of about 30 people. Before that, he plans to take his girlfriend to New York City and give her a necklace and stuffed bear he bought and has tucked away in his luggage.

Ippolito has just finished 14 weeks of basic training and knows one thing he won't miss while on leave: Being awakened every morning by a drill sergeant barking orders into an intercom.

By 4 a.m., Ippolito was mindful that he'd been up all night and had more than three hours more to wait for his flight. But he was giddy after downing two Red Bull energy drinks. The drinks were among the freebies handed out to the troops as they walked from the buses to the USO. Volunteers also gave them free phone cards, protein bars, beer steins and chapstick.

The last busload from Fort Leonard Wood pulled up to the airport at about 4:30 a.m.

Inside the USO, the recliners and beds in a back room were off limits because of the overflow crowds. Soldiers visiting early Friday sat in metal folding chairs and munched on burgers while music blared from a DJ. There was a Christmas tree next to the turntable adorned with pristine white ornaments, but there was no "Jingle Bells" or traditional Christmas music to be heard. Instead, it was "Jockin' Jay-Z (Dope Boy Fresh)."

This is the busiest day of the year for the James S. McDonnell USO facility at Lambert, one of the largest in the world, said Kathy O'Connor, executive director of USO of Missouri Inc. Typically, the USO at the airport gets 10,000 to 12,000 guests a month. The USO, or United Services Organization, is a civilian, non-profit and non-governmental agency.

Frank Kaveney, a lawyer from Warson Woods, is a Vietnam veteran who volunteers for the USO. Kaveney, 70, remembers his time as a young Marine in 1968 when he saw Bob Hope and Ann Margaret perform for the USO in Da Nang. On Friday, Kaveney was handing out Cardinals rally towels to the troops, and he was struck by how young they looked.

"I enjoy letting them know the older generation cares about them," he says.

Fort Leonard Wood has more than 5,000 service members taking part in the Holiday Block Leave. Some are Marines, some are sailors. But most are soldiers. About 950 went home on buses. About 1,000 used personal vehicles. But most, about 4,000, were going through Lambert on Friday and taking flights home, said Tiffany Wood, a spokeswoman for Fort Leonard Wood.

Air Force and Navy personnel traveling by air left Fort Leonard Wood beginning Thursday. Soldiers and Marines traveling  by air left Fort Leonard Wood on Friday.

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