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Fort Leonard Wood soldiers take off on holiday leave from a quiet airport

In an October 21, 2020 photo, Fort Leonard Wood soldiers gather at Davidson Fitness Center for Holiday Block Leave ticketing. The fitness center was chosen as the ticketing location this year to ensure that more effective COVID-19 social distancing protocols could be followed.

BRIAN HILL/U.S. ARMY

By COLLEEN SCHRAPPEN | St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Published: December 21, 2020

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ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. (Tribune News Service) — Soldiers embarking on their holiday leave Sunday said goodbye to the rigors of early-morning formations, fitness regimens and fatigues at a subdued sendoff from the USO of Missouri.

The annual Holiday Block Leave, when soldiers are bused in from Missouri's Fort Leonard Wood to head home from St. Louis Lambert International Airport, is usually marked with hustle and hoopla.

Fredbird visits. Santa Claus listens to Christmas wishes. A spread of food is constantly replenished. Excited soldiers wait impatiently for flights, and exhausted ones catch a few minutes' sleep wherever they can.

Jack Evans, a USO volunteer who served in Vietnam, loves the tradition.

"It's great that these guys are getting recognition," said Evans, of north St. Louis County. "It was a lot different when I was in the military."

This year has been different, though, disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of a one-day influx of 4,000 troops rolling through Lambert and fanning out across the U.S., the start of the two-week break has been staggered over the course of several days.

No high-fiving mascots. No impromptu dancing to celebrate the hiatus from basic training. No naps on the floor or volunteers offering hugs.

Evans manned a table by himself outside the main terminal's USO facility, offering free drawstring satchels and aviator sunglasses. Soldiers could pick up a boxed meal inside, donated by Imo's Pizza, Gioia's Deli and St. Louis Kolache.

But, as in the rest of the airport, the morning was quiet. Masked travelers, military or not, checked bags and waited for flights in ones and twos.

Calvin Rhodes snacked on a sandwich, the lone occupant in a row of chairs next to an empty baggage carousel. He was heading in the opposite direction of the soldiers.

Rhodes, 27, flew in from Virginia on his way to Pulaski County, near the base, to start a new job in real estate. It was his first time on an airplane since the pandemic began in March, but he said he felt comfortable traveling.

"Everyone maintained their social distance," said Rhodes. "It was seamless."

Lambert is expecting a bump in passengers over the next few days, but it will still fall well short of the holiday travelers who passed through the airport last year, said spokesman Roger Lotz.

"It's been picking up gradually," he said.

At its low in April, Lambert recorded an average of 550 departing passengers a day. The Sunday after Thanksgiving had an estimated 9,770, compared with more than 20,000 on the same day last year. Lotz did not offer a prediction for Christmas travel, which is typically spread out over more days.

The Transportation Security Administration reported Sunday that more than 1 million people were screened at airports nationwide on Friday and Saturday, the first time that's happened on two consecutive days since the pandemic began. Air traffic is expected to be about half of what it was last year.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged Americans not to travel at all this year. AAA expects that 96% of holiday travelers will do so by car, the organization reported this month.

That wasn't an option for Connie Warren, who flew into Lambert on Sunday from Hawaii. Warren, 24, fished warmer clothes from her suitcase as she waited for her sister to pick her up.

She was headed home to Lewisville, Illinois, just south of Effingham, during her break from aesthetician school. Warren said she got tested for coronavirus as a precaution before leaving the island and will lay low while at home.

"My grandpa had COVID last month," she said. "So we plan to keep Christmas within the immediate family."

Mark Schlinkmann of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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