Thirteen Marines on their way home from Afghanistan received a hero's welcome — and upgrades to first class — as they flew through Chicago O'Hare on Monday.
That's according to The Associated Press, which reports USO volunteer John Colas put together the special tribute "with just an hour's notice that the Marines' plane was bearing down on Chicago's O'Hare International Airport."
He scrambled, mobilizing an effort to make sure the Marines got a special welcome.
"We want these kids coming home to realize that they haven't been forgotten," Colas, a 74-year-old former Marine, tells The Associated Press.
The arriving flight carrying the marines was greeted with a "water-cannon salute" — a celebratory procedure in which an aircraft taxis under arches of water sprayed from fire trucks.
"The Marines, who had spent the better part of five days getting on and off planes to get home from the other side of the world, were then met by a small crowd of cheering USO volunteers, firefighters, police officers and airport workers as they walked into the terminal," AP adds, describing the scene at O'Hare.
Then, when it was time to board a connecting flight for San Diego, six of the 13 in the group were moved into first class on American Airlines, which has a policy of upgrading servicemen and women traveling in uniform whenever seats are open.
AP says "that gesture was followed by seven first-class passengers who jumped out of their seats for the other Marines so they could sit together."
Linda Kozma, a military liaison for American, tells ABC 10 News of San Diego that those first-class fliers were quick to volunteer after she announced the presence of the service members over the gate-area public address system.
"People were very generous in getting up and approaching the agent, offering their seats up for upgrade to allow the Marines to all sit up front," Kozma tells then station.
"It was incredibly touching," Capt. Pravin Rajan said to AP in a telephone interview after returning to California's Camp Pendleton. "Afghanistan is a very complex and ambiguous war ... and a difficult thing to keep track of so it is amazing when we are 10 years (into) a war and there is still that kind of community, that level of support, the level of willingness to go out of one's way."
The whole effort got started when Illinois-native Stephanie Hare called the O'Hare USO to say that her fiance, Rajan, and other Marines were arriving on a flight from Baltimore, part of their journey home from Afghanistan.
"I just thought if they could get them some Chicago pizza, champagne or something, that would mean a lot," she tells AP.
But it was Colas, whose duties include welcoming servicemen and women, who took the call — only about an hour before the flight was due to arrive. And, with that, he was able to put together the hero's welcome.