Over the past 12 years, Elizabeth Laird hugged hundreds of thousands of Fort Hood soldiers just before they boarded a plane for foreign lands, and her hug was their first welcome when they returned home.
The 83-year-old great-grandmother best known as the Hug Lady battled cancer for about a decade, but even through her illness, she regularly made her way to Fort Hood and hugged the necks of those being deployed. Some were afraid or felt alone. She encouraged and prayed for them.
As word spread of Laird's illness, then her death on Dec. 24, family members heard from hundreds, and they expect up to 3,000 people at her funeral service this weekend. A GoFundMe page set up several weeks ago to cover $10,000 of her medical expenses raised nearly $95,000 from 3,000 different donors.
"I love her," Claudia Vaneza Mohead wrote on the page. "I deployed teary eyed and scared (secretly) worried my almost two year old daughter would forget me, she whispered in my ear that everything would be OK, it meant the world to me."
Laird began hugging soldiers in June 2003, shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. She had been going to the airfield terminal as a Salvation Army volunteer when a command sergeant major saw her doling out hugs and said he wanted her to hug every soldier coming and going. And so she did.
Regardless of the time of day or night, or her own personal trials, she was there. Even after Ray Laird, her husband of 38 years, died suddenly of a blood clot in 2008, she drove to the airfield directly from his service to meet an incoming flight, arriving just as the first soldier came through. When the American-Statesman wrote a profile of her in 2010, she already had hugged more than 500,000 soldiers, according to Fort Hood estimates. She had wrapped her arms around thousands more since then.
"My grandmother was an inspiration to many and touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the word," said her grandson, Andrew Dewees, on his Facebook page. "Her memory lives on in the people (whose) lives she touched, she loved her family and each and every one of the armed service members she hugged but she loved the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ the most. One day I will see her again in heaven and get another hug from my Grandmommy."
An online petition is circulating, with nearly 24,000 signatures, for the Fort Hood Deployment Center to be named the Elizabeth Laird Deployment Center.
Angela Garcia of Killeen thanked Laird on the petition page. Laird was there during two of Garcia's husband's deployments and was the last person to hug her husband before he was killed in action in April 2011.
"For more than a decade, she has been personally saying farewell to our troops as they deploy and greeting them as they return," Col. Christopher C. Garver, III Corps public affairs officer, said in a statement. "It is with heavy hearts that we express our gratitude for Elizabeth, not only for her service with the U.S. Air Force, but also in recognition of her tireless efforts to show her appreciation for our Soldiers and her recognition of their many sacrifices ... she will be deeply missed."
Public visitation will be from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday at Crawford-Bowers Funeral Home, 211 W. Ave. B in Copperas Cove. The funeral will be at 3 p.m. Sunday at Christian House of Prayer of Killeen, 3300 E. Stan Schlueter Loop in Killeen.