MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE NEAR RIVERSIDE — In her red-white-and-blue golf cart, Laura Froehlich is driving toward the flight line to greet Marines returning from Iraq.
"This is a good day," Froehlich says. "They're coming home."
As volunteer coordinator (an unpaid position) for March Air Reserve Base, Froehlich has missed only a handful of the hundreds of flights that have taken U.S. military personnel to or from Iraq and Afghanistan since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The troops on the flight early Sunday were from the 2nd Battalion, 25th Regiment, a reserve group from Garden City, N.Y., attached to the 5th Marine Regiment at Camp Pendleton.
As always, Froehlich wanted to give each Marine a handshake, a hug and a word of welcome and appreciation. She was there when the battalion left for Iraq in September.
"She was the last person to say goodbye to us and now she's the first person to say hello," says Chief Warrant Officer William Allen.
While they wait for buses to take them to Pendleton, the Marines sample food, sodas and cellphones handed out by Froehlich's volunteer recruits in Hangar 385. The hangar is decorated with flags, posters and children's artwork and features a large-screen television, a pool table, books and magazines.
"Miss Laura is the greatest," says Gunnery Sgt. Rafael Ortiz, who is stationed at March to help with departing and arriving flights.
"A lot of these Marines don't have anyone waiting for them at Camp Pendleton," Ortiz says. "They come here and get a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and they know they're home and safe."
Froehlich, 60, who served in the Air Force, lives in nearby Moreno Valley, where she is known as "Flag Mama" and organizes the Fourth of July parade. She is determined that modern veterans will not encounter the same public indifference and sometimes scorn experienced by veterans returning from Vietnam -- including her father, a career soldier.
"I swore that in my corner of the world, where I have some control, they would never feel that again, and they don't," she says. She organized a similar volunteer effort during the Persian Gulf War of 1991.
As the U.S. began its assault into Afghanistan and later Iraq, Froehlich brought a motor home to the parking lot near the hangar. It made little sense, she says, to go home and then immediately return for yet another flight.
"It was not unusual to see 10 birds [planes] on deck," she says. "It was intense."
The troops seemed different then too. Most had never seen combat. "We saw some scared kids in those days," Froehlich says.
Most of them have since made repeat deployments. Froehlich corresponds with some Marines while they're in the war zones.
She had just e-mailed Capt. Trevor Yurista in October when a general called to tell her that the Marine had been killed in Afghanistan. Froehlich wears a bracelet with his name.
She also wears a bracelet with several military insignias and a mini-picture of her and President Bush during his visit to the base. "It'll come off when we've done our job overseas," she says.
For security reasons, the military often gives little notice that a flight is in-bound. Froehlich's husband, Larry, an air-traffic controller at the base, and other members of her family have learned to accommodate Froehlich's need to rush immediately to the base.
"I've canceled more dinners and things than you can imagine," she says.
Arriving flights are more joyous, even if the troops are tired. Departing flights have a more somber tone.
"The hardest part is saying goodbye," Froehlich says. "You want them all to return, but you know that sometimes they don't."
She remembers the return in late November of Marines from the Twentynine Palms-based 2nd Battalion, 7th Regiment. In months of unexpectedly tough fighting in Afghanistan, 20 battalion members were killed and more than 120 wounded or injured.
"They were happy to be home, but you could tell their hearts were heavy," Froehlich says.
On Sunday, as she waits at the bottom of the stairway for the Marines of the 2/25 to disembark from their charter flight, she hears that the battalion suffered no deaths during the deployment.
Even in the chilly air of 2 a.m., the news warms Froehlich.
"That makes it a very great day," she says, her voice fluttering slightly.