SAVANNAH, GA--There was no single incident or personal relationship that drew Paulette Nelson to Hunter Army Airfield and the Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport at all times of the day for the last four years. Just a concept that she found as sad as it was abstract.
Imagine coming home from serving your country, walking off the plane to nobody while everyone around you is showered with hugs and tears.
Nelson, a USO volunteer, makes sure that doesn't happen to even one US soldier returning to Savannah.
"It's really important to me that the soldiers know there are people who care about them and we do appreciate what they do,'' said Nelson, who had no connection to the military before starting her work with the USO. "And I think it's important when they leave, equally as important as when they come home.''
So nelson has been there for virtually every military transport flight in and out of Savannah since January 2004, making sure every soldier gets the reception or sendoff she says they all deserve.
"It's very rewarding to be there and know I might have helped one soldier getting on that plane it made me feel a little better,'' said Nelson. "Most of them are very new and very young and they're scared. It takes just a touch of the hand or a smile to somebody to say you're going to be fine and we're going to be here when you get back."
"And it's really important to me to be the one to do that. It's one of the most rewarding things because the men and women of our military are the most gracious, humble and appreciative people that you'll ever meet,'' Nelson said.
Through her work with the USO, Nelson has met enough of them at all times of day and night and sometimes under difficult circumstances that she has helped make easier, to be considered a hero herself, right here on the home front.
Although good luck getting her to agree. "There is nothing special about me,'' she says. "I'm just a regular person who has a passion for what I do and I believe in what I do. I know in my heart i'm doing the right thing and I'm raising my children to do the right thing and respect the military and everything they do to protect the freedoms we have.''
Modesty aside, Microsoft Corporation also considers Nelson a hero.
In November, the company presented her with one of their first Above and Beyond Awards. The national honor recognizes the contributions of the military community, friends, family and other individuals, who brighten the lives of US troops throughout the world.
But she's sticking to the regular-person defense.
"I was the only person at the ceremony who didn't have a business card,'' said Nelson, one of five recipients in the first year of the Microsoft award. "I'm just me.''