Archive for Thursday, November 30, 2006

Airport encounter kicks off surprise reunion

November 30, 2006

The hug from behind came in a place so unlikely, Martha Villarreal said she had to wonder: "Who do I know here that would do that?"

Villarreal, a rural Leavenworth County resident, was at a boarding gate last week at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport when the hug came. She had been waiting for a connecting flight to return her to Kansas City from a business trip to Galveston, Texas.

Imagine her surprise, when she turned around to see the hug came from her brother, Robert "Bobby" Earl Windham Jr., a colonel in the Kansas National Guard. Villarreal had last seen her brother in early spring, when he was preparing to leave with his unit, the 130th Field Artillery Brigade, for eventual deployment in Iraq.

Windham wasn't supposed to be home until April 2007 at the earliest.

"It was pretty cool," Villarreal said of the reunion, "and very odd."

Various coincidences aligned to place the two in the airport gate at the same time and boarding the same flight.

Villarreal had flown to Houston to attend a conference in Galveston. Because her in-laws live in Houston, she decided to stay a few extra days for a pre-Thanksgiving visit. While booking her flight, Villarreal said she tried but wasn't able to book a nonstop return flight from Houston to Kansas City, so she instead opted for a return flight that required a plane change in Dallas.

Halfway across the globe, in Baghdad, a slot for leave over Thanksgiving had opened and gone unclaimed, so Windham decided to take it. A former Lansing resident, he called Villarreal's husband, Roy, with the news. Because getting from Baghdad back to the United States could take five or six days of travel, Windham asked Roy Villarreal to keep the trip a secret.

Lo and behold, over a two-day period Windham left Baghdad for Kuwait, caught an unexpectedly quick flight out to Germany, got on a plane to Atlanta and then found himself in Dallas-Fort Worth.

Windham had already arranged to be on a flight to Kansas City when he discovered he could get a seat on an even earlier flight.

"He called my husband and said, 'It looks like I'm going to get in earlier,'" Martha Villarreal said. "My husband asked him where he was and what flight he was on, and then told him, 'You know, your sister's in Texas.' At that point, he hung up because I was 10 feet in front of him."

The two got on the plane and were assigned seats away from each other. After Windham told one of the flight attendants about their reunion, they were moved next to each other in the first-class section.

"A lady in the very first row of first class had given up her seat, which was next to an empty seat, so we could be together," Martha Villarreal said.

When the plane landed, she said her brother stopped the woman, thanked her and gave her a military coin.

The woman, who didn't give her name, became teary eyed. She told Martha Villarreal and Windham that a son of a close friend had been in Iraq and was supposed to come home for Thanksgiving but had been killed three weeks earlier.

Windham stayed at his sister's Fairmount Township home for a couple of days before heading home to Junction City with his family. There, he'll be able to celebrate his daughter's 11th birthday on Dec. 1 before heading back to Iraq on Dec. 5.

The surprise homecoming made for a Thanksgiving to celebrate, Martha Villarreal said.

"We were really happy," she said.


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