VIP service for military members up in the airby Jessica Mador, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Anyone who is a frequent flier is probably familiar with airport lounges that promise special treatment for VIPs. But there's one facility at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport you can only get into if you're wearing the right uniform.
The Armed Forces Service Center is a busy place, especially with the country at war on two fronts. The center is tucked discreetly into a remote corner of the Lindberg Terminal mezzanine overlooking the ticket counters.
Walking through the doors means leaving the commotion and stress of ticket counters and security lines behind. Glass-front cabinets display personal photos, coins and other memorabilia. The dark walls are decorated with flags and sew-on military patches from around the world.
On the wall, a flat-screen television plays CNN at low volume while a group of soldiers plays cards.
Relaxing with his laptop on a brown leather sofa, Kasey Kay said the center is just what he needed. His short leave from the Air Force is up and he is making his way from visiting family back to his base in Minot, North Dakota. From there, he will head overseas to rejoin his unit.
It's been two days since his flight arrived at MSP and he will not catch his train to Minot for another few hours. Staying at the center kept him from having to pay for a hotel.
"This saved me a lot of money. It saved me a lot of money and a lot of trouble."
In addition to offering free meals, computers, Internet and cell phones, the Armed Forces Service Center also provides 26 beds for traveling soldiers.
But instead of sleeping, Kay spent his time playing poker with other traveling soldiers.
"It's great, it's really convenient," he said, "it's right next to the gates and it's easy to get to your flights."
The center is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. To keep those hours the center relies on hundreds of volunteers, many of whom are also veterans.
Longtime volunteer Marion Stinchfield flips on the lights to give a tour of the sleeping area.
"We have 20 bunks back here for men," she explains.
And there's another room of bunks for women, which even offers a crib and a rocker for soldiers traveling with babies. The center is open to active military, Guard and Reserve troops and their dependents.
Stinchfield's late husband fought in Korea. She said she plans to continue volunteering as long as her health allows, because she loves visiting with the soldiers.
"Although we are not supposed to talk too much about what they've gone through and so forth we try to talk about something happy - the weather or what they've got to look forward to coming home to be with their family," she said. "That is the type of thing that we try to talk about, at least I do, and they seem so appreciative of it."
"Hot Dog, going once, hot dog going twice! And here are your condiments, and there are chips and everything behind you. Your ham and cheese is coming up," said executive director Debra Cain as she zoomed around the stainless steel kitchen making lunch for soldiers on layover.
"The VIP treatment that is given here is unbelievable and many of the troops say it, too."
Cain grew up a self-described Army brat. Her father served two tours in Vietnam before dying from exposure to Agent Orange. Her own experience helps her relate to what visiting troops are going through.
"If we see somebody that might look a little down or depressed then we will go over and talk to them, or whatever. It's like a non-verbal sense of camaraderie," she says. "It's the same thing you hear combat troops talk about. Once they've been in combat with their brothers-in-arms they remain like brothers for life."
The center's volunteers also provide services to soldiers flying through the Twin Cities on military charter flights. Usually the soldiers are quarantined at the gate while their plane refuels. Many have been traveling for hours or days. So, Cain and her volunteers meet them there with a mobile canteen.
"We'll have toiletries, we'll have snacks, we'll have coffee, and we'll have beverages. When they see us they know, 'they are here to care for us, their primary concern is us, whatever we need, we can go to them,' and they will. Any little thing you can imagine we have been asked for."
More than 50,000 combat troops have passed through the center since 2006.
Cain says she is proud to help make life a little more comfortable for soldiers as they leave and return to U.S. soil.
"That is the whole mindset that I grew up with," she says. "That is what you do. It's about duty, it's about respect, it's about appreciation for those who serve. "
The Armed Forces Service Center at MSP was launched in 1970 by a woman whose son was killed in Vietnam. It is non-profit and relies on donations.