Troops head home for the holidays in ‘Operation Exodus’ at Charlotte Douglas

For the first time in 10 years, Sgt. Brandon Robinson is spending Christmas at home, with all of his family, in Fayetteville.

Robinson, his father and his older brothers are all in the military, and it’s rare for their time off to overlap so everyone can be home for Christmas.

“My mom is ecstatic,” he said, surrounded by a crowd of soldiers and volunteers at Charlotte Douglas International Airport on Friday.

The 32-year-old sergeant was overseeing thousands of new soldiers as they made their first trips home from training at Fort Jackson, which is 90 miles south of Charlotte, near Columbia. The trek through the Charlotte airport is part of an annual event facilitated by the USO of North Carolina, a nonprofit military support organization.

Young men and women in fatigues and combat boots spread out across one of the airport’s upper floors, where the USO has a lounge and dining space. Food and drinks were donated for the soldiers, most of whom had barely slept in the last 24 hours.

As part of what the USO calls “Operation Exodus,” 26 buses began arriving at the airport at 3 a.m. in 15-minute intervals. By 10:30 a.m., another set of 23 buses started flowing in, one every 15 minutes.

More than 4,500 soldiers – the largest the North Carolina chapter of USO has worked with in its 11 years of Operation Exodus – were expected to travel through the airport by the end of the day, heading to homes across the country for a two-week break before returning to Fort Jackson.

“It truly becomes home away from home,” said N.C. USO president John Falkenbury, adding that his chapter is the oldest in the world, never closing its doors in 74 years.

He said the soldiers “want for nothing.” The USO lounge includes a large TV and several recliners, a fully stocked snack bar, a play area for military families traveling with children, and computers. Soldiers napped, snacked and watched sports while they waited for their flights Friday.

In the hallway outside the lounge, 19-year-old Khalil Hudson was relaxed in a rocking chair, waiting for a flight home to Florida after six weeks at Fort Jackson.

Hudson turns 20 on Dec. 22. He said he’s glad he will celebrate his birthday away from training camp, where he said that kind of thing is an emotional ordeal.

But he was also nervous – Friday was his first time to fly.

“I’m just going to plug my earplugs in and ride it out,” he said, laughing.

Making the rounds with soldiers like Hudson and Robinson were two local celebrities – former Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker and Santa Claus.

Rucker, who comes from a military family, said that if he hadn’t played football in the NFL, he would have enlisted in the military.

He said he sees a lot of similarities between himself and the soldiers, including a sense of teamwork and camaraderie. He and the soldiers traded questions and answers, making a connection, if only briefly.

“A simple conversation goes a long way,” Rucker said.

Santa’s role was filled on Friday by retired Air Force Major Alan Burgess, a veteran with more than two decades of service. He said he did stand-in duty for Santa many times during his military service, including on bases in Germany, Turkey and the Philippines.

“I asked for this gig,” he said, adding how important it is to remind soldiers they are loved and appreciated – particularly new recruits who don’t get much sympathy and understanding while they’re in training.

The well-organized chaos of Operation Exodus is reminiscent of homecomings from deployment, Robinson said.

Robinson said he’s been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan four times.

But this was the first time he got to take in the smiles and happiness from the sidelines – which, he said, was almost better than being the focus of it.

Hayley Fowler: 704-358-5040, @h_fowl