During the Vietnam War, when airports could feel like hostile territory to troops traveling in uniform, a young sailor from Minneapolis dreamed of a warmer welcome in his hometown.
Thousands of service members were passing through the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport and Naval Petty Officer Ralph “Scott” Purdum thought they deserved better than space on the floor to bed down with their duffel bags between flights. His mother, Maggi, agreed and set to work with airport authorities to make something better happen.
“Mom,” he wrote home. “Don’t give up on the room; it’s so needed.”
Scott Purdum never got his welcome home. His plane crashed on a runway in Da Nang on March 16, 1970.
He was 21 years old.
Maggi Purdum channeled grief into action and in November 1970, the new Servicemen’s Center at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport opened its doors.
Those doors have stayed open every hour of every day ever since.
Powered by donations and tireless volunteers, the Minnesota Armed Forces Service Center is there to make every layover a cozy one for active-duty service members, their families and military retirees.
“I think it’s really nice,” said Ryan Wiehr, a 19-year-old Army recruit from Mankato who stepped off a bus at the airport last week to find a volunteer from the service center waiting to guide him through the ticketing area and up to the center to wait for his flight to basic training.
At his feet was a small backpack that held everything he’d be bringing with him to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.
If there was anything he needed in the meantime, he’d probably find it in the service center. The 1,900-square-foot space is stocked with almost anything a weary traveler might need: food and drink, free Wi-Fi, comfy leather seats in front of an enormous flat-screen TV, phone chargers, bathrooms, bunk beds, books, games, loaner phones and iPads, a crib and toys for the kids, toiletries, spare underwear. Even paper clips, so newly returned troops can pop their SIM cards back in their phones to call home.
The walls are covered with military patches and challenge coins left by guests. A map of the world bristles with pins pointing to all the places their visitors have been: Iraq, Afghanistan, Antarctica, the tiny dot of Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean. When there are so many pins the map starts to shred, they get a new map and start over.
Amy and Kevin Wiehr waited with their son, grateful for the refreshments the volunteers offered and even more grateful for the passes they got to get through security and walk him to the gate.
“Everyone’s been so nice,” said Amy Wiehr, proud and just a bit teary as the family prepared to leave. The next time Ryan flew, his parents might not be there for him, but an airport military service center — maybe run by the USO, maybe a private effort like Minneapolis’ — would be.
“It’s reassuring as a parent,” she said. “To know that they’re not alone.”
As the family headed out the door, volunteers lined up to offer thanks and a hug.
Many of the center’s volunteers are veterans, or come from military families. When charter flights full of troops touch down at the airport, volunteers are there to greet them. When heartbroken families come to the airport to meet a flag-draped coffin, the volunteers come with them. They were there earlier this month when Navy Seaman First Class George Naegle came home at last, finally identified and almost 80 years after he was killed at Pearl Harbor.
There are volunteers in their 90s and volunteers who take the midnight-to-4 a.m. shifts that allow the center to stay open around the clock. There are volunteers who work through blizzards and who stick around when flight delays stretch for days.
There are volunteers like Jeanne Morford, a retired Minneapolis schoolteacher who took the Monday 4 to 8 p.m. shift the first week the center opened, and still works the shift 49 years later.
“We’re kind of a home away from home,” said Morford, whose husband was in the service during Vietnam. “We’re an oasis for people to come and just relax.”
She’s clocked more than 10,000 volunteer hours. In those years, she’s seen jubilant homecomings and tearful farewells and canceled flights that made new fathers miss their baby’s delivery. She’s seen women so eager to scrub off the deployment dust, they washed their hair in the toilet.
Next year, just before its 50th anniversary, the center will move out of its home above the Terminal 1 ticket counters to a new space inside the security perimeter at the end of the C concourse, near the gates.
The new quarters will be twice the size of the current space, and volunteers are making giddy plans for all that extra room — a children’s playroom, more bunks, a secure space for luggage.
“The larger space will make it easier to serve those who serve,” said center Executive Director Debra Cain.
Memorial Day kicks off the summer travel season at MSP. Most of those travelers will never know that they’re walking by Scott and Maggi Purdum’s dream come true.
“We’re Minnesota’s best-kept secret,” Cain said.
For more information about the Armed Forces Service Center, visit mnafsc.org.