When Barbara Mills’ son Kevin volunteered for a job that put him in Iraq, she “almost ended up in the hospital because of [her] stomach. He was in the Navy and wasn’t even supposed to be in Iraq,” she says.
After nine torturous months of worry, Mills finally got some relief. It was summer 2008 and Kevin was coming home—at least for a while. But that reprieve was bittersweet. “He’s going to come home and no one will know what he’s done,” she says. “My son deserves some recognition.”
Mills, the matriarch of a military family—her husband is an Army vet, son Ryan spent six years in the Navy, and daughter Samantha spent four years in ROTC—learned that Kevin was one of seven soldiers from Citrus County, Fla., returning around the same time after serving in the war.
Over a six-month period, she contacted the soldiers’ families and friends and organized small parties at local restaurants or outdoors. Each returning warrior received formal thank-yous and a red, ribboned wicker laundry basket decorated by Mills with gift cards donated by local retailers.
After those seven homecomings, Mills thought she was done. Then she got a call from a mother saying her son was coming home next week and could Mills set up the same welcome for him.
“I had no money left,” Mills recalls, thinking, what was she supposed to do now? Undaunted, she reached out to the vast veterans community in Citrus County, and before she knew it, Mills was receiving “$500 checks at a pop.”
A Charity Is Born
To qualify for Operation Welcome Home, a soldier must have served in the global war on terror, have received the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, and have been living in Citrus County at the time of deployment. To find out about troop arrivals—not an easy task—Mills keeps her ear to the ground. She gets her intel from Facebook or the old-fashioned way—at the hairdresser. She also sets up a table at community events, like the 4th of July fest and farmers markets. “I’ll sit out there in 90-degree weather and in thunderstorms,” she says proudly. To date, she’s notched 365 total welcomes, not including the time she feted 140 members of a National Guard troop who arrived at once. All told, she’s raised about $207,000.
Talk of the Town
Once she knows of an arrival, Mills goes into high gear. She holds a community celebration at the American Legion or VFW hall during an already scheduled dinner. After speeches, she presents her famed—and full—red gift basket valued at about $450. Community members also bestow everything from checks to gas gift cards, adding another $500 or so per honoree. “I have people who’ve gone to the first parties and are still coming,” she says.
They include Tim Donovan, 88, who tries not to miss a celebration. The veteran of Vietnam, Korea, and World War II says the parties “mean a lot to me,” recalling the sting he felt by a woman calling him a baby killer when he arrived at New York’s LaGuardia airport from Vietnam. He doesn’t want to see that happen to the current generation of soldiers.
Retired police officers, county commissioners, state reps, women’s groups, the newspaper, the local motorcycle club—everyone comes, Mills enthuses. “Politicians even come when it’s not election time.”
But the most heartfelt response comes from the soldiers themselves. “Getting a supportive welcome when you come home is so vitally important to the emotional well-being of every veteran,” says Curtis V. Ebitz, a Vietnam vet, retired U.S. Army colonel, and founder and vice president of the Citrus County Veterans Foundation Inc. “The reception we got when we returned [from Vietnam] broke our hearts. It was confusing and demoralizing. Every Vietnam veteran quietly pledges that this won’t happen to other soldiers.”
Adds Bob Overton, a 24-year Navy veteran and human resources consultant from Citrus County, “I’m saddened by the way things are for our returning veterans [who have to leave the military because of troop strength cuts]. They were looking for a career and now don’t have one. They don’t have a network or resources. So people like Barbara reach out and make them feel wanted. That’s indispensable.”
You don’t have to ask Mills why she works so tirelessly for Operation Welcome Home on top of her full-time real estate career. She’ll tell you. “I can’t imagine someone getting off the plane in uniform and not being thanked.”
Says Gerard Mulligan, publisher of the Citrus County Chronicle for the past 30 years, “I’ve seen numerous veterans efforts come and go. But Barbara is relentless and her group has set the new gold standard for keeping the heat on.”
There’s no big secret to how she juggles everything. She’s just always in motion. “My house isn’t the cleanest,” she admits. “And I’m not one to watch TV.” Rather, before and after dinner, she’s making calls to arrange a party or set up home showings. “I come home as late as 10 p.m. and don’t get to bed sometimes until 1 a.m.,” she says.
Mills also volunteers as an Honor Flight coordinator and guardian. The nonprofit program flies vets to Washington, D.C., to visit the war memorials and to honor their service. Mills goes on one or two trips a year, escorting Citrus County vets—typically WWII veterans in their late 80s or 90s. She honors this additional commitment to the vets despite a daunting obstacle of her own: her fear of flying. Mills drives 13 hours each way, and she’s been on 20 Honor Flight trips since 2012.
As an added gesture of gratitude, Mills enlists the Citrus County, Fla., community to write thank-you letters to veterans going on an Honor Flight. During the flight home, someone will announce “mail call” and bring the honorees a package of letters.
John Stewart, the secretary of Mills’ board, sums up her inestimable drive: “She does it from her heart. Every time she gets up [on stage] she breaks down. She is tireless and will help anyone who needs it.”