When Barbara Mills’
son Kevin volunteered
for a job that put him in Iraq, she battled a serious
case of nerves. “I almost ended up in the hospital
because of my stomach. He was in the Navy and
wasn’t even supposed to be in Iraq,” she says. After
nine torturous months of worry, Mills got some relief.
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 thought.
“My son deserves some recognition.” Mills, the matriarch of a military family, learned that Kevin was one of
seven soldiers from Citrus County, Fla., returning from
the war around the same time.
Over a six-month period, she contacted the sol-
diers’ families and friends and organized small parties.
Each returning warrior received formal thank-yous and
a red wicker basket decorated by Mills and filled 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 the following week. Could
Mills set up a welcome for him? “I had no money left,”
Mills recalls. “What was I supposed to do now?” She
reached out to the local veterans community, and
before she knew it, Mills says, “I was receiving $500
checks at a pop.”
An Operation Is Born
To qualify for Operation Welcome Home, a soldier
must have served in the war on terror, received the
Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, and lived
in Citrus County at the time of deployment. Mills
finds out about troop arrivals by keeping 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 farmers markets and other community
events. “I’ll sit out there in 90-degree weather and in
thunderstorms,” she says. To date, she’s notched 365
welcomes, not counting the time she feted 140 mem-
bers of the National Guard who arrived at once.
Once she knows of an arrival, Mills goes into high
gear. She holds a community celebration at the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars hall. After
speeches, she presents her famed—and full—gift
basket valued at about $450. Community members
also bestow checks and other gifts, 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, a veteran of the
wars in Vietnam and Korea, as well as World War II.
The parties “mean a lot to me,” he says, recalling the
sting he felt from a woman who called him a baby
killer when he arrived home from Vietnam. Donovan
doesn’t want to see that happen to today’s soldiers.
“Getting a supportive welcome home is so vitally
important to the emotional well-being of every veteran,” says Curtis V. Ebitz, founder and vice president of
the Citrus County Veterans Foundation Inc.
Mills also honors soldiers from past wars as an
Honor Flight coordinator and guardian. She escorts
Citrus County vets—typically W WII veterans in their
late 80s or 90s—to Washington, D.C., to visit the war
memorials. She is committed to serving these vets
despite a daunting obstacle of her own: a fear of flying.
Mills drives 13 hours each way, and she’s been on 20
Honor Flight trips since 2012.
BY CHRISTINA HOFFMANN
Thanking Our Soldiers
One at a Time Troops returning from service have made sacrifices that few
people understand. Barbara Mills
o;ers a community embrace.
BARBARA MILLS INVERNESS, FLORIDA | RE/MAX REALT Y ONE
REALTORMAG. REALTOR.ORG REALTOR® NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2015 27