Fort Hood’s “Hug Lady” honored with plaque dedication at Robert Gray Army Airfield
By BRITTANY FHOLER
Local community members and Fort Hood staff came together with the family of Elizabeth Laird, the “Hug Lady”, to honor her priceless work with a dedication ceremony on Monday morning in the room where for 12 years, she hugged an estimated 500,000 troops in the Sgt. George Larkin Jr. Terminal at the Robert Gray Army Airfield.
The legacy Laird left now has a permanent marker outside the Troop Alpha Room, so that those who deploy from Fort Hood will know who she is and what she did even if they never received one of those special hugs.
Laird was a veteran herself, having served in the U.S. Air Force as a cook. Following the death of her first husband, Harry Dewees, she later married Ray Laird and eventually moved to Copperas Cove, where they opened their own tax preparation business, Have Pencil Will Travel.
In 2003, she began showing her appreciation for the troops by shaking their hands. This led to her giving a hug to each soldier as they deployed, when Command Sgt. Maj. William Gainey requested that Laird give hugs to every one of the soldiers leaving and returning home to Fort Hood. She became known as “The Hug Lady”.
During Monday’s ceremony, Lt. Gen. Robert White, III Corps and Fort Hood Commanding General, pointed out that at more than 500,000 hugs given, Laird had hugged the entire Army, which currently has less than 475,000 active duty soldiers.
Laird passed away in December 2015 at 83 years old, having never missed an incoming or outgoing flight in her 12 years of hugging.
Laird’s daughter, Susan Dewees-Taylor, said that her mother loved people, especially the men and women who served their country. Laird was a lady who “loved her God, her family and her country,” Taylor said.
“In the 12-plus years, she would come to this terminal, day or night, morning or afternoon to see the soldiers going and coming from their deployment, whether it was two or 200,” Taylor said.
Laird would hand a card with Psalms 91 written on it to each soldier she hugged. During the ceremony, Taylor explained the significance of that bible verse and how Laird prayed over each soldier for their safe return home.
“This memorial is a tribute to my mother Elizabeth Laird but most of all it is a tribute to all of the Armed Services that serve and have served in our country,” Taylor said before inviting the audience to stand up and give each other hugs.
Following Taylor’s remarks, son Richard Dewees joined Taylor in the unveiling of a larger version of the memorial plaque that is installed outside of the room, with a message dedicating the room to the memory of Elizabeth C. Laird, “The Hug Lady”, “who is forever remembered for the priceless gift that was invaluable to the Fort Hood Community.”
Richard Dewees shared that he found out the extent of the impact his mother had when he was asked to move to Texas to help take over the family business, in the early 2000s, around the time when Laird first started her mission of hugging. He said his mother often told him how much the troops loved her and that he was skeptical, but eventually realized she was right. The troops did love her.
“When she was in the hospital, she couldn’t got to them, so they came to her,” Dewees said. “They would come out in groups to visit her.”
Dewees and Taylor said that love is what kept their mother going and continuing to hug each soldier for those 12 years.
Sgt. Christopher Peckham, who is currently stationed at Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia, flew out to Fort Hood for Monday’s dedication ceremony. He was stationed at Fort Hood twice previously. He started a petition on Change.org requesting the changing of the name of the Larkin Terminal to honor Laird before he found out about Fort Hood’s plans to dedicate a room to Laird in the Larkin Terminal. The petition had garnered 88,503 signatures as of press time.
Peckham said he didn’t expect the strong response to the petition where thousands of people shared their experiences with “The Hug Lady”.
“I think she’s incredibly special,” Peckham said. “She took her time in her retirement and last days of her life to be here for us and ensure that everybody had some love, because not every soldier has family locally, not every soldier’s family could be here, you know, when they leave and when they come back home.”
Garrison Chaplain Col. Brian Chepey said he called Laird “Miss Elizabeth” and spent many hours waiting with her as troops deployed, listening as she shared Psalms 91 and her time of being in the Air Force.
Chepey said that he thought those hugs from Laird were an expression of just one aspect of God’s love.
“For me, it was really a foretaste of heaven, in a sense,” Chepey said. “I don’t say that pastorally, but really the truth is there’s something about a physical touch that we can help express the image of God and what God is like, and how awesome His love is for us- not only us as civilians but us as soldiers fighting to keep our nation free and defending the truths we hold so dearly.”
Chepey said that while some soldiers were skeptical about hugging Laird, there were many who made sure they got their hug as they left and as they returned.