The Military Welcome Center at Alexandria International Airport (AEX) held its Ribbon Cutting cermony this afternoon at 1:30pm.
Roger Shuck knows the feeling of stepping off a plane in unfamiliar territory and not having any assistance. He doesn't want soldiers arriving in Central Louisiana for the first time to experience the same feeling. Now they won't, after the England Authority, Fort Polk and the Louisiana National Guard collaborated on a Military Welcome Center for Alexandria International Airport.
The new center was unveiled Thursday afternoon in a ceremony attended by local and statewide military personnel, elected officials and community members.
"This Welcome Center serves a vital need for our service members because there's nothing like feeling wanted and being part of a team," said Shuck, a colonel and the garrison commander at Fort Polk.
It was a team effort to launch the new center. Shuck and Maj. Gen. Bennett Landreneau, the adjutant general of the Louisiana National Guard, credited England Airpark, particularly the leadership of Executive Director Jon Grafton and Alexandria International Airport Manager Scott Gammel, for its work in facilitating the Welcome Center, which is near the baggage claim area on the first floor of the airport's commercial terminal.
So, too, did U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander, who was one of several elected officials at the ceremony. "There's something special here," said Alexander, R-Quitman.
William Baron, the vice chairman of the England Authority, however, downplayed his organization's role, focusing rather on the partnership the authority has forged with both Fort Polk and the Louisiana National Guard over the past 20-plus years.
The Welcome Center will be a great tool "to serve America's finest," he said.
Shuck said he hopes the center will give a positive first impression to soldiers and their families arriving in Cenla for the first time.
"First impressions are often lasting," he said.
He recalled his arrival in Germany "many years ago" at the beginning of a four-day holiday weekend, when there was no one at the airport to help show him where he was supposed to go. Fortunately, Shuck said, he had friends to call. Many soldiers arriving in Cenla don't have that luxury.
"We want them to feel they are critical and important," Shuck said.
The Military Welcome Center, which Shuck emphasized was "not just for the Army," features several military plaques with information about Central Louisiana, and will be staffed by a senior non-commissioned officer from Fort Polk to assist soldiers in navigating their way to their destinations.
It's a "far cry" from what soldiers faced years ago, where the airport featured signs that read "Wait here for a cab" and "For help call ..." with no pay phone in sight.
"Just look at this place," Shuck said. "This is impressive, folks."
What's also impressive, he and Landreneau said, is that the Welcome Center serves as a signal for how prevalent and deep patriotism runs in Cenla.
"It is a magnificent tribute on the part of this community to show military personnel coming to this community that we truly support them and welcome them to this community," Landreneau said.