Since starting her new mid-life career last April, Mary Ann Tachco, 53, a bubbly mother of four grown children, has found it's a job she's well suited for. "I liken it to being a mom and that's what I feel like," she says. "I treat them like they're my children when they're on the plane with me."
"They're so young," she points out, "the average age of a soldier right now is 19. Some come on with homemade pillows, homemade blankets, scrapbooks. Some you can see are reading letters meant to be opened when they get on the plane. But the best part of it is meeting up close and personal these young men and women. And if they want to talk, I'm there to listen."
There's lots of time to talk and listen on these long flights. Ferrying soldiers to war can take up to three days. There are usually two stops before they reach their destination, Kuwait City. Ms. Tachco says they always touch down at night, when the tarmac has cooled from 65 degrees (Celsius) to around 50. "It's almost surreal and the air is so different when you open that door. The air is like nothing you've ever felt before. It's not like a Palm Springs hot dry air," she notes, "not a southern humid air. It's so thick with dust you can bite it."
Ahead of the soldiers, she says, is yet another day's travel by bus to their assigned deployment. For security reasons, Mary Ann Tachco cannot reveal the company she works for or where she is based, but she says she has never felt her job put her in danger, and she has the complete support of her husband who says he's proud, and her kids, who think it's awesome. The only one not too pleased about her time away from home is the family dog, Mocha… a Labrador-Sharpei mix with a blue scarf around her neck. "When my bags come out," she says with a laugh, "when I have to leave, she gets really depressed which is really sad. She gets that Sharpei look on her face, little wrinkles." Mocha barks as if in agreement.
She eyes the small bear Ms. Tachco has just retrieved from a china cabinet. It is one of the prized mementos among her collection of gifts from the young soldiers -- patches spontaneously torn from their uniforms, medals unpinned from their chests. The tiny bear was given to her by a soldier on his flight back to the United States. She recalls he had placed it on the tray in front of him. "I noticed it and went over and I said, 'You must have children,' and he said, 'Oh, I do, ma'am, I have three boys.' And my daughter was ready to have her third son so we started talking. At the end of the trip he put that little bear in my pocket and I said, 'Oh, sir I can't take that. Don't you want to give it to one of your sons?' And he said, 'I don't know which one I'd give it to.' He said, 'It's been through battle with me and I want you to give it to your newborn grandson, and when he's old enough I want you to tell him that his grandma took good care of a soldier.'"
Mary Ann Tachco admits the flight back home is a lot easier than the one that takes the soldiers into battle. For her and the other flight attendants, that return flight is the fulfillment of a promise they made many months earlier, a promise given when they first watched their "cargo" step from the safety of the DC-10 into the hot desert air. She explains, "You stand there and to every soldier going off you say, 'Thank you, we appreciate what you're doing. We're going to bring you home. I hope I'm on the flight that brings you home.'"