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Army Spec. Mitchell Oliver Returns to Hometown of Greenville Through Fly A Soldier Home This Summer [Photos]

Deann Oliver smiles, tears up and holds roses while greeting her son, U.S. Army Spec. Mitchell Oliver, at Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids on Saturday. (Photo: Rick Martinez/98.7 WFGR)

Deann Oliver clutches herself as her son, U.S. Army Spec. Mitchell Oliver, surprisingly arrived Saturday at Gerald R. Ford International Airport. (Photo: Rick Martinez/98.7 WFGR)
Deann Oliver greeted an unexpected soldier Saturday.

In helping welcome home returning U.S. military personnel at Gerald R. Ford International Airport, she was doing a supportive shift with fellow Blue Star Mothers of America members and Patriot Guard Riders. A handful of families had already been reunited with loved ones when her eyes fell on someone she wasn’t expecting to see until at least next week: U.S. Army Spec. Mitch Oliver. It was her son.

Deann shrieked with delight, clutching into her knees just beyond Gate B as others in two greeting lines, many holding and waving American flags, clapped, smiled and cried tears of joy. Also beaming was Mitch, who had a bouquet of red roses for his mother snuck to him by his father, Gary Oliver.

He was flown in through Fly A Soldier Home This Summer, a contest sponsored by Ed Koehn Automotive Group in conjunction with Classic Hits 98.7 WFGR and affiliated stations 97.9 WGRD, Channel 95.7 (WLHT), 100.5 The River (WTRV) and 1410 AM The Touch (WNWZ).

U.S. Army Spec. Mitchell Oliver smiles for a photo with his parents, Deann and Gary Oliver, of Greenville, on Saturday at Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids on Saturday. (Photo: Rick Martinez/98.7 WFGR)
“That little turkey!” Deann said of her son’s early appearance, not expecting to see him until at least early next week. “He truly got me. I always knew somehow down the road he’d try to pull off something like this.”

The weekend for Deann, president of the Ionia, Kent and Montcalm counties’ chapter of Blue Star Mothers of America, is now rearranged.

She and Gary smothered their son in a loving embrace that they shared with a crowd of well-wishers, friends, onlookers and passers-by meeting the 11:46 a.m. arrival of American Airlines Flight 3103 from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

“This was a complete surprise,” Gary said.

Mitchell, a 20-year-old, is now back home in Greenville for a 17-day leave. In his third year with the U.S. Army, he is with the 101st Airborne Division‘s 3rd Brigade Combat Team 187th Infantry Regiment and is stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky.

Mitchell and Gary had known about the family reunion for about three weeks, contacted by Townsquare Media Grand Rapids Sales Manager Dustin Wood that he’d won Fly A Soldier Home for Summer through his mother’s entry. Besides airfare, Mitchell also got a loaner vehicle for his stay from Ed Koehn Automotive Group – a 2014 Ford F-150 pickup truck.

A self-professed loyal WFGR listener, Deann said she had been wondering what was going on with the Fly A Soldier Home This Summer contest when she had not heard a winner announced.

“There’s no way,” Deann said when learning how Mitch got flown in, avoiding a 10-hour drive by flying home to visit. “I must’ve been the only one in it.”

She wasn’t; not even close. More than 800 had shown some interest in the offering, with Deann selected at random from the entries.

Blue Star Mothers of America members from West Michigan greet returning U.S. military personnel at Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids on Saturday. (Photo: Rick Martinez/98.7 WFGR)
Mitchell said he’d wanted to greet his parents in Grand Rapids through the Patriot Guard-Blue Star Mothers program last March, but weather delayed his flight and they ended up picking him up in Chicago instead. However, he has made early arrivals before, once showing up four hours ahead of schedule to see his parents.

But Saturday was something he said he was truly looking forward to because of all the times Deann has greeted other servicemen and servicewomen.

“To give that feeling back to her is more than I can ask for,” he said.

There were others who were in on the “secret,” but they managed to not let Deann in on it, said Patty Alexander, who presides over Blue Star Mothers’ South Kent County chapter and whose daughter, Capt. Ashley Alexander, is in the U.S. Air Force. “It was hard not to tell her.”

But the scene that played out made it special for everyone within view.

U.S. Army Spec. Mitchell Oliver shares time with his parents, Gary and Deann Oliver, of Greenville, in front of the Ford F-150 pickup truck he has as a loaner ride from Ed Koehn Automotive Group through the Fly A Soldier Home This Summer contest won by his mom’s 98.7 WFGR entry. (Photo: Niki Bloem)
“There’s nothing more special than getting that first hug,” said Lisa Gwitt, a Blue Star Mother whose son served in the U.S. Air Force and who was on hand at the airport among well-wishers and greeters. “Moms get the first one, unless there’s a wife.”

In this case, it was definitely all about Mom.

This is a heartfelt visit for Mitchell, who was last deployed from Sept. 11, 2012, through March 2013 in Afghanistan. He says he expects to make a return deployment in Afghanistan with his unit later this year.

“This is sweet,” Mitchell said. “For me, it was just seeing the look on her face.”

It was a look Deann had seen many times before on others. On Saturday, it was one she, Gary and Mitchell shared together.

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